Midnight Beauties – Megan Shepherd

THERE WAS BLOOD EVERYWHERE, even in her hair. Anouk tripped through fallen leaves in gold-studded Goblin boots two sizes too small, the laces undone, the novelty tread leaving bloodstained prints in the smeared shape of hearts. Her leather shorts were ripped. Her velvet jacket was punctured once in the sleeve and twice near her ribs. Blood oozed down her side. The birds were right behind her. One crow swept down from a lamppost in a flurry of black wings, going for her ear. Its beak sliced her cheek. She swatted at it, but its talons snagged in her hair or, rather, in the blue wig she wore. The wig slid forward over her eyes, blinding her. She pulled it off and threw it—tangled crow and all— into a sewer grate and raced ahead. Toward 18 Rue des Amants. The former residence of a witch, the townhouse was now hers. Her home. Her haven.

Or, since Prince Rennar had set his winged spies on her, more like her prison. Her hair had become a sweaty mess beneath the wig, clinging to her neck and face. Another crow launched itself at her back. Talons ripped at her clothes. She grabbed the railing to the stairs. Just a few more steps. The Goblins were inside, faces pressed against the townhouse windows, motioning for her to hurry. A crow landed on her shoulder, its talons piercing through the velvet jacket. Pain exploded in her arm. She faltered on the steps.

She would have used a spell against it, except that her bag of ingredients was the first thing the crows had gone for, knowing that without it, she was no more powerful than the Pretty tourists strolling down the street, magically oblivious to Anouk’s distress. Gasping, she grabbed the crow by its wing and yanked with all her strength. “Let go!” She hurled the crow against the steps and, before it could take wing again, yanked open the townhouse’s front door, threw herself inside, and slammed it closed behind her. She collapsed against the door, breathing hard. The townhouse was protected with a spell so ancient that it hadn’t been broken at Mada Vittora’s death, unlike most of her other enchantments. It was the only thing keeping Rennar and his crows out, which unfortunately meant that to be safe, Anouk had to stay in. Over the past six weeks, she and Viggo and the two dozen Goblins who had survived the siege of Montélimar might as well have been prisoners. The first time she’d tried to leave was two days after the siege; she’d needed baguettes to feed the hungry Goblins. The crows had been waiting in the trees. They attacked her as soon as she crossed the first step.

She’d barely made it back inside in one piece. The second time she’d tried to leave, she waited until night fell, when it was foggy and hard to see more than three feet on either side. That time she made it ten steps before they spotted her. They would have dug in their talons and dragged her all the way to Castle Ides if Viggo hadn’t hurled an empty gin bottle at them and pulled Anouk back inside. The third time, she’d brought knives. Many, many knives, hidden in pockets and strapped to her belt. But the crows were fast enough to dodge them, their own talons just as sharp. Today, she’d thought she stood a chance, that the Goblin disguise—the blue wig, the punk boots, and the velvet jacket—would be enough to conceal her identity from the birds. They were merely Rennar’s pawns, after all, just dull-witted spies. But they’d still known.

She’d made it only five steps. The sound of a tap-tap-tap came from the foyer. She opened her eyes. Viggo stood in the hallway. He leaned heavily on a cane. His face was pale. It was a wonder he’d survived at all after losing six pints of blood, but he was tougher than his black eyeliner and slouchy hat made him look. He’d nearly recovered in the six weeks since the siege. “I take it the disguise didn’t fool them,” he said. She slid him a frigid glare.

Blood rolled down her fishnet tights, over her studded boots, and onto the floor. Her tawny hair was knotted. A few blue strands from the ripped wig still clung to the buttons of her jacket. The wounds in her side throbbed. She straightened and took a lurching step forward. Her legs gave out and she started to collapse, but Viggo dropped his cane and grabbed her around the waist. “Help me to the kitchen,” she said, grimacing. Together they hobbled through the townhouse’s grand hallways. They passed the library and the salon, which were littered with signs of her guests—spilled tea, threadbare hats. Goblins peered at her through doorways, their stomachs audibly growling, their faces full of false smiles as they tried to hide their disappointment that she’d failed once again.

