The French Quarter was thinking about war again.
Booms echoed across the neighborhood, vibrating windows and shaking the shelves at Royal Mercantile—the finest purveyor of dehydrated meals in New Orleans.
And antique walking sticks. We were flush with antique walking sticks.
I sat at the store’s front counter, working on a brass owl that topped one of them. The owl’s head was supposed to turn when you pushed a button on the handle, but the mechanism was broken. I’d taken apart the tiny brass pieces and found the problem—one of the small toothy gears had become misaligned. I just needed to slip it back into place.
I adjusted the magnifying glass over the owl, its jointed brass wings spread to reveal its inner mechanisms. I had a thin screwdriver in one hand, a pair of watchmaking tweezers in the other. To get the gear in place, I had to push one spring down and another up in that very small space.
I liked tinkering with the store’s antiques, to puzzle through broken parts and sticky locks. It was satisfying to make something work that hadn’t before. And since the demand for fancy French sideboards and secretaries wasn’t exactly high these days, there was plenty of inventory to pick from.
I nibbled on my bottom lip as I moved the mechanisms, carefully adjusting the tension so the gear could slip in. I had to get the gear into the back compartment, between the rods, and into place between the springs. Just a smidge to the right, and . . .
I jumped, the sound of another round of fireworks shuddering me back to the store—and the gear that now floated in the air beside me, bobbing a foot off the counter’s surface.
“Damn,” I muttered, heart tripping.
I’d moved it with my mind, with the telekinetic magic I wasn’t supposed to have. At least, not unless I wanted a lifetime prison sentence.
I let go of the magic, and the gear dropped, hit the counter, bounced onto the floor.
My heart now pounding in my chest, the fingers on both hands crossed superstitiously, I hopped off the stool and hurried to the front door to check the box mounted on the building across the street. It was a monitor with a camera on top, triggered when the amount of magic in the air rose above background levels—like when a Sensitive accidentally moved a gear.
I’d gotten lucky; the light was still red. I must not have done enough to trigger it, at least from this distance. I was still in the clear—for now. But damn, that had been close. I hadn’t even known I’d been using magic.
Already pumped with nervous energy, I jumped again.
“Good lord,” I said, pushing the door open and stepping outside onto the threshold between the store’s bay windows, where mercantile was mosaicked in tidy blue capitals.
It was mid-October, and the heat and humidity still formed a miserable blanket across the French Quarter. Royal Street was nearly empty of people.
The war had knocked down half the buildings in the Quarter, which gave me a clear view of the back part of the neighborhood and the Mississippi River, which bordered it. Figures moved along the riverbank, testing fireworks for the finale of the festivities. The air smelled like sparks and flame, and wisps of white smoke drifted across the twilight sky.
It wasn’t the first time we’d seen smoke over the Quarter.
On an equally sweltering day in October seven years ago, the Veil—the barrier that separated humans from a world of magic we hadn’t even known existed—was shattered by the Paranormals who’d lived in what we now called the Beyond.
They wanted our world, and they didn’t have a problem eradicating us in the process. They spilled through the fracture, bringing death and destruction—and changing everything: Magic was now real and measurable and a scientific fact.
I was seventeen when the Veil, which ran roughly along the ninetieth line of longitude, straight north through the heart of NOLA, had splintered. That made New Orleans, where I’d been born and raised, ground zero.
My dad had owned Royal Mercantile when it was still an antiques store, selling French furniture, priceless art, and very expensive jewelry. (And, of course, the walking sticks. So many damn walking sticks.) When the war started, I’d helped him transition the store by adding MREs, water, and other supplies to the inventory.
War had spread through southern Louisiana, and then north, east, and west through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the eastern half of Texas. The conflict had destroyed so much of the South, leaving acres of scarred land and burned, lonely cities. It had taken a year of fighting to stop the bloodshed and close the Veil again. By that time, the military had been spread so thin that civilians often fought alongside the troops.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t lived to see the Veil close again. The store became mine and I moved into the small apartment on the third floor. We hadn’t lived there together—he didn’t want to spend every hour of his life in the same building, he’d said. But the store and building were now my only links to him, so I didn’t hesitate. I missed him terribly.
