“Finding what you're looking for?”
A flock of birds, startled by the noise, fled from a nearby rose bush.
The ghost who was stealing from Cosette's garden didn't freeze, or start, or turn around. With no delay, they began to run, and Cosette jumped to cut them off at the garden gate.
“Stop it,” she hissed, exasperated, as the shadowy figure struggled against her grip. “Christ, won't you – stop this – there.”
The ghost had gone limp, their shoulders slumping like a puppet with cut strings.
Cosette exhaled, fingers still a vice around the thief's arms. “Now. If you'll be so good as to tell me why you've been trespassing here every night for a week?”
Close as they were, she could hear the thief breathing, quick and low. They were perfectly obscured, a large, dark cloak draped around a small figure whose face was turned away, but beneath Cosette's hands, a pulse fluttered like a hummingbird's.
The thief – not a ghost, unfortunately; ghosts famously did not have such lively pulses – twisted in her arms, and then a hand, cold and clammy, was pressed to Cosette's forehead and showered powder across her eyes. Cosette felt the momentary dizziness of a beginning spell, but nothing took hold, and the thief, who, in the desperate hope of escaping by magical means, had revealed their face, stared at her with wide eyes.
“I know,” whispered Cosette. “Strong for a protective charm, isn't it? I do my best.”
She wanted to keep the thief there. If someone stole from her garden, they knew where to steal from, which was concerning. It was one thing to be well-known under a pseudonym for one's business in enchanted objects, quite another to have led a customer with bad intentions to one's home. She wanted to know how they'd known what to look for; how they'd found her; what they wanted desperately enough put what must have been weeks of preparation into, yet couldn't pay the price for.
Cosette looked at the thief's face, and the understanding washed suddenly over her that she wouldn't learn anything tonight. It only took a moment – round, brown eyes, like something half-remembered – and she knew, with quiet certainty, that there wasn't a drop of truth to be drawn from them.
She drew her hands away. Her jaw set, she stepped back, and jerked her head roughly in the direction of the gate behind them.
The thief stared at her. When they opened their mouth to speak, Cosette whispered, “Out.”
Quiet as a spectre, the thief disappeared into the night. Cosette locked the garden gate with shaking hands, tiptoed into the house, cleaned her bare feet – she'd run out too fast, with barely a thought for anything but quietness – and curled up in bed.
There were embers dying in her fireplace. Her father insisted it be lit in the evenings, central heating notwithstanding; the Ice Saints were coming on with frosty nights, and he would use that as justification until long after the Saints' days had gone.
Beneath her covers, Cosette trembled until she fell asleep.
No one, no matter how careful, could follow Éponine through the city without her knowing. It required no magic: experience had done that work for her, experience in following undetected, experience in feeling some spat-out spell or other on her heels, tracing her movements through Paris and hanging on to the hem of her skirt like a bur.
She wasn't being followed tonight, and took turns and bends to shake something off nonetheless. A feeling, perhaps: a look, a gesture, the recognition of someone else's eyes.
Éponine had seen her before, of course. She'd caught glances of her at the market and traced her moving silhouette all the way to Rue Plumet, but she'd not looked into those eyes in – what was it, now? Fourteen years? Fifteen?
The feeling remained, no matter how many turns she took.
When Éponine let herself in, the old man's house was dark save for the small light warming the hallway. He'd said too many times that they were guests here, and welcome to make themselves as much at home as they possibly could. Éponine hadn't once found the right way of responding that they'd never learned the knack of feeling at home anywhere else, and were unlikely to catch up now.
On the soft carpet, Éponine walked quietly as a ghost, and carried her shoes and cloak under her arm into the library.
Azelma lay in the cot, curled up like a cat. She had her back turned to the door, but she was awake; Éponine locked the door and crawled in beside her.
“We're in trouble,” she whispered. Azelma snorted, and Éponine said, quietly, “New trouble.”
“Do you remember her?” asked Éponine. Her head was heavy. She rested her forehead against the back of her sister's neck, a single point of warmth, and closed her eyes. “Do you remember what she looked like?”