She narrowly avoided tripping over a butterfly net as Viggo helped her into the kitchen, where she’d spent so many early mornings baking bread and so many late nights scrubbing dishes. She grabbed a dish towel, turned on the hot water, and plunged her hands into the sink. Steam rose around her. She scrubbed the blood and feathers from her arms, revealing fresh wounds and old wounds—now crude scars—from her previous attempts to leave the townhouse. “Shall I bandage those for you?” Viggo asked, pulling out a roll of gauze from a drawer. “No, I’ll take care of it myself. Just hand me that mint.” He held out the potted mint plant and she crushed a few leaves between her fingers, then swallowed them whole. She ripped off a strand of fake blue hair that was caught in her buttons, laid it over the wound on her left arm, and whispered, “Attash betit truk.” Warm magic prickled over her skin in a way that was half pleasant, half unbearably itchy.

The sides of the cut started to pull together as the strand of blue hair plunged in and out of her skin, stitching the wound closed. Attash betit truk was a spell for fixing loose buttons, not mending flesh, but true healing spells required stronger magic than Anouk was capable of. When she finished, the wound was ugly but it had stopped bleeding. She peeled off her shirt and performed the same spell with the puncture wound on her shoulder. Viggo hobbled upstairs and came back with one of Mada Vittora’s robes. It was made of charmeuse silk and worth a small fortune. But what use did a dead witch have for couture? Anouk pulled on the robe. She boiled water for a cup of tea to settle her nerves. Not that it would help. Her hands kept shaking.

Her stomach growled. She caught her reflection in the curved copper kettle. Goodness, she looked a fright. December had painted full Goblin makeup on her: glittering gold eyeliner, pale pink hearts on her cheeks, black lipstick. Now the blush was smeared and there was glitter everywhere. She scrubbed her face in the sink, then pulled her tangled hair into a ponytail, and she felt a little more like herself. Viggo stood awkwardly at her side. “We’ll try again tomorrow. It’s supposed to storm. If it rains hard enough, maybe the birds won’t come.

” “Rain’s never kept them away before.” She leaned on the counter and closed her eyes. It had been six weeks of trying to divide every last morsel of stale bread twenty-five ways. Six weeks of living with Goblins who blared The Clash at full volume at first light of dawn. Six weeks of hunger. Six weeks of crows. Six weeks of a dog by her side instead of Beau. There had been five of them—five beasties. An owl, a dog, a cat, a mouse, and a wolf, all of whom had been enchanted into people with their own quirks: Anouk, Beau, Cricket, Luc, and Hunter Black. Now only Anouk remained human.

The others were cursed to live in their animal forms, and all of them except for Beau were imprisoned in Castle Ides. She’d tried everything to help them. After the siege of Montélimar, she decided to go to the academy in the Black Forest of Bavaria known as the Cottage where a girl could train in magic and, if she worked hard, possibly transform herself into a witch. She’d be powerful enough to turn Beau and Cricket and Luc and Hunter Black—assuming he was even still alive—human again. Even Prince Rennar would have no choice but to bow before her. She’d studied maps of Bavaria. She’d learned a smattering of German. She’d squirreled away valuables to trade for money to buy passage. But her weeks of preparation meant nothing if she couldn’t get past the front steps. She sank onto a wooden stool and buried her head in her hands.

A cloud of dust rose around her. The kitchen, like everything else, was a disaster. Crumbs everywhere, pantry shelves bare, dirty dishes stacked in moldering piles, blue eye shadow streaked on the stove. (She hadn’t bothered to ask about that one.) She felt like the only adult in a houseful of children, never mind that she’d been human for only one year and the Goblins had lived centuries. It was no longer her job to clean, and yet she often found herself with a rag in her hand, brushing crumbs into the wastebasket. Frustrating as the Goblins could be, they had no other place to go. They’d been lucky to make it back to the townhouse at all. Not everyone had. The memory of Tenpenny transformed into stone, then exploded into dust, flashed darkly in her mind.

She heard a clicking on the tile, and then a wet snout pushed into her knee. She blinked at the big brown eyes studying her. The dog had tracked in mud and left dirty paw prints all over the kitchen floor. She sighed as she scratched him behind his ears. “You know, Little Beau, when you were a boy, you were much tidier. Well, not really, but let’s pretend.” When Beau was human, his eyes had been blue. There was nothing of the dog to make her think of her friend, except perhaps the way he cocked his head as though he were trying to figure out her thoughts. What would he see now tumbling around in her brain? The dog licked her nose. She sighed and looked at Viggo.

“We can’t go on like this, Viggo. Look at Beau! And Cricket and Luc and . and Hunter Black. They’re depending on me.” Viggo’s face paled at the mention of Hunter Black. Last they had seen of him, he’d been in wolf form, bleeding out and left for dead. Anouk looked toward the bare pantry. “Not to mention we’re going to starve if we stay here.” Viggo gazed into the pantry wistfully. “I tried ordering a pizza.