When the war was done, Containment—the military unit that managed the war and the Paranormals—had tried to scrub New Orleans not only of magic but of voodoo, Marie Laveau, ghost tours, and even literary vampires. They’d convinced Congress to pass the so-called Magic Act, banning magic inside and outside the war zone (what we called the “Zone”). (Technically, it was the “MIGECC” Act: Measure for the Illegality of Enchantment in Conflict Communities. But that didn’t have the same ring to it.)
The war had flattened half of Fabourg Marigny, a neighborhood next door to the French Quarter, and Containment took advantage. They’d shoved every remaining Para they could find into the neighborhood and built a wall to keep them there.
Officially, it was called the District.
We called it Devil’s Isle, after a square in the Marigny where criminals had once been hanged. And if Containment learned I had magic, I’d be imprisoned there with the rest of them.
They had good reason to be wary. Most humans weren’t affected by magic; if it was an infection, an illness, they were immune. But a small percentage of the population didn’t have that immunity. We were sensitive to the energy from the Beyond. That hadn’t been a problem before the Veil was opened; the magic that came through was minimal—enough for magic tricks and illusions but not much else. But the scarred Veil wasn’t as strong; magic still seeped through the rip where it had been sewn back together. “Sensitives” weren’t physically equipped to handle the magic that poured through.
Magic wasn’t a problem for Paras. In the Beyond, they’d bathed in the magic day in and day out, but that magic had an outlet—their bodies became canvases for the power. Some had wings; some had horns or fangs.
Sensitives couldn’t process magic that way. Instead, we just kept absorbing more and more magic, until we lost ourselves completely. Until we became wraiths, pale and dangerous shadows of the humans we’d once been, our lives devoted to seeking out more magic, filling that horrible need.
I’d learned eight months ago that I was a Sensitive, part of that unlucky percentage. I’d been in the store’s second-floor storage room, moving a large, star-shaped sign to a better spot. (Along with walking sticks, my dad had loved big antique gas station signs. The sticks, at least, were easier to store.) I’d tripped on a knot in the old oak floor and stumbled backward, falling flat on my back. And I’d watched in slow motion as the hundred-pound sign—and one of its sharp metallic points—fell toward me.
I hadn’t had time to move, to roll away, or even to throw up an arm and block the rusty spike of steel, which was aimed at the spot between my eyes. But I did have a split second to object, to curse the fact that I’d lived through war only to be impaled by a damn gas station sign that should have been rusting on a barn in the middle of nowhere.
“No, damn it!” I’d screamed out the words with every ounce of air in my lungs, with my eyes squeezed shut like a total coward.
And nothing had happened.
Lips pursed, I’d slitted one eye open to find the metal tip hovering two inches above my face. I’d held my breath, shaking with adrenaline and sweating with fear, for a full minute before I gathered up the nerve to move.
I’d counted to five, then dodged and rolled away. The star’s point hit the floor, tunneling in. There was still a two-inch-deep notch in the wood.
I hadn’t wanted the star to impale me—and it hadn’t. I’d used magic I hadn’t known I’d had—Sensitivity I hadn’t known I possessed—to stop the thing in its tracks.
I’d gotten lucky then, too: the magic monitor hadn’t been triggered, and I’d kept my store . . . and my freedom.
Another boom sounded, pulling me through memory to my spot on the sidewalk. I jumped, cursed under my breath.
“I think you’re good, guys!” I yelled. Not that I was close enough for them to hear me, or that they’d care. This was War Night. Excess was the entire point.
Six years before, the Second Battle of New Orleans had raged across the city. (The first NOLA battle, during the War of 1812, had been very human. At least as far as we were aware.) It had been one of the last battles of the war and one of the biggest.
Tonight we’d celebrate our survival with colors, feathers, brass bands, and plenty of booze. It would be loud, crazy, and amazing. Assuming I could manage not to get arrested before the fun started . . .
“You finally losing it, Claire?”
I glanced back and found a man, tall and leanly muscled, standing behind me. Antoine Lafayette Gunnar Landreau, one of my best friends, looked unwilted by the heat.
