Serpent & Dove Page 1

Part I

Un malheur ne vient jamais seul.

Misfortune never arrives alone.

—French proverb

The Bellerose


There’s something haunting about a body touched by magic. Most people first noticed the smell: not the rot of decay, but a cloying sweetness in their noses, a sharp taste on their tongues. Rare individuals also sensed a tingle in the air. A lingering aura on the corpse’s skin. As if the magic itself was still present somehow, watching and waiting.


Of course, those stupid enough to talk about such things ended up on the stake.

Thirteen bodies had been found throughout Belterra over the past year—more than double the amount of years prior. Though the Church did its best to conceal the mysterious circumstances of each death, all had been buried in closed caskets.

“There he is.” Coco motioned to a man in the corner. Though candlelight bathed half of his face in shadow, there was no mistaking the gold brocade on his coat or the heavy insignia around his neck. He sat rigid in his chair, clearly uncomfortable, as a scantily-clad woman draped herself across his plump midsection. I couldn’t help but grin.

Only Madame Labelle would leave an aristocrat such as Pierre Tremblay waiting in the bowels of a brothel.

“Come on.” Coco motioned toward a table in the opposite corner. “Babette should be here soon.”

“What sort of pompous ass wears brocade while mourning?” I asked.

Coco glanced at Tremblay over her shoulder and smirked. “The sort of pompous ass with money.”

His daughter, Filippa, had been the seventh body found.

After her disappearance in the dead of night, the aristocracy had been shaken when she’d reappeared—throat slashed—at the edge of L’Eau Mélancolique. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Rumors had crawled through the kingdom about her silver hair and wrinkled skin, her cloudy eyes and gnarled fingers. At twenty-four, she’d been transformed into a hag. Tremblay’s peers simply couldn’t understand it. She’d had no known enemies, no vendettas against her to warrant such violence.

But while Filippa might’ve had no enemies, her pompous ass of a father had accumulated plenty while trafficking magical objects.

His daughter’s death had been a warning: one did not exploit the witches without consequence.

“Bonjour, messieurs.” A honey-haired courtesan approached us, batting her lashes hopefully. I cackled at the brazen way she eyed Coco. Even disguised as a man, Coco was striking. Though scars marred the rich brown skin of her hands—she covered them with gloves—her face remained smooth, and her black eyes sparkled even in the semidarkness. “Can I tempt you to join me?”

“Sorry, darling.” Adopting my smarmiest voice, I patted the courtesan’s hand the way I’d seen other men do. “But we’re spoken for this morning. Mademoiselle Babette will be joining us shortly.”

She pouted for only a second before moving on to our neighbor, who eagerly accepted her invitation.

“Do you think he has it on him?” Coco scrutinized Tremblay from the top of his bald head to the bottom of his polished shoes, lingering on his unadorned fingers. “Babette could’ve been lying. This could be a trap.”

“Babette might be a liar, but she isn’t stupid. She won’t sell us out before we pay her.” I watched the other courtesans with morbid fascination. With cinched waists and overflowing bosoms, they danced lithely amongst the patrons as if their corsets weren’t slowly suffocating them.

To be fair, however, many of them weren’t wearing corsets. Or anything at all.

“You’re right.” Coco dug our coin pouch from her coat and threw it on the table. “It’ll be after.”

“Ah, mon amour, you wound me.” Babette materialized beside us, grinning and flicking the brim of my hat. Unlike her peers, she swathed as much of her pale skin as possible with crimson silk. Thick, white makeup covered the rest—and her scars. They snaked up her arms and chest in a similar pattern to Coco’s. “And for ten more golden couronnes, I would never dream of betraying you.”

“Good morning, Babette.” Chuckling, I propped a foot on the table and leaned back on my chair’s hind legs. “You know, it’s uncanny the way you always appear within seconds of our money. Can you smell it?” I turned to Coco, whose lips twitched in an effort not to grin. “It’s like she can smell it.”

“Bonjour, Louise.” Babette kissed my cheek before leaning toward Coco and lowering her voice. “Cosette, you look ravishing, as usual.”

Coco rolled her eyes. “You’re late.”

“My apologies.” Babette inclined her head with a saccharine smile. “But I did not recognize you. I will never understand why such beautiful women insist on masquerading as men—”

“Unaccompanied women attract too much attention. You know that.” I drummed my fingers against the tabletop with practiced ease, forcing a grin. “Any one of us could be a witch.”

“Bah!” She winked conspiratorially. “Only a fool would mistake two as charming as you for such wretched, violent creatures.”

“Of course.” I nodded, tugging my hat even lower. While Coco’s and Babette’s scars revealed their true natures, Dames Blanches could move through society virtually undetected. The russet-skinned woman on top of Tremblay could be one. Or the honey-haired courtesan who’d just disappeared up the stairs. “But the flames come first with the Church. Questions second. It’s a dangerous time to be female.”

“Not here.” Babette spread her arms wide, lips curling upward. “Here, we are safe. Here, we are cherished. My mistress’s offer still stands—”

“Your mistress would burn you—and us—if she knew the truth.” I returned my attention to Tremblay, whose obvious wealth had attracted two more courtesans. He politely rebuffed their attempts to undo his trousers. “We’re here for him.”

Coco upended our coin pouch on the table. “Ten golden couronnes, as promised.”

Babette sniffed and lifted her nose in the air. “Hmm . . . I seem to remember twenty.”

“What?” My chair plummeted back to the ground with a bang. The patrons nearest us blinked in our direction, but I ignored them. “We agreed on ten.”

“That was before you hurt my feelings.”

“Damn it, Babette.” Coco snatched our coin away before Babette could touch it. “Do you know how long it takes us to save that kind of money?”

I struggled to keep my voice even. “We don’t even know if Tremblay has the ring.”

Babette merely shrugged and extended her palm. “It is not my fault you insist on cutting purses in the street like common criminals. You would earn thrice that sum in a single night here at the Bellerose, but you are too proud.”

Coco took a deep breath, hands curling into fists on the table. “Look, we’re sorry we offended your delicate sensibilities, but we agreed on ten. We can’t afford—”

“I can hear the coin in your pocket, Cosette.”

I stared at Babette incredulously. “You are a goddamned hound.”

Her eyes flashed. “Come now, I invite you here at my own personal risk to eavesdrop on my mistress’s business with Monsieur Tremblay, yet you insult me like I’m a—”

At that precise moment, however, a tall, middle-aged woman glided down the staircase. A deep emerald gown accentuated her flaming hair and hourglass figure. Tremblay lurched to his feet at her appearance, and the courtesans around us—including Babette—swept into deep curtsies.

It was rather odd, watching naked women curtsy.

Grasping Tremblay’s arms with a wide smile, Madame Labelle kissed both his cheeks and murmured something I couldn’t hear. Panic spiked through me as she looped her arm through his and led him back across the room toward the stairs.

Babette watched us out of the corner of her eye. “Decide quickly, mes amours. My mistress is a busy woman. Her business with Monsieur Tremblay will not take long.”

I glared at her, resisting the urge to wrap my hands around her pretty neck and squeeze. “Can you at least tell us what your mistress is buying? She must’ve told you something. Is it the ring? Does Tremblay have it?”

She grinned like a cat with cream. “Perhaps . . . for another ten couronnes.”

Coco and I shared a black look. If Babette wasn’t careful, she’d soon learn just how wretched and violent we could be.

The Bellerose boasted twelve luxury parlors for its courtesans to entertain guests, but Babette led us to none of these. Instead, she opened an unmarked thirteenth door at the end of the corridor and ushered us inside.

“Welcome, mes amours, to the eyes and ears of the Bellerose.”