It never came. Rennar must have even gotten to the delivery boys.” An odd-sounding thump suddenly came from the front door, startling Anouk. It was heavier than the usual crisp tap of the knocker. Little Beau growled and ran out of the kitchen, barking. December, the closest thing the Goblins had to a leader since Tenpenny had died, called from the foyer, “Um, Anouk? You might want to see this.” Viggo shifted his cane to his other hand. “Are we expecting visitors?” “Of course not.” Anouk wiped at a smear of blood on the robe’s sash. “Everyone we know is either captured or dead.

” The dog barked louder. Viggo and Anouk exchanged a look, then Anouk pushed up from the stool and cautiously entered the foyer. A dozen Goblins were at the front window, faces pressed to the glass. The house seemed suddenly very quiet, and Anouk realized that whatever was happening outside was serious enough that the Goblins had shut off the music. And they never turned off The Clash. December turned away from the window and bit her blue-tinted lips in worry. Anouk’s pulse raced. She swallowed her own trepidation and approached the door. The cane stopped thumping as Viggo reached the foyer and joined her. Anouk pressed her eye to the peephole.

Behind her, Viggo said, “I’m guessing it isn’t the pizza.” Chapter 2 VIGGO WAS RIGHT. It wasn’t pizza. It was exactly the person who, in the weeks since the siege of Montélimar, Anouk had most feared seeing. The crown prince of the Shadow Royals stood mere steps from the front door, a breath beyond the point where the protection spell prevented him from crossing. He was dressed in black trousers and a gray shirt and he had his hands shoved in his pockets against the November chill. His cheeks were chapped. His eyes shimmered. Even without his crown, he turned the head of every Pretty who passed on the street. “It’s Rennar,” she said.

A sharp blade of anger started to slice through her but faltered when she squinted through the peephole again and, with a frown, peered closer at his clothes. “He’s wearing only one shoe.” Viggo made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a growl. “Well, his toes can freeze, for all I care. He can’t come past the front steps. We can wait him out.” Anouk didn’t answer. She admired Viggo’s spirit, but could they wait any longer? Four walls and an ancient spell couldn’t protect them from starvation. Anouk looked at the wound on her arm, stitched together with magic and blue strands of a wig. Sooner or later, the crows would win.

“Anouk, open the door!” Rennar’s voice was hoarse. “We need to talk.” Another thump rattled the door, and when Anouk squinted through the peephole, she saw Rennar was now completely shoeless. “That’s one way to knock,” she muttered. She scanned the nearby trees and rooftops for the familiar black shadow of his crows, but he appeared to be alone. She inspected him again, the peephole distorting his proportions. He wasn’t just hunched against the autumn wind; he was tensed, as though bracing for some unseen danger. His blue-gray eyes were unfocused; his gaze darted around nervously. What she’d thought at first was an arrogant expression she now recognized, incredibly, as fear. What did he have to fear? Despite a warning voice in her head, she reached for the doorknob, but Viggo shoved her hand aside, blocked the door with his body, and asked, “Have you lost your mind?” “We can’t stay here forever, Viggo.

Cricket. Hunter Black. Luc. Beau.” She counted the names off on her fingers. “They’re depending on me. I can’t help them if I’m trapped in here. Rennar commands the crows. He’s our only way out.” Viggo held up four stiff fingers of his own.

“Cricket, Hunter Black, Luc, and Beau currently have tails. In case you’ve forgotten, their primary concern at the moment is sniffing each other’s backsides.” She caught the warning look on his face, but she nudged him aside with her elbow and, before her own nerves could get the better of her, threw open the door. Prince Rennar’s face lit up when he heard the scrape of hinges. For a second, the fogginess in his expression dissipated and he turned his piercing eyes on her. He was wearing the same scarf he’d worn the first time they’d met, the gray-blue wool one that matched his eyes. He took a step forward on bare feet. He limped only slightly. He’d learned to hide the fact that at the siege of the château, his right leg had been turned to stone. His foot still looked like a foot, but one the milky-white color of marble.

“Anouk—” “This house is protected with old spells,” she warned, cutting him off. “Neither you nor your magic can enter without an invitation. I gave you my answer in Montélimar. You changed my friends to animals and caged them. If you want a princess, you’d best look elsewhere. And your mauvais crows can go straight to hell. Call them off, wherever they’re hiding.” She scanned the rooftops. “I’m alone.” “They attack me every time I leave.

