The Everlasting Rose – Dhonielle Clayton

Maman never told me what to do when the world falls apart like a dress ripped at its seams, the beads scattering into faraway corners, the fabric a storm of shredded pieces left destroyed and unrecognizable. She never told me how to battle the nightmares that creep in like icy shadows, lingering behind closed eyes. She never told me what to do when all the color leaks out of the world like blood oozing from a mortal wound. She gave me a mirror to see truth. I clutch it, the glass warming inside my palm. But what happens when the reflection peering back is ugly, and when all I want to do is set everything ablaze, and she’s not here to help me? The past three days are a chaotic blur, a télétrope in perpetual motion—the palace, Sophia’s dungeons, Charlotte waking up, and Arabella helping us get here with false papers. “Are you listening to me?” Edel snaps. “You’ve been gazing out that window for almost a full hourglass.” I don’t pivot around to face her or the small boardinghouse room we’ve been stuffed into. I fixate on the sun as it sinks behind the row of shops across the street and watch how it turns the sky the color of a peacock’s tail. Sunsets are much more beautiful this far south. It feels like the Spice Isles are at the very edge of the world and poised to float right off. I press my nose against the frigid glass; the cold-season wind attempts to push its way through. I wish it would wrap its icy fingers around me and cool my insides. In the distance, the cluster of islands almost kisses at the Bay of Croix, and the capital city of Metairie overlooks them like a huge house-lantern out at sea, drawing ships safely near.

Golden bridges connect the four isles and radiate like fireworks as evening arch-lanterns are lit. Decadent river coaches skate over the waters beneath, the light glinting off their gilded trim. Grand spice plantations stretch out in all directions with large white mansions overseeing fields of mint, lemon balm, lavender, and sage. Plant-lanterns crest over the crops, paper-thin bees carrying sunshine and nutrients. This place feels even stranger than the palace did, so different than our home. I used to want to see every far-flung corner of this world, but now, all I think about is what it would be like to watch Orléans burn, each island turning to ash, clouds of thick smoke clogging the skies and stamping out the sun, the seas blackening from the leftover debris. Would the gods intervene? I gaze back down at the maps littering the desk. My charts of the trade winds. My theories about how far Princess Charlotte could have gotten if she sailed west toward the Glass Isles or maybe east around the base of the imperial island. Overcome with frustration, I throw the compass rose Rémy gave me, and it lands on the floor with an unsatisfying thud.

Edel picks it up. “Camille, I need to show you something!” She looks over my shoulder at my maps. “Come now. You don’t even know if Charlotte made it out that night.” “Rémy said the queen’s private schooner was spotted. Who else could it be?” “A thief? Pirates? Some drunken courtiers who got on the wrong boat?” I scoff. “He said no one knows who was on it, and now you’re putting all your hopes into a girl who was unconscious for four years.” She touches my bare shoulder. I jump. “Your skin’s hotter than a cookstove,” she says.

“Are you ill?” I want to tell her a never-ending fire burns in the pit of my stomach now, the flames fed by my rage. “And your fingers are like ice,” I reply. I grab the compass from her and trace another potential route Charlotte might have taken, putting her north of the imperial island. “She was coughing and waking up when Amber and I rushed out.” “Let’s forget Charlotte and storm the palace. We could take down Sophia ourselves.” “Then what? Rule Orléans?” Edel nibbles her bottom lip. “Maybe.” “If Charlotte is queen, then she can return Orléans to what it used to be. The way Queen Celeste wanted.

” “I don’t want to go back. I won’t be in another teahouse again. I won’t be forced to—” I take her hand, and she swallows the rest of the sentence. “We need to hope. If we can find Charlotte and bring her back to the palace, she can confront her sister. She can put an end to all of this.” I hold her close. “Then we will find a different way forward, a different life for us. I promise.” “Fine, fine,” Edel mutters under her breath and pulls away.

“But I have something more important to show you… something that will help us when we leave this place.” She’s shaky and casts nervous glances at the door. “I’ve been waiting until we were alone.” “What is it?” I turn away from the maps. “Watch.” Edel closes her eyes, concentrating so hard she looks minutes from laying a golden egg. Veins swell beneath her white skin and a red blush sets into her cheeks. The pale blond hair at her temples soaks with sweat, which beads across her forehead like a strand of pearls. Her hair lengthens down to her waist inch by inch, then turns the color of midnight. I scramble backward, smacking into the tiny cage of sleeping teacup dragons.