Éponine hadn't yet found out where the nickname came from. The first time she went to find her at the market, having heard of a good place to nick rare warding charms from, she'd suspected nothing at all, and had stood thunder-bolted to the ground in recognition when she'd caught sight of the stall. The Lark: there was no witch in Paris worth their salt who hadn't bought from her. Enchanted objects and ingredients only, of course; she wasn't the sort to sully herself with spells.
“She had a dip in her chin,” said Azelma. “And dimples, when she spoke. We used to tease her for it.”
“She caught me tonight,” Éponine whispered. “I thought she was going to –” What, really? Call for help; expose her? Who was with her, anyway, in that fortress of a house, ringed by the most potent magical garden in France and protective charms that were almost enough to keep even the birds out? “She just let me go. I saw her, and she had no idea who I was. She didn't recognise me at all.”
“Maybe someone spelled her.” Azelma shrugged. She moved, then, to turn around, and her perpetually sceptical face had gained another trace of worry. “That's good, isn't it? Wouldn't we be fucked if she did remember us?”
“Language,” said Éponine. “Yeah, I – I suppose we would be.”
“So why's that trouble?”
Éponine sighed. She turned, and pressed her face into the pillow in muted frustration.
Cosette had looked different – of course she had – but it hadn't been age that had made her, for a moment, look like a stranger: it had been the lack of fear in her eyes. Perhaps it was only a child's memory, blurry and distorted by the nightmares that had pulled at it from all sides, but Éponine couldn't remember having seen Cosette unafraid.
She would have been afraid, Éponine thought, if she'd recognised the thief in her garden for who she was. Shame had burned memories into Éponine's mind, memories of Cosette's maroon hair, filthy with dust and grime, memories of the fear in her eyes, dulled, in time, by the horrifying reality of feeling little else – and Cosette, in some inhuman feat of mental strength or coincidental mercy, had forgotten them.
On a practical level, there was no saying whether Cosette might remember her if they crossed paths again: that alone was enough to keep Éponine from the garden for good, and then there were the charms protecting it as well, undone by weeks of careful work (delegated to familiars, admittedly, but work nonetheless) that was now all in vain as Cosette doubtlessly renewed them.
Éponine wanted to slap herself.
“Because,” she said, voice muffled by the cushion, “I didn't get what I needed before she caught me.”
Her misery earned no more sympathy than a patronising pat on the head. “I stand corrected,” said Azelma. “We're fucked no matter what.”
As a rule, Cosette made sure to schedule her visits with Musichetta on the same days as the most bothersome chores she could imagine. It was a matter of trade, seeing her, but a treat in equal measure.
“I smell saffron,” noted Cosette, accepting the coffee mug that was unceremoniously pressed into her hands. Musichetta rolled her eyes.
“You know, I love Joly, I'd die for him, and so on, but he's having too much fun in the kitchen for his own good. We're three people in this apartment and he bakes for ten. I can't finish a whole cake by myself on my best days.”
“Oh, no, what are you going to do. If only you knew someone with contacts at all local food banks and a notorious sweet tooth.”
“Shut up. Business first, gifts of cakes and buns later. What did you bring me?”
Cosette had brought payment. Musichetta had one foot tangled in everyone's strings of fate at any given moment, and she was happy to unravel and follow some of them, given the right incentive: bracelets woven through with protective charms; oddities from Cosette's cabinet; the latest harvest of rosebuds. Today's token was rarer than usual, and, Cosette flattered herself, much more clever.
“Impossible to lose,” she said, holding up a braided straw key-chain. “Your boyfriend will never lock himself out again. He could forget this thing in a bank vault and it'd follow him around like a murder doll.”
“Oh, you know, just a night's work.” It wasn't an exaggeration: she'd worked on the enchantment into the small hours of the morning, letting the charm toe the fine line between useful and ominous. The difference between an enchanted and a cursed object was, after all, rather a question of one's point of view. Cosette smiled. “You're welcome.”
“Any news on the dirtbag I'm tracing?”
“We–ell,” said Cosette, and wrapped fingers around her coffee mug. “Sort of, but I was actually going to bother you with something different today.”
The difficult thing about asking favours of Musichetta was that she always Knew. If you were running headfirst into a bad decision, she had a Hunch, and didn't shy away from indicating her disapproval. Cosette had come here prepared for this. The look Musichetta gave her still stung.