” She folded her arms in an attempt to hide the scars. “At your order, I presume.” A month and a half had passed since the siege, October to late November. The cold was creeping into the streets and robbing the city of life. The last time she’d seen Prince Rennar, he’d asked her to be his princess. What did he see as he looked at her now? Still a princess? Or just a messy-haired girl, barefoot and barefaced, with stains on her robe and clumsy blue stitches in her arm? At least he was barefoot too. And there was that look in his eyes. That fog. His brows pinched together as his gaze fell to the wound on her arm, repaired so hastily with the wrong kind of spell, and his lips parted. “You’re hurt .

” He took a step forward. “Stay back!” He stopped. “Your arms. Your neck. I didn’t realize the crows would hurt you.” She gave a harsh laugh, but he shook his head. “I didn’t. I promise.” He was distracted by something and caught off guard by her wounds. “I hadn’t thought .

for us it’s so simple to heal ourselves. Blood and wounds are nothing. To get a Goblin’s attention, I’d just as soon pluck out one of his eyes as call his name— and he’d only shrug and put it back in. I hadn’t thought that my crows would really hurt you.” If only she had her Faustine jacket. If only she could hide her scars with the quilted red silk and the mythical creature’s embroidered feathers and claws. “Let me fix your scars. I can help.” She jerked back. “Like you helped my friends?” “Your friends are safe with me.

” “Even Hunter Black?” Prince Rennar reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a small, round mother-of-pearlbacked mirror that bristled with enchantment. “See for yourself.” She scoffed. “You’re fou if you think I’ll reach through the protection spell.” He gave an arrogant sigh but set down the mirror and took a few steps back. Her heart pounded. It could still be a trap. But if Hunter Black was alive . She took a quick step forward, grabbed the mirror, and darted back. Her breathing was rapid.

Rennar hadn’t moved. Cautiously, she looked into the mirror. It didn’t reflect her face. Instead, she saw three cages within its round silver frame. One held a mouse; one held a cat; and in the last one, there was a wolf with careful stitches across its throat, stitches that could only have been made by a hand highly skilled at magical healing. The hand of a prince. Her heart leaped. Hunter Black was alive. She was so fixated on the animals in the mirror that she didn’t notice Rennar had stepped closer until he said, “Things have changed, Anouk.” Her heart shot to her throat.

Her fingers curled around the mirror. She narrowed her eyes at his feet, which were just inches from the protection spell. Wary didn’t begin to describe how she felt. And yet there was a tremble in his voice. A haunted cast to his eyes. His face was perfect, of course. The skin smooth and taut. But she had lived in the house of a witch long enough that she could see beyond perfection. His skin had an odd sheen to it. It looked too fresh, too new.

She’d seen that sheen on Mada Vittora every time the witch had healed herself after battles with other witches. Mada Vittora had remade torn skin, reformed broken bones, and replaced missing fingers, but she couldn’t hide that sheen. Judging from the extensive repair work Rennar had done on himself, he must have been shredded nearly to the bone. She glanced back at the front window. Viggo and the Goblins had mashed their faces against the glass to get a better view. She turned around and stepped down the front steps slowly, chin held high, until she and Rennar were one step apart on either side of the protection spell. “What happened to you?” she asked. He looked surprised that she could see beyond his magic. He brushed at a glossy patch of skin that began beneath one ear and ran down the side of his neck. The skin was smoother than the rest of him, as though that patch had taken effort to repair.

“London. London happened.” She blinked in surprise. “London?” It might as well have been another world. “While you and I were distracting each other in Montélimar, the Royals in London went silent. First Prince Maxim, then Lady Imogen, now everyone within the Court of Isles. I went to investigate. They’ve all vanished.” He touched his throat again, flinching at some dark memory. She made a show of raising a careless shoulder.

“My problems are here, in Paris. My problem is with you. Why should I care about the Court of Isles?” “Because as much as you hate me, as cruel as we’ve been to each other, even as much as you worry for the fate of your friends, all of that pales in the light of what I’ve just seen.” That tremble returned to his voice. It was caused by more than fear. Beneath his perfect hair and perfect face, he was traumatized. She narrowed her eyes. “You have two minutes before I slam this door.” “They closed the city,” he said in a rush. “The Coven of Oxford.

The same witches who evicted your Goblin friends. They put up border spells to prevent any living magical thing from passing into or out of London.”

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