They squeak with alarm. “We’re not supposed to be able to do that.” I put my hand over my mouth. “I’m calling it our fourth arcana—glamour.” She takes my trembling fingers and pushes them into her hair. It still maintains the same fine texture it’s always had, but the color is utterly unfamiliar. “Our gifts are for others….” My heart flips in my chest. My arcana hums just beneath my skin, eager to learn, eager to experiment with this dangerous trick; my mind fills with a thousand possibilities. “No.

This gift… this is for us. This is how—” Edel starts. “We will outsmart Sophia and her guards,” I interject. “And find Charlotte.” The possibility of success wedges itself down to my bones and mingles with the anger living there. I’d always built my life on doing the unexpected and wanting it all—to be the favorite, to be the most talented Belle, to shape what it meant to be beautiful in Orléans—and now I’m presented with doing the biggest thing I’ve ever had to do and with the risk of danger far greater than I could ever imagine. All of it breathes life into my ambition. A full grin spreads across Edel’s face. She takes a deep breath, and the dark shade of midnight in her hair lightens as if morning sun pushes through each strand. “How did you learn to do this?” She glances at the door.

“It was an accident. Madam Alieas was yelling at me, laying out all the things I’d done wrong. She barked about how I needed to be nicer, and how she’d wished she’d gotten Valerie instead. I was twirling my hair around my finger.” She lifts one of the strands. “Growing angrier and angrier, thinking of our sister, and then it darkened to Valerie’s brown shade.” “What does it feel like?” I stroke Edel’s hair again, and it shrivels back to its previous shoulder length. “Remember when we’d sneak up on the roof at home before the first snow? Our fingernails would be purple and blue. Our nightgowns would catch the wind, the fibers almost freezing.” I nod as the memory flickers through me.

All of us on the roof after Du Barry and our mothers had fallen asleep, waiting for the clouds to release their crystals, waiting to catch a snowflake on our tongues, waiting to see the white mounds frost the tops of the dark forest behind our house. “It feels cold like that. I panicked at first. I didn’t think it was real. Thought my arcana was low, my eyes playing tricks on me. So I experimented with sections of my hair.” She walks in circles. “Adding a wave or a highlight, and testing how long I could hold it.” My stomach flutters. Trusting untested aspects of the arcana feels like trying to harness a windstorm.

“Did it make you sick?” “Nosebleeds, headaches, the chills.” “Then maybe—” She puts a hand up, sweeping away my worries. “That lessened as I got stronger. It just takes practice. I moved from my hair to aspects of my face.” “Does it weaken you like after we’ve done beauty treatments?” “Yes. I use the sangsues and chocolate to help me hold a glamour and to feel better after using one.” Edel takes my hand. “Quick. Let me show you.

” I stretch across the thin mattress Edel, Amber, and I share. The springs dig into my back. Maman’s mirror sits just under my breastbone on its chain. I press my hand to it, wanting its truth and wisdom to push down inside me, fill me up, and make me feel like Maman is still here, ready to fight alongside me. What would she think of all this? The things I’ve done. The things I’m about to do. “Close your eyes,” Edel directs. A tremor pulses in my stomach. Edel pushes my curls away from my sweaty forehead. Is this how our clients feel on our treatment tables? Tiny, exposed, vulnerable? She takes my trembling hand.

“Are you afraid?” “I’m angry.” “Good. That will make you strong.” Her soft fingers graze over my eyelids, forcing them closed. “Now, think back to when we were little girls first learning our second arcana, and Du Barry made us do all those lessons on visualizing our clients like paintings or sculptures. Remember?” “Yes.” “Instead, try to see yourself.” Du Barry’s childhood warnings are sharp echoes inside my head: “Belles must never be vain, for the Goddess of Beauty shall punish those who hoard their gifts. The arcana are favors from the Goddess of Beauty to be used in service.” I push her words away, bury them deep down with the rest of the lies.

Edel squeezes my shoulder. “Go back to Maison Rouge. You’ll see.” I take a deep breath, let my muscles relax. Edel describes the home where we spent our entire lives until we turned sixteen last year. The pale white trees growing out of the bayou like bones, the rose-shaped bars on the house windows, the crimson-and-gold-papered walls leading into the lesson rooms, the Age chambers with their terrariums of dying flowers and bowls of rotten fruit, the Aura rooms with their treatment tables and Belle-products, the nursery full of crying babies, the black forest—a shadow behind our house. “You’re tensing your muscles,” Edel says, stroking my cheek. “Let the arcana wake up. Focus on that.” At the mention of the word arcana, their power throbs inside me, rising quickly to meet my request.

