Arjun knew something was amiss the instant before his hand came to rest on the door handle of his flat.
The metal was warm.
Which meant someone—or something—had wandered too close to it. Once, not long ago, he’d found the shriveled carcass of a fly on the floor beside the threshold, its wings burnt to a crisp, the metal still pulsing from the spell warded within it.
If an intruder tried the handle, they would soon bear a burn mark on their palm and a muddled mind, meant to distort their memories. Meant to confound any manner of creature that tried to gain entry to the flat without an invitation.
Mrs. Buncombe, the elderly widow who resided in the flat below them, had sported such a mark just before the turn of the year. Thankfully she believed it to be the result of touching a hot frying pan unawares, for this particular woman was known to be the neighborhood gossip. Not to mention the fact that she suspected both Arjun and Jae of deeds befitting their foreign origins. Befitting their strange statues and stinking spices and unmistakable otherness.
Mrs. Buncombe’s trust in those who did not kneel before the Christian God was as nonexistent as her so‑called Christian morals. Strange, that. From what Arjun knew of Jesus Christ, he had been the kind of man to hold out his hand to those in need of refuge. To offer the least among them the most of his love.
Alas, the God of Jesus Christ was not the God Mrs. Buncombe worshipped in truth. To her, the best foreigners were the ones sent back to their shores, regardless of whatever fate awaited them there. If they or their children died of hunger, warfare, sickness, or injustice, it was indeed a shame, but none of her affair.
It still gave Arjun perverse joy to hear her complain about the fragrant herbs he grew along his balcony. The ones that brought him back to his childhood, though Bombay existed half a world away. But he’d had his own revenge. The delightfully petty sort. The sort that gave him life, even on the darkest of days. After Mrs. Buncombe singed her hand on their doorknob, Arjun had offered her a healing salve he claimed worked wonders on burns in his “little village.”
In reality, he’d given her a scented cream . . . mixed with pigeon excrement.
He laughed to himself. For weeks, that old bigot had rubbed bird shit on her hands before going to bed.
Sometimes it was the simplest things that gave him the greatest pleasure.
Arjun paused as he unlocked the door and wandered into the darkness of his flat. He remained still and silent for a moment, his eyes scanning his surroundings. Despite the fine hairs raised on the back of his neck, nothing seemed amiss. It was foolish to succumb to paranoia. He could neither hear nor see anything out of the ordinary. Of course, he did not possess the same heightened senses of a vampire. Jae was able to smell the blood of an intruder from across the room. An ethereal like Arjun was certainly faster and stronger than a mere mortal, but he would never possess the gifts of a full-blooded fey, a fact which had caused him no small amount of consternation as a child.
He exhaled. Let the sound reverberate throughout the flat. Though it was a large space, it was rather simple in design. One main room in the center bookended by two identical bedchambers. A utilitarian kitchen lined the wall to Arjun’s right, a brick fireplace nearby. The door to Jae’s room remained shut, as was typical of the vampire, who returned home on rare occasions, especially after the assault on their coven’s stronghold almost a month ago. Now Jae preferred to sleep away the day on the top floor of the Hotel Dumaine, which had become the Court of the Lions’ temporary refuge.
On the wing opposite Jae’s chamber—the wing closest to the flat’s entrance—Arjun saw the door to his room slightly ajar, which was how he left it. Neither Arjun nor Jae used the sitting room situated beside the kitchen, the shelves along the far wall stacked with well-worn books. The only other features of note were Jae’s calligraphy scrolls and Arjun’s statue of Ganesha, the god of beginnings, which he’d received as a gift from his father the night his mother took Arjun to the Sylvan Vale and erased his father’s memory. The last item of note was an ornate, floor-length mirror propped against the wall parallel to the kitchen, its spotted surface cloaked by a sheet of white silk.
Maybe Mrs. Buncombe had earned a new burn on her palm tonight, for it did not appear as if anyone had managed to gain entrance to the premises. Yet Arjun could not seem to shake this strange sense of unease. As if he were being watched from afar.
Perhaps it was simply the apprehension he felt at what was to come. He should be satisfied that all was as it should be. So Arjun went to his room to collect a warm cloak, the iron and silver weapons, and the book of his most recent writings, upon which he’d dictated explicit instructions to himself, should he find his mind addled in any way. He concealed the small notebook in his left breast pocket. Secured the clip of his monocle. Then he studied the closed door to Jae’s room, wondering whether he should check inside, just to be certain.
The vampire assassin would not take kindly to Arjun transgressing on his privacy. Jae’s senses were the keenest of all the blood drinkers Arjun had encountered. It wasn’t worth the chance of upsetting Jae. So with a final glance about the space, Arjun moved before the large mirror propped against the wall.
He wished Odette Valmont’s fate had not fallen on his shoulders. The responsibility was almost too great to bear. It was much easier to care for himself and himself alone. At the age of fifteen, Arjun had voluntarily rescinded his role in the court of the Sylvan Vale and moved to England, where he studied law at Cambridge. For the next three years, he cared for no one but himself. Though a small part of him had longed for something more, this chosen solitude among academics suited him well. It was far preferable to a life held in thrall to the callous creatures in the Summer Court.
Then, a year ago, Nicodemus Saint Germain asked Arjun to come to Louisiana to manage the legal matters of his coven, known to those in New Orleans as the Court of the Lions. Upon Arjun’s arrival, he’d been struck by both the sinister beauty of the Crescent City and the sense of belonging he found among this motley band of blood drinkers. For the first time since he’d left Bombay as a boy of seven, he felt a sense of home.
Until he came to New Orleans, Arjun had never known what it meant to be part of something. To trust that someone would fight alongside him, through thick and thin. The immortals in the Court of the Lions accepted Arjun into their fold in a way that those in the Vale never would have done. Slowly but surely, Arjun gained a family. The first real family he’d known since he lost his connection to his father almost twelve years ago.
True, it was easier to care only about himself. But his father used to say that the right thing to do was usually the hard thing to do. And the hard thing to do was usually the right thing to do.
Curse him for being right again, as always.
Arjun wrapped his cloak around the small satchel of iron weapons, slung the parcel across his shoulder, and stood before the mirror. With a single tug, he let the silk fall and paused to peruse its brass-framed edges. Sighing, he reached his right hand forward and pressed his palm against the cool surface. The silver began to shimmer at his touch, concentric rings spreading from his fingertips like pebbles dropped in a lake. His skin tingled as his hand sank into and through the mirror, the world around him giving way to the other behind it.
With a look of resignation, Arjun stepped into the looking glass and disappeared.
Copyright © 2021 by Renée Ahdieh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.