Scarlet Page 34


She turned back only once, as they were rounding a corner, and saw that the man by the café was gone.

A block later, the memory of the Fourth World War caught up to them all at once. The scorch marks and crumbling facades of a city pummeled by war. There weren’t enough of the beautiful old buildings left to draw the interest of the conservationists, and the sheer amount of destruction must have been too overwhelming for reconstruction. Unable to demolish the city’s history, the government had left this quarter alone. The districts, though separated by only a few streets, seemed worlds apart.

With a gasp, Scarlet recognized the massive building stretching along the opposite side of the street, with its shattered arched windows and the statues of men in old-fashioned clothing, many with broken limbs and some alcoves missing their statues altogether. The Musée du Louvre, one of the few sights her father had taken her to as a child. The building, half collapsed on the west end, was too unstable to go inside, but she and her father had stood together on the sidewalk while he told her about the priceless artworks that had been destroyed in the bombings, or the lucky few that had become spoils of war.

Many had still not been found, over a century later.

It was one of the few pleasant memories she had of her father, and she’d forgotten it until now.

“Scarlet.”

She snapped her head around.

“This way.” Wolf angled his head toward another street.

She nodded and followed him without looking back.

Despite the district’s tarnish, it was clear that these ancient streets weren’t entirely abandoned. A small motel advertised “come stay the night with the ghosts of fallen civilians” in the window. A thrift store displayed headless mannequins garbed in a rush of vibrant fabrics.

At an intersection, Wolf paused on a concrete city square with a boarded-up entrance to the subway and a sign that indicated the platform was closed; the nearest could be found on the Boulevard des Italiens.

“Are you ready?”

She followed his transfixed gaze up to a towering, gorgeous building before them. Angels and cherubim stood guard at massive arched doorways.

“What is this?”

Wolf followed her gaze. “Once it was an opera house and an architectural marvel. Then the war came and it was converted into storage for artillery and, eventually, prisoners of war. Then, when no one else wanted it, we took over.”

Scarlet frowned at that word. We. “Seems a little conspicuous for a secret street gang, don’t you think?”

“Would you ever suspect something horrible was living inside?”

When she didn’t answer, he backed away, scrutinizing her as he approached the massive theater. Again, he asked, “Are you ready?”

Catching her breath, she examined the carvings—faces grim and beautiful, the chalky busts of men staring down at her, a long balcony missing half its balusters. Clenching her jaw, she crossed the street and marched up the steps that spanned the length of the building, past the silent, unpreserved angels, beneath the shadowed portico.

“I’m ready,” she said, eyeing the mess of graffiti across the doors.

“Scarlet.”

She turned to face him, surprised by the gruffness in his voice.

“I’m sorry.”

He was careful not to touch her as he passed.

Her mouth went dry, warnings cluttering her head as Wolf pulled the nearest door open and stepped into the shadows.

Twenty-Seven

The door thudded shut behind them. Scarlet found herself in the immense foyer of the opera house, almost pitch-black but for warm, flickering candlelight beyond the arches. The lobby was full of silence and dust and chunks of broken marble along the floor. The dust clogged Scarlet’s throat and she struggled not to cough as she moved toward the light. Her footsteps were shockingly loud in the empty, hollow building as she passed between two massive columns.

She gasped. The light was coming from one of two statues that flanked a grand double staircase. It depicted two women draped in billowing fabric atop a pedestal, each holding aloft a bouquet of torches. Dozens of wax candles glowed and flickered, casting a haunting orange film over the lobby. The staircase, carved from red-and-white marble, was missing random balustrades, and a companion statue to the first was missing her head and the arm that had once held her own candelabra.

Scarlet’s foot splashed into a puddle and she drew back, first looking down at the broken marble floor, then up. Three stories of balconies rose above and in their center, where the light barely reached, was a painted ceiling with a square window in its center. The window, it seemed, had long been missing.

Hugging herself, Scarlet turned back to Wolf. He lingered between the columns.

“Maybe they’re sleeping,” she said, attempting nonchalance.

Wolf peeled himself out of the shadows and prowled toward the staircase. His body was as tense as the statues that watched them.

Scarlet’s gaze darted over the railings above, but she saw no movement, no sign of life. No garbage. No smell of food. No sound of talking or netscreens. Even the sounds of the street had disappeared beyond the massive entry doors.

She clenched her jaw, anger flaring up inside her at the sickening sensation of being trapped like a mouse to be preyed upon. Stomping past Wolf, she marched toward the stairs until her toes pressed against the first riser.

“Hello?” she yelled, craning her head. “You have visitors!”

Her words echoed back to her, harsh and defiant.

No sound. No alarm.

Then, from the silence, a familiar chime. Scarlet jumped at the sound that echoed between the marble pillars, despite being muffled within her pocket.