All three skills—Manner, Aura, Age—are threads ready, able, and eager to be tugged and bent to my will. The veins in my hands swell beneath my skin. My nerves prickle with thick energy. “Think of your own face,” Edel whispers. “Your curly hair and your high forehead. Your full lips. The shade of your skin is the brown of the almond luna pastries Rémy brought us this morning for breakfast.” When I would see clients for beauty work, a familiar warmth would race through me like someone had let a candle flame graze across my skin. But now, a deep chill settles in, replacing that feeling. My teeth chatter, and a shiver makes me jerk.

“You’re all right. Keep going,” Edel says. “Change your hair to match one of the crimson Belleroses from our home solarium with petals as large as plates.” The flower sprouts beside the image of my own face in my mind. Its color bleeds into the strands of my hair, twisting around the coils like ribbons of blood. A headache erupts in my temples. My lungs tighten like I’ve just raced up a winding staircase. “It’s working,” she says. I sit straight up. “Don’t break your concentration.

” “Why does it feel this way?” I ask, out of breath. “I don’t know. But you’re doing it.” Edel rustles through the beauty caisse Arabella sent with us, retrieving a small mirror and thrusting it into my hands. “Look!” I gaze into it. The frizzy curls at the crown of my head are a deep fiery red like Amber’s, like Maman’s. I play with one curl and twist it around my finger to examine it more closely. “How long does it last?” I grimace through the cold. It grips my bones, a radiating ache splintering my insides. “As long as you can hold it in your mind and your levels stay strong.

I’ve been able to maintain it for almost five hourglasses when I’m rested and focused,” Edel boasts. “But I know if I push myself or drink Belle-rose tea or elixir, I could go longer.” “I can’t concentrate any longer.” The red fades away and the brown appears once more. I crumple on the bed. The door snaps open. Amber marches in, her presence a landquake. A nest of red hair peeks out from under her hood. Edel stands. “You’re back early.

” “There were too many guards, and I lost the mask you gave me,” Amber reports, then surveys the room. “What’s going on?” “Edel was just teaching me how to—” I start to say. “Quickly refresh your arcana.” Edel’s eyes burn into mine. I purse my lips and flash her a puzzled look. “Where’s Rémy?” Edel asks, taking a porcelain bowl from a nearby table and fishing out two wiggling sangsues. She wraps one leech around my wrist like a cuff, and in a whisper says, “Don’t say anything.” “He’s doing one of his rounds before coming upstairs.” Amber rushes to the dragons’ cage and lifts the blanket. They’re tangled together in a pile and remind me of jeweled bracelets made of pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and gold.

“I brought them some pig meat and found these sweet necklaces.” She dangles the collars from her fingers and sets them in front of the cage. “Why’d you spend our money on those?” Edel snaps. “You were supposed to get hair dye for all of us.” “I did.” She yanks two pot-bellied jars from her pocket and throws one at Edel. Edel catches it. “All she had left was evergreen.” “That’s going to help us blend in,” Edel replies sarcastically. “The whole city is at a shortage of Belle-products with the teahouses shut down.

And she gave me those collars at a discount. The dragons need leashes for their training.” She hands me a crumpled page. “Found this on the lobby table.” Four cameo portraits stretch across the page: Amber, Edel, Rémy, and lastly, me. My own eyes stare out, looking haunted. The animated portrait shifts through a series of my most notable looks: one with my hair in a signature Belle-bun full of camellia flowers; another with it down and around my face in a big, curly cloud; and the last with the strands all ironed straight and resting on my shoulders. The text calls us dangerous, cunning, and traitors to the crown. Sophia has promised 850,000 leas and 275,000 spintria for our capture. That would make a person instantly one of the wealthiest individuals in all Orléans, ready to join the circle of the kingdom’s finest.

WANTED: ALIVE AND IN GOOD CONDITION. SUITABLE FOR USE. What does that mean? Are we cattle headed to the slaughterhouses on the Isle of Quin? Amber places fresh food in the teacup dragons’ cage, then plops down in one of the wooden chairs. “I hate this place.” Edel starts to cough. “I need water,” she says. “Are you sick?” Amber asks. “Thirsty,” Edel replies. “Can you grab some?” “Why can’t you?” Amber’s eyebrows lift with suspicion. “You always get the water.

