– CHAPTER 1 – Jewel, Star, and Sea
Matilde is a thousand layers of secrets.
Some sit against her skin, there for anyone who knows how to read them. Others are tucked into a rarefied language only a few girls can speak. Still others have wings, and they are hidden inside her.
She smiles to herself behind her mask.
As Matilde descends the stairs into the ballroom, heads swivel. This is precisely why she made her family wait for over an hour before leaving for Leta’s Season-opening ball. Grand entrances, she finds, are the only kind worth making. Especially during the summer season, when Simta floods with people from all over the Eudean Republic, come to make matches, deals, and fortunes in the City of Tides.
The room is full of finely dressed people, talking and swaying to a tasteful string quartet. It’s clear that many of them have been to Simta’s best trickster tailors, who have outdone themselves enchanting their outfits for the evening. The seed pearls at one girl’s neckline unfurl into flowers. A boy’s evening coat sparks every time someone touches it. Masks smoke, lapels bloom, gloves glow. Matilde is sure there are alchemical potions she can’t see, hidden inside watch fobs and hollowed-out canes. Leta’s added some to her candles so they flame cerulean and emerald and black, her House colors.
Standing here, you would never know that magic is illegal. In the circles Matilde swims in, such laws barely apply.
Her brother, Samson, gazes longingly at Æsa, their pretty housemate, but she is busy staring wide-eyed at the room. After a sidelong glance to make sure their dame isn’t watching, Samson snags a few drinks from a passing waiter and holds one out to her. Æsa shakes her head—the newest Nightbird seems too nervous to enjoy her first proper Great House party. Matilde will have to work on that.
“I wish you had worn what I laid out for you, Matilde,” her dame says.
A dress with frothy skirts, like Æsa’s, and a far-too-tight bodice. The one that made Matilde look like a present wrapped for someone else.
“Really?” Matilde does a twirl. “I’m rather pleased with my choice.”
Her gown is a columnar sheath, with beaded jewelflowers shimmering darkly against wine-red velvet, gathered up at one hip with a golden clasp. She likes how it’s somehow both loose fitting and suggestive. It’s her gran’s from when she was a Nightbird, made over in the newest style. Perhaps that’s why her dame doesn’t like it—she thinks it’s something Gran should have given her instead, just like her Nightbird gift. Intrinsic magic runs through most of the Great House bloodlines, passed down from woman to woman, but sometimes it skips a generation. Matilde doesn’t think her dame has ever gotten over it.
Dame purses her lips. “It’s just the cut is rather . . .”
Matilde smiles. “Rather ravishing?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of risqué.”
Gran smiles in a way Matilde has practiced for endless hours but has yet to master.
“Good fashion is never risqué,” she says. “Only a little daring.”
Dame’s lips pinch together even tighter.
Matilde runs a gloved finger down one of the jewelflowers’ beaded petals. It curls, trickster-kissed to open and close as she moves. Gran has tried to grow real jewelflowers in their garden, but they don’t do well outside the swamps of the Callistan. One bloomed last summer, though, its near-black petals begging to be touched. Gran caught her hand before she could. This jewel’s beauty is her trick,
she said. She lures in prey by looking soft, and once they’re close . . .
She let a ribbon fall, and Matilde watched the flower swallow it, sizzling as the fabric turned to ash.
She thinks of it often, that flower with a secret. Poison in the guise of something sweet.
“Let’s get to our table,” Dame says. “We must survey the Season’s prospects.”
Prospective suitors, she means. The army of bores she will pour onto Matilde’s and Æsa’s dance cards, trying to push them both into an advantageous match.
“Really, Dame,” Matilde says. “We only just got here.”
Her dame lowers her voice. “You’ve already had too many single Seasons. People are starting to talk of it.”
Matilde rolls her eyes. “I’m not a prime cut of meat at market. I won’t start to stink if you leave me in the sun.”
She doesn’t know why Dame froths over the issue—most Great House boys would eagerly wed a Nightbird. They apply to Leta, their Madam, for the privilege, even though they don’t know who they’re getting engaged to. From what Matilde has seen, they don’t seem much to mind. The suitors are Great House born, and always diamonds. But choosing from a small, curated jewel box isn’t the same as choosing for yourself.
She goes to hook an arm through Æsa’s, but Dame beats her to it. Æsa looks like a fish caught on a line. Matilde has the notion that her dame is pushing Samson toward Æsa—not that he needs the encouragement. With red-gold hair, lush curves, and green eyes, she is stunning. She has no money, but being a Nightbird is a dowry all its own.