“No, look, the thing is, they owe me,” she rushed to explain. “This is about some – some very unfinished business, I mean, I can't just let people break into my garden and then not follow up. What kind of message would that send? And anyway, I saved Bossuet's life –”
“Perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration?”
“You don't know that! His life might depend on him having his keys on him at some point. Ah, Chetta.” Cosette hid her face in her hands. “Please help me with this. I can't tell you why it matters, and yes, I'm aware that this looks like I'm just running away from the dirtbag situation, and I know it's potentially really stupid. Please help me find my thief.”
“Hey.” Musichetta's voice softened. “Cosette, I'm not judging. It's a little worrying, I won't lie, but you're an adult.”
“Tell that to my dad.”
“He's still got no idea about any of this, does he?”
“You know what the worst thing is?” Cosette looked up. “He'd understand. He wouldn't want me to let you track down the dirtbag, and I don't know if he'd try to stop me, but he'd understand why I want to. He'd be kind about it.” She shivered. “I don't think understanding and kindness have a place in this.”
“I agree.” Chetta paused, and put a hand to Cosette's forearm. “Look, when the dirtbag's time comes, I'll be here. And whatever this other thing is, please be careful about it. That's all I ask. This isn't – clairvoyance doesn't come with 'Best Stop Here' labels; I can't actually see what's going to happen. Don't allow me to let a friend walk right into an open knife.”
Cosette chided herself, in silence, for her genuine, if brief, feeling of surprise. Of course Chetta cared; she was a generous and caring person, but Cosette had missed, by some trick, the awareness that they'd long gone past being business partners only. “I promise,” she said softly. She slipped a hand into her pocket, fingers wrapping around the strip of cloth she'd torn off the thief's cloak as she'd let them run. “Very solemnly.”
Musichetta hid a smile behind her coffee mug. “Well, then,” she said. “Let's see what you have.”
The old man's house was not a home, but it made a painful effort to be. Éponine never stopped being aware of it. At night, their bed was warm; in the morning, there was a cupboard for just their own breakfast supplies. It was a bizarre thing to be given in exchange for some help in the garden, the immeasurable gift of security, and in consequence, they accepted it in fragments, locking the library door at night, never shifting items out of place, not laying a finger on the books, and wrapping Éponine's attempts at spellmaking soundly away whenever they both left the house.
It was a sort of magical sympathy – there was no other explanation for it. The old man didn't meddle with spells, but his house was covered in charms, and he'd known magic, Éponine assumed, when he'd seen it in her. Éponine couldn't bring herself to mind the oddness of Mabeuf's motivations. People had found far worse reasons to be kind to them in the past.
Mabeuf's front yard, fenced and excessively charming, had a bird feeder that had ceased to need re-stocking some time around mid-April, when spring had arrived with fanfares and next to no prior warning. Éponine went out, nonetheless, each morning, and filled it up with whatever seeds Mabeuf kept around. This morning, when she turned from the front door to find Cosette waiting behind the fence, handfuls of sunflower seeds poured with a pretty sound to the ground.
Her first thought, Éponine was ashamed to note, was that she'd have to persuade Azelma to leave behind the only place that had ever made an attempt to become a home to them.
Éponine couldn't move a muscle. Cosette, incomprehensibly, smiled. “Good morning, thief.”
“What do you want?”
“To finish our transaction.” Slowly, as if not to spook her, Cosette raised her right hand, from which dangled a linen satchel. “I'm sorry for the delay; you didn't seem receptive to negotiating the other night. May I come in?”
“Ah.” Cosette opened the satchel, elaborately, making sure Éponine could see every last herb and flower folded inside, and raised her eyebrows. “I'll just leave and take these with me, then.”
Éponine walked slowly down the gravel path. She opened the gate of the fence; Cosette took two steps back.
“Let me ask again,” said Éponine calmly. She glanced back at the bird feeder. “What is it you want from me?”
“Well.” Cosette stood very straight, and held her head very high. It was a studied pose, put-upon and forceful. Still, there was no light of recognition in her eyes. Éponine kept herself braced for the moment it came. “I have rather strong opinions about thieves.”
“Not what I asked.”
“One of my strong opinions about thieves,” continued Cosette, with rather too much emphasis, “is that they should, by some means or other, have all they need. You haven't been stealing enough to re-sell; you don't look like much of a black market runner. What I want for you, specifically, is to have what you need.”