You know how to work the house pumps.” They lock eyes. “Plus, I’m not dressed, and you are.” “Amber, please. The teacup dragons need some as well,” I add. She shrugs, then leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, Edel stops coughing and turns to me. “Don’t tell her about the glamours.” “Why?” I ask, feeling Edel’s distrust of Amber like a flash of heat. “She’s too weak to try it right now.

We should wait until we know exactly how it works. We both have always been stronger and more willing to experiment than she is.” “But we’ll need to show her soon.” I study Edel’s face. “Of course,” Edel says, avoiding my eyes. “When the time is right.” The sun hasn’t risen when I sneak out of bed and dress to go out. Rémy is off on one of his nightwatch rounds. I don’t bother using the cold water in our basin for fear of waking Amber and Edel. I’m getting used to the dirt.

The memories of onsens full of claw-foot tubs and rose-shaped soaps and sweet oils and honey scrubs, perfume blimps leaving behind their scents, and beauty-lanterns dusting us with perfect beams of light are clouds drifting out to sea never to be caught again. I put in the eye-films that Arabella gave us, then blink until they settle, and I can see the small room again. We’ve fallen into a synchronized rhythm like the dancing koi fish that used to live in our fountain at Maison Rouge: Amber fetches fresh water from the house pumps every morning and even scrounges up small pieces of lime soap so we can make an attempt at bathing; Edel keeps the room tidy by stealing the house mistress’s broom each afternoon; Rémy watches every movement in and out of the boardinghouse; and I nurse our teacup dragons, teach them how to fly, and secure our nightly meals. At times it feels like we could go on living this way if we wanted. Move from boardinghouse to boardinghouse to evade the imperial guards. Take care of one another. Fold into the regular population of Orléans and live in secret. But my desire to see Sophia fall has become a whispered refrain making my body restless, as if my limbs and heart know that this isn’t the place for us. That I must face her. That I must make her pay for what she’s done.

That I must do what Queen Celeste would have wanted. Amber and Edel are still a mess of legs and arms and quilts in the bed we share. I have only a few moments to get out the front door of the boardinghouse before Rémy returns. I ease down the staircase, careful not to hit any of the squeaky wood planks. This is the second time I’ve sneaked out since we arrived. In the main salon, a few night-lanterns putter low along the ground. Three teacup cats wander across the long tables in search of crumbs. One meows at me. “Shh,” I whisper. “Don’t ruin my plan.

” I tie the ribbons of the mask Edel gave me. It’s made of rich black velvet and lace, and hugs the contours of my face and neck like a soft glove. Guaranteed to protect one’s makeup from the coldseason weather. Or shield one’s identity. The southerly winds make these popular here, creating the perfect locale for staying hidden. I unlatch the hook on the front door and close it gently behind me. An early-morning mist covers the city, choking the buildings with fog. The day after Maman died, the world outside the windows of Maison Rouge looked the same. Through the rose-shaped bars, I watched the dark forest catch rain clouds, trapping them down from the sky. I always imagined them as the Goddess of Beauty’s tears, shed over the death of another one of her gifts to our world.

I wanted to race out the back doors and venture deeper into the forest than we’d ever been allowed to go before, scream for Maman to be brought back, and wait for the Goddess of Beauty to answer me. I gaze up at a wakening sky. The plum darkness cracks open like an egg, releasing ribbons of orange and yellow and tangerine. “Are you up there, Beauty?” I wait to hear her voice boom down from the sky. “Were you ever there? Or are you a lie, too?” Nothing. A milk vendor and her cart plod along, leaving the noisy trail of clinking glasses. “Fresh pints to go with your morning pastries. Get them here!” Her calls hasten me forward. Last time I sneaked out, the streets were empty. Black mourning-lanterns drift about, casting their shadowy light over the cobblestones.

Portraits of the departed Queen Celeste hang from banners and populate nearby avenue boards. The sight of her beautiful face wrenches my heart. How upset she’d be about what has happened, her warnings about Sophia now prophetic. Blimps snake through tall towers and post-balloons zip around their large frames. Their bulbous underbellies leave behind swaths of darkness and shadows. A woman exits a shop. My heart beats against my rib cage. A warning. A sign to turn back. I duck into a nearby alley, waiting for her to pass.

She slows down and stops to look in my direction. She wears a peculiar mask that curves around all the edges of her face, neck, and chest, reminding me of a gilded mold for a bust or statue. The moonlight exposes its delicate iron edges and intricate etchings. I press myself farther into the shadows.

.

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