She wonders if Æsa can see her dame’s machinations. Since she arrived, she’s seemed too homesick for the Illish Isles to see much at all.
“I’ll take a turn first,” Matilde says. “Do a bit of my own surveying.”
Dame frowns. “The last thing we need is you causing mischief.”
Matilde tugs at one long, silken glove. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
Dame sniffs. “You never do.”
Samson closes one eye behind his umber-colored mask, as if he might block out the brewing argument. “Really, ladies. Must we?”
won’t be chastised for the cut of his outfit or made to dance with some sweaty lord with an underbite. Resentment burns hot on her tongue.
“Never fear,” Matilde says. “I don’t imagine I’ll break any rules between here and the refreshments table.”
Dame is clearly about to argue when Gran cuts in.
“Oura, it’s Matilde’s first party of the Season. Let’s allow her to enjoy it.”
Matilde waits as her dame pretends to consider it. She is not the head of House Dinatris, after all.
“Fine,” she says at last. “But don’t be long, Matilde. And no cocktails. I mean it.”
With that, she heads toward their table, tugging Æsa along with her. The girl looks back with don’t leave me
eyes, her bright hair burning in the shifting light. Matilde should rescue her from Dame’s clutches, and she will—eventually. Samson follows, swiping a glass of Leta’s signature cocktail and raising it in a mock toast to Matilde.
Gran turns toward her, the grey-blue sequins of her simple mask winking. “Don’t mind your dame. You know how she worries.”
Matilde adjusts her own mask. “I’ve forgotten what she said already.”
It’s a lie, of course. Dame’s words from that afternoon are still circling. You cannot fly free forever. Eventually you must settle down and build a nest.
Matilde doesn’t want to nest
with someone who only wants her for her magic. She wants the freedom to choose a future for herself.
“She’s right, though,” Gran goes on. “You will have to choose soon.”
Marriage is expected of a Nightbird, so she can pass on her gift to a new generation of Great House girls. It’s practically demanded. The thought makes something tighten in her chest.
Gran adjusts Matilde’s corsage of winglilies, their House’s floral sigil, and gives her a secretive smile.
“I had adventures in that dress, you know. It has tricked many into thinking the girl beneath was soft and biddable.”
Matilde’s lips tilt. “Are you saying you got up to mischief
“Perhaps.” Gran taps the back of her hand with two fingers. “Fly carefully, my darling.”
Matilde smiles at the Nightbird watchwords. “I’ll do my best.”
She weaves through the room, guessing whom she might know and whom she should want to. Matilde enjoys secrets and puzzles, and so she loves the Houses’ penchant for throwing masked summer balls. People grow bolder with their faces covered; they gamble with fortunes and with hearts. It’s easy to tell who isn’t from Simta: They have a shine in their eyes like the wings of newborn flamemoths, dazzled to see so much magic on display. Simta boasts the Republic’s best trickster tailors and alchemists, and those with coin and connections know where their illegal concoctions can be found. Such powders and potions are coaxed out of herbs and earth, crafted by clever hands, and they make wonderful illusions, but it isn’t like the magic that runs through Matilde’s veins. Hers can’t be brewed: It lives inside her, rare and unfiltered. She loves being a secret glittering in plain sight.
She takes a deep breath. The air tastes of flowers and champagne, and the beginning of the Season. It’s a flavor that Matilde knows by heart. If this is to be her last summer as a Nightbird, she’s going to drink in every drop of it.
She reaches for a coupe glass full of Leta’s signature cocktail, Sylva—Dreamer
. The magic in it makes it taste of nostalgia: a favorite childhood treat, a sunny field, a stolen kiss. But as it slides across her tongue, her thoughts turn toward the future. In just a few hours, she will be the Goldfinch for someone.
Whose jewelflower will I be tonight?
Sayer stalks the edges of the ballroom. She is used to being the watcher, not the watched, and it feels like half the dashed room is staring at her. She stares back, fighting the urge to bare her teeth.
Leta’s ballroom reminds Sayer of a mini version of Simta: a series of rings that get prettier and richer as you make your way in. Servants, guards, and butlers stand by the walls, not really a part of things. They’re the Edges. A few steps in you find the strivers trying to look like they belong. They’re the Fringes. A few steps more and you arrive at the Great Houses that form the privileged center of it all. Her dame was one of them once, glowing like the flamemoths that fill lanterns in the Garden District. Of course, that was before she tripped and fell out of their light.