Éponine's fingers dug hard into her palms. There was no one in the world she could stand less charity from. “Why?”
“Because you broke through my warding charms, and I don't like that at all. So, you'll answer my questions about how and why, and I,” she swung around the satchel once more, like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey, “will leave this with you.”
Azelma's assessment, of course, hadn't been wrong in the slightest, but Éponine hadn't been quite pessimistic enough to think it could possibly be this accurate. She'd seen moonwort in the satchel, half-silver and precious. How in the world Cosette did it was a mystery to each one of the customers that Éponine had spoken to. No one should have a thumb green enough to dig moonwort out of the earth as early as May, in a climate as volatile as France's and air as polluted as that of Paris.
It was almost enough to laugh about. Too good for spells, a witch like that, but not at all above some good, old-fashioned extortion.
“Oh,” Cosette added lightly, and held up her other hand, presenting a small golden ring set with a single green jewel. It was positively buzzing with enchantment. “And I'll know when I'm being lied to. So, deal?”
Cosette had expected to be frightened. There was no telling how it'd go, confronting a thief in broad daylight, but she'd hoped to have the wits to be at least a little bit scared. The girl before her, dark eyes that seemed to snarl all on their own and shoulders curled inwards like a wolf's, was doubtlessly frightening to some people; her spell the other night had at been enough to make Cosette dizzy even through her warding.
It was different, though, seeing her here. Cosette's impulse to drag her to a coffee shop in order to extort answers had been slightly panicked, yes, but she couldn't really be held accountable considering the circumstances, and it softened a tense situation quite considerably.
She slid a mug of plain green tea across the table to the girl. “You're sure you don't want anything to eat? They have some sandwiches that look to die for –”
“No,” said the girl shortly. She didn't touch her tea. “Ask.”
“What's your name?”
The girl said nothing.
Cosette sighed. “You'll answer some of these, won't you? I thought we'd agreed.”
“You don't need to know my name,” said the girl, which was fair enough. But then, Cosette hadn't needed to buy her matcha, either.
“What spell are you working on?”
Something came across the thief's features. “Tracking spell.”
The stone in Cosette's ring flashed red and hot. Cosette raised an eyebrow. The girl shrugged.
“Could've been a bluff. The spell's for forgetting.”
“Are you planning use it on yourself?”
“Are you doing it to hurt someone?”
The girl's lips parted. From the mug in front of her, steam rose to obscure her face. Cosette looked away for a moment, pretending her triple chocolate cookie held some intrigue or other.
“I need someone to stop looking for me,” said the girl. Her voice was quiet and hollow in equal measure, and an uncomfortable feeling stirred in Cosette's chest. “They have to forget I exist. There's no other way to for me to be safe.”
It occurred to Cosette, staring fixedly at her cookie, that she might be a horrible person. On her left hand, her ring remained cool.
“It's hard, isn't it?” Cosette touched the rim of her mug. “The spell. Have you been trying for long?”
“A year,” came the response. It was calmly resigned.
“Do you need help with it?”
“No.” A burst of red, and the girl flinched. “You said you'd leave it alone if I answered.”
“Yes –” Cosette hadn't caught herself stuttering in years, but then, it had been a long time since she'd been so ashamed of anything. There were questions she hadn't asked yet, the formerly pressing ones, and they seemed suddenly unimportant. “Yes, I did.”
The girl was looking at her when Cosette forgot her own cowardice for long enough to look up. Her eyebrows were drawn together in a distrustful frown, but there was something else in there, a gentle sort of confusion. She must not have expected Cosette to falter.
Cosette took a deep breath. “Do you have questions for me?”
“Can't see what the point would be.” The girl reached for her tea, which, for Cosette, was victory enough. “We don't all have enchanted jewellery for lie-detectors.”
“No, that's true.” Cosette twisted the ring on her finger. She was tempted, for a moment, to pull it off and present it to the girl, but it was tied to her, and wouldn't work the same. “But you don't strike me as someone who's very easy to lie to.”
“You could be a good liar.”
Cosette shrugged. She broke off some of her cookie and chewed in silence. Its sweet taste was oddly ashen. The girl peered at her over the mug of tea.
“Who taught you to garden?” Cosette's apparently obvious offence was met with a weak smile. “Come on. You don't learn how to enchant soil from a library book; this magic has to be centuries old. If it were written down anywhere, more people would be doing it.”
A convenient lie crossed Cosette's mind, and then, fast on its heels, the shrill scream of her conscience. Anyway, she'd taken plenty of stupid risks so far, what was one more? “Do you remember when the last great coven was dissolved?”
The girl's eyebrows shot up. “The Perpetual Adoration? Didn't they all emigrate?”
“Yes. They dissolved in the mid-2000s, but a few years before – I was eight, maybe nine? – we were moving around a lot, my father and I, and when we were without shelter for a while, my father fell back on some forever-ago connection he had with the coven's gardener. Fauchelevent, was his name.” Cosette paused to sip her coffee, allowing the strong, black taste to wash out the increasingly urgent fear that she might be in the process of digging her own grave. “He persuaded the coven to house us. My father helped in the garden, and Fauchelevent taught me about some of the more – well, enchanting parts of it. He, uh, my father doesn't have magic. I think he was just happy to know I finally had someone to tutor me.”
“The Perpetual Adoration,” repeated the girl. She hadn't put her mug of tea down. “I didn't expect to be that on point with the 'centuries old' thing.”
“It's mostly lost knowledge, now,” Cosette said, with a shrug that failed to be nonchalant. “Another victim of austerity politics, as they put it. The dissolution took a lot away. All the members are scattered, now, and Fauchelevent moved with us to Rue Plumet. He died a few years ago. We set up the garden together, but it was more him than me, to begin with. I'll never know everything he knew, and the coven forbade keeping books.”
The girl frowned. “There was no coven to forbid it anymore.”
“Loyalty.” Cosette smiled helplessly. “I can't bring myself to write down a single thing to this day.”
“Ah.” The mug thumped on the table. The thief, a hand still curled around its handle, shook her head slightly. “To your credit, if that's made up, it's imaginative enough to deserve being believed.”
For an odd moment, Cosette wished it were a lie. She hadn't shared this story with anyone, not even Musichetta, and so it had never struck her how heavy it felt to tell it. She missed Fauchelevent on most days, but it was a dull, quiet hurt. Saying his name had nicked a thin skin, and something was bleeding out.
“Look,” she said, shaking herself awake. “I really did mean it; I want you to have what you need. I put some of everything in the satchel that I could tell you took cuttings from, plus a little bit of anything rare I have, and I hope your spell works. But if it doesn't, or if you need anything else...” Cosette rummaged around in her purse, and finally placed a small card on the table. “Please consider calling me. I don't need money, but I don't appreciate being stolen from, and I'll work very hard to make it as difficult as possible for you in the future. So – you know. I hope it's come across that I'm a reasonable person whose good side isn't a bad place to be on.”
The girl stared at her. Her eyes went slowly down to the card in front of her, then, dark with a frown, back to Cosette's face. “Well,” she said finally, tucking the card into the pocket of her coat, “one of those things, at least, you've made clear enough.”
Éponine felt rotten.
For the year that she'd been trying, the spell had required incomparably careful planning, not because of its extravagant list of ingredients or its excessive ties to the lunar cycle – although, granted, those things presented challenges. Éponine found them easy to navigate. Less so was the presence of her younger sister in a space where neither of them was ever truly alone: Azelma had developed a keen eye for signs of exhaustion, and she was, like a true younger sister, devious in enforcing counter-measures when she detected any.
From nothing comes nothing. The rules of magic weren't, at heart, different from those basic assumptions any science operated on; energy is never lost, and anything you wish to come out of a spell, you have to first put in. Four weeks into her fourth attempt, Éponine felt like she had put more of herself into this spell than she could stand to give.
Azelma was away for the night, staying with Gavroche wherever he'd been hiding away, and Éponine stood on unsteady legs before the sorry product of her latest effort. Words were the final step: they framed the spell like brackets of a code; they formed a shallow bowl in which magic, if it chose to, could make a home.
“I'm a coward, aren't I,” said Éponine to the library. The incantation was short, and it was old, the type of French that barely warranted the name, but none of that meant it warranted her trepidation.