His dark brown, wavy hair was perfectly rakish, and his smile was adorably crooked, the usual gleam in his deep-set hazel eyes. Tonight, he wore slim dark pants and a sleeveless shirt that showed off his well-toned arms—and the intricate but temporary paintings that stained his skin.
“Hey, Gunnar.” We exchanged cheek kisses. I cursed when another boom sounded, followed by the sparkle of gold stars in the air.
I smiled despite myself. “Damn it. Now they’re just showing off.”
“Good thing you’re getting into the spirit,” he said with a grin. “Happy War Night.”
“Happy War Night, smarty-pants. Let me check your ink.”
Gunnar obliged, stretching out his arms so I could get a closer view. New Orleans was a city of traditions, and War Night had its own: the long parade, the fireworks, the spiked punch we simply called “Drink” because the ingredients depended on what was available. And since the beginning, when there was nothing but mud and ash, painting the body to remember the fallen. Making a living memorial of those of us who’d survived.
The intricate scene on Gunnar’s left arm showed survivors celebrating in front of the Cabildo, waving a purple flag bearing four gold fleurs-de-lis—the official postwar flag of New Orleans. The other arm showed the concrete and stone sculpture of wings near Talisheek in St. Tammany Parish, which memorialized one of the deadliest battles of the war, and the spot where thousands of Paras had entered our world.
The realism lifted goose bumps on my arms. “Seriously amazing.”
“Just trying to do War Night proud. And Aunt Reenie.”
“God bless her,” I said of Gunnar’s late and lamented aunt, who’d been a great lover of War Night, rich as Croesus and, according to Gunnar’s mother, “not quite there.”
“God bless her,” he agreed.
“Let’s get the party started,” I said. “You want something to drink?”
“Always the hostess. I don’t suppose there’s any tea?”
“I think there’s a little bit left,” I said, opening the door and gesturing him in.
Gunnar was a sucker for sweet tea, a rarity now that sugar was a luxury in New Orleans. That was another lingering effect of war. Magic was powerful stuff, and it wasn’t meant to be in our world. Nothing would grow in soil scarred by magic, so war had devastated the Zone’s farms. And since there were still rumors of bands of Paras in rural areas who’d escaped the Containment roundup and preyed on humans, there weren’t many businesses eager to ship in the goods that wouldn’t grow here.
There’d been a mass exodus of folks out of the cities with major fighting—New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mobile—about three weeks after the war started, when it began to look as though we weren’t equipped to fight Paras, even on our own soil.
There were plenty of people who still asked why we stayed in the Zone, why we put up with scarcity, with the threat of wraith and Para attacks, with Containment on every corner, with Devil’s Isle looming behind us.
Some folks stayed because they didn’t have a better choice, because somebody had to take care of those who couldn’t leave. Some stayed because they didn’t have resources to leave, anywhere to go, or anyone to go to. And some stayed because they’d been through hard times before—when there’d been no electricity, no comforts, and too much grief—and the city was worth saving again. Some stayed because if we left, that would be the end of New Orleans, Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville. Of the culture, the food, the traditions. Of the family members who existed only in our memories, who tied us to the land.
And some folks stayed because they had no choice at all. Containment coordinated the exodus. And when everyone who’d wanted to get out was out, they started controlling access to the Zone’s borders, hoping to keep the Paras and fighting contained.
No, staying in the Zone wasn’t easy. But for a lot of us—certainly for me—it was the only option. I’d rather make do in New Orleans than be rich anywhere else.
We’d tried to make the best of it. In the Quarter, we’d solved the scorched-earth problem by planting things in containers with “clean” soil. I had a lemon tree and a tomato plant in the courtyard behind the store, and I got more fruit and produce from the small roof garden shared by a few of us who still lived in the Quarter. We’d taken over the terrace that had once been a fancy pool and cabana at the abandoned Florissant Hotel, turned it into a community garden. Containment had done the same thing at the former Marriott to provide supplies for the agents.
War made people creative about their survival.
Owning one of the few stores left in the Quarter also had some advantages. Because so