Sayer is supposed to be mingling, but all this glitz and empty talk is making her restless. The bootleg in this ballroom could probably buy a fleet of merchant ships. These people flash magic like gems, a status symbol. Only the best for Simta’s brightest young things.
As a man tries to sneak a peek down her dress, she’s sorely tempted to try and slip something out of his pocket, just for practice. Since leaving Griffin Quarter, she hasn’t had much chance to use her cutpurse skills, and no real need. Leta, her guardian, has been more than generous. Leta’s told everyone that her prickly new ward is some distant cousin from the country. No one seems to have guessed she’s the daughter of the late, disgraced Nadja Sant Held.
Unlike her dame, Sayer grew up across the canals in Griffin’s. They lived above a silversmith’s, in four rooms that smelled of metal polish and dusty castoffs from friends who never came to call. Until a few months ago, Sayer had barely set more than a foot in Pegasus Quarter, even though it was just across the water. It was another world, made wistful by her dame’s rosy stories that all seemed to begin with if only
. If only she had waited for Wyllo Regnis to propose instead of giving in to his desire for his favorite Nightbird. If only he would regain his senses and come to claim them as his own.
Sayer’s magic first started stirring late, for a girl like her: only six months ago. Dame wanted to take her to the Madam to be tested, but she refused. Until her dame’s coughs started bloodying whole kerchiefs, and her if only
words turned slurred and urgent.
If only you would join the Nightbirds. You could bring us back into the light.
Sayer had no interest in joining her dame’s old club, but she promised she would, hoping it would revive her. It didn’t. And then she died, and Sayer found herself alone. Even then, she wasn’t sure she would become a Nightbird. But what else was there? Her options were to scrape together coins as a coffee girl, join a gang, or go to her estranged sire: impossible. So here she is, at the heart of all her dame yearned to get back to. And all she wants to do is tear it down.
She stops to watch a maid set up a coffee service on a side table. The smell takes her back to her days at Twice Lit, where she worked despite her dame’s protests. After all, they needed the coin. She liked the smell of roasted twills and the sound of students at its tables, debating the movements of politics and stars. She liked the urchins and the sandpiper gang boys who hung around the shop even better. They taught her more useful things: how to blend into a crowd, wield a knife, steal with a smile.
A partygoer brushes past the maid, making the stack of plates she’s holding wobble. He uses steadying her as an excuse to move in close. Sayer can’t see his hands, but the maid blushes fiercely at whatever part of her he is touching. The girl won’t complain, though: The man’s a lord. Sayer grimaces. In Simta, all the wrong people suffer.
Sayer steps in. “She doesn’t need your help. Move along.”
The man makes an affronted noise but moves on without protest.
“Oh,” the maid says. “Thank you, miss.”
She bobs a curtsy. The gesture makes Sayer feel annoyed.
“Can I help you set up?” Sayer asks.
The girl’s eyes widen. “Such work isn’t meant for ladies.”
It’s the same thing Dame said when she first got her job at Twice Lit.
Words Sayer will never hear her say again.
She clears her throat, swallowing down the painful weight there. The maid’s refusal is just as well, as Sayer isn’t sure she can bend down in this dress. It’s in the latest style, its drop waist falling just below her hipbones, clinging to her in a dark, blue-black sheath. A capelet drapes down her back, shimmering with tiny beads some tailor’s trickster-kissed to shoot like stars across it.
Smile, my girl,
Leta said when she presented it. You are a walking constellation. One that everyone will want to wish on.
But shining brightly only makes people want to steal your glow.
Later tonight, she’ll become the Ptarmigan: a code name Leta chose for her because of that bird’s adroit camouflage. Sayer’s magic has the power to help someone blend into their surroundings, letting them walk through the world unseen. She doesn’t want this life, but she made her dame a promise. For a summer, at least, she’ll see it through. Leta swore she could keep the Ptarmigan’s earnings; a couple months’ worth will equal more than she could make at Twice Lit in a decade. It will set her up so that she never needs help, or this place, again.
From across the room, Matilde catches Sayer’s eye, crooking a finger. She seems to want the three of them to be a pretty flock of fledglings, sharing outfits and secrets and dreams. Nightbirds are like sisters,
Dame told her once. They are the only ones who will ever truly know you.
But where were they when her dame needed them? Probably laughing around a table at some gilded party like this.
Sayer didn’t come here for sisters. She came to pick these people’s pockets for all they’re worth. After all, she is not a star made for if only
wishes. She’s the kind of star that burns.
Copyright © 2023 by Kate J. Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.