Éponine breathed slowly. She lifted a small pitcher and began to pour its contents, milky green and smelling sharply of grass, into the paper filter she'd placed over a glass beaker. The beaker, upon successful completion of the spell, was to hold the distilled essence of its ingredients, clear as water, purified by the incantation. Its words felt written on the insides of Éponine's lids; she closed her eyes and whispered them as she poured, and with every word, the hand which poured felt less like her own.
The words ran out. Éponine fell to her knees, dropping the empty pitcher with a clatter onto the desk. For an instance, there was emptiness: the air from her lungs, the quick, racing brightness of her mind; the spell had drawn both from her. Something knelt on the library floor, gasping for breath, digging helpless fingers into the soft carpet, and as moments passed, it began to once again resemble Éponine.
She looked up. On the desk, the second beaker was filled to the brim with the colour of pine needles.
Azelma wasn't here.
Azelma wasn't here, so it made no difference whether or not Éponine got up off the floor, and almost no one would know if she cried.
She was kneeling, still, when a timid knock drew her to her feet, quick as lightning. Mabeuf's voice was low and gentle on the other side of the door, and this alone was enough kindness to make Éponine want to crawl out of her skin. She opened up the library nonetheless, with every intention of reassuring the old man, but a single look at her made his face fall.
“What in the world's gone wrong?”
Éponine was often an excellent liar, only she felt, just then, as if she was no longer excellent at anything at all. She said, honest and hollow, “I think I might be a terrible witch.”
Mabeuf looked astonished. The solution he proposed after a moment of stunned silence, true to form, was a cup of tea.
“I wish I were of more help when it comes to these things,” said the old man, settling in across from Éponine at the kitchen table. “See, no old witch will tell you this, but it goes along with everything else with age, the magic. Attempting whatever it is that's got you so out of breath would probably be enough to put me in the grave for good.”
Feels like it's enough to get me there, too. Éponine said, “I'm sorry I never asked. What was it you worked with, when you still could?”
“Well, even at your age, I'm afraid I didn't quite have a hand for spells.” He smiled, kind and a little ironic. “The occasional charm, but mostly, I was a scribe. Banning magic on paper, that's what I was best at. Who knows? Maybe I wrote down the spell you're breaking your teeth on.”
“No,” said Éponine. “This isn't something you could ever have a hand in.”
“Ah, ma bonne fée.” The folds in Mabeuf's brow had deepened. “Is it so bad?”
“No. Yes. I'm sorry; I didn't want you to worry about any of this. Please believe me that for – for your home, it really is safe.”
“Oh, I'm very sure of that.” The frown made way for a smile that indicated some understanding. “Plenty of starlings outside, I've noticed lately. Odd for this time of year.”
“It should have worked, this time.” It should have. She'd never been able to afford guesswork on moon phases; all her dates had been pinned down exactly to be in line with the spell's instructions. She knew the incantations, both initial and closing, inside and out. The ingredients, for the first time, had been without flaw. “The only explanation I have left is that it's my magic that's wrong. That I – I'm not good enough.” She grimaced pronouncing it. To think that she'd ever become vain enough to find this surprising – had she ever, in her mind, been made invincible by magic?
“What spells do you love?”
Éponine looked up from where she'd been tightly gripping her mug. The simplicity of the question, utterly deceptive, delayed her answer by a few long moments. “Sleeping spells. To ward against nightmares.” She tilted her head. “Obviously, that's not how they work; nightmares can't be fought off. They're not external. But spells that can – quiet the mind, and calm the parts that might otherwise cause bad dreams...”
She used them on Azelma, when asked, which was, in her opinion, not nearly often enough. Magic never felt kinder than when it could offer the gift of a good night's sleep.
Mabeuf's face was harmlessly curious. “And do you find them easy?”
“I'm practised at them.”
“So they work reliably.”
She tried hard not to take offence. “Of course.”
“You know,” said Mabeuf, “it really sounds to me like you're not a terrible witch at all. In fact, I think you're very good. That's what makes all this so difficult for you.”
Éponine wondered if Mabeuf would ever run out of goodwill to offer, indiscriminately and artlessly. She stared at her tea.
“It's not... peaceful, is it, this spell you're working on?”
Éponine shook her head.
“Do you want to use it?”
Éponine's tea grew cold, and Monsieur Mabeuf's question remained unanswered.