Heart racing, she pulled out the portscreen just as the computerized voice began to speak. “Comm received for Mademoiselle Scarlet Benoit from L’hôpital Joseph Ducuing in Toulouse.”

Scarlet blinked. A hospital?

Hand shaking, she pulled up the comm.

30 AUG 126 T.E.

THIS COMMUNICATION IS TO INFORM SCARLET BENOIT OF RIEUX, FRANCE, EF, THAT AT 05:09 ON 30 AUG 126, LUC ARMAN BENOIT OF PARIS, FRANCE, EF, WAS PRONOUNCED DEAD BY ON-STAFF MEDICAL PRACTITIONER ID #58279.

PRESUMED CAUSE OF DEATH: ALCOHOL POISONING

PLEASE RESPOND WITHIN 24 HOURS IF YOU WOULD LIKE AN AUTOPSY TO BE PERFORMED FOR THE COST OF 4500 UNIVS.

WITH SYMPATHIES,

THE STAFF OF L’HÔPITAL JOSEPH DUCUING, TOULOUSE

Confusion reigned, her heart thumping erratically. The message didn’t want to compute, her brain turning it over and over. She pictured him the last time she’d seen him, raving and tortured and afraid. How she’d screamed at him. Told him she never wanted to see him again.

How could he be dead, only twenty-four hours later? Shouldn’t she have received a comm when he’d been admitted into the hospital? Shouldn’t there have been a warning?

Swaying on her feet, she peered up at Wolf. “My dad’s dead,” she said, her whisper barely filling the enormous space. “Alcohol poisoning.”

His jaw flexed. “Are they sure about that?”

His suspicion was slow to filter through her encroaching numbness. “You think they sent the comm by mistake?”

A touch of sympathy flickered in his eyes. “No, Scarlet. But I do think he was in danger of something much worse than a fondness for drinking.”

She didn’t understand. He’d been tortured, but the burn marks wouldn’t have killed him. The insanity wouldn’t have killed him.

Through the fog in her brain, a gentle, caressing instinct told her to look up. So she did.

Behind Wolf, framed by two pillars that held unlit sconces, was a man. He was willowy and lean, with wavy dark hair and near-black eyes that burned in the candlelight. He would have had a pleasant smile if Scarlet hadn’t been so startled—by his presence, his silence, the fact that Wolf did not seem surprised he was there, did not even bother to face him though he undoubtedly felt him too.

More terrifying than all that was his clothing. He wore a crimson red coat that flared at his waist and had long, bell-shaped sleeves. Gold-embroidered runes sparkled along the hems. It was almost like a child’s costume, an imitation of the horrible Lunar court.

Fear thumped against Scarlet’s rib cage. This was not a costume. This was the stuff of nightmares and horror stories told to keep children from misbehaving.

A thaumaturge. A Lunar thaumaturge.

“Hello,” the man said, in a voice as sweet and smooth as melted caramel. “You must be Mademoiselle Benoit.”

She stumbled back onto the first step, catching the rail for balance. In front of her, Wolf dipped his eyes and turned around. The man acknowledged him with a polite nod.

“Alpha Kesley, so glad you’ve made it back safely. And if I am to correctly understand the comm the lady just received, Beta Wynn’s task in Toulouse must be finished as well. It seems we will soon be a full pack again.”

Wolf clamped a fist to his chest and gave a slight bow. “I am glad to hear it, Master Jael.”

Gulping, Scarlet pushed her hip into the rail. “No,” she said, finding her voice on the second try. “He brought me here to find my grandmother. He’s not one of you anymore.”

The man’s smile was warm and understanding. “I see. I’m sure you are quite eager to see your grandmother. I hope to reunite you shortly.”

Scarlet clenched her fists. “Where is she? If you’ve hurt her—”

“She is quite alive, I assure you,” said the man. Without any change in expression, he slid his attention back to Wolf. “Tell me, Alpha, were you able to meet your objectives?”

Wolf lowered his hand to his side. Obedience hung from him like a thin, absurd disguise.

A headache pounded at Scarlet’s temples. Her nerves hummed as she waited, hoping and wishing he was going to tell this man that he’d left their ridiculous pack and he was never coming back.

But the hope couldn’t be entertained for long. It was being shucked off before Wolf even opened his mouth.

This man was not a rebellious criminal, some member of a vigilante gang. If he was truly a thaumaturge, a real thaumaturge standing before her, then he worked for the Lunar crown.

And Wolf—what did that make Wolf?

“I have questioned her to the best of my ability,” Wolf said. “She has a single, vague memory, but I doubt both its usefulness and its reliability. Time and stress seem to have had an effect on her recollections, and at this point I have no doubt she would create falsehoods if she believed they would benefit her grandmother.”

The thaumaturge tilted his chin up, considering him. Alpha Kesley.

Scarlet’s heart hammered against her collarbone, ready to choke her.

I have questioned her to the best of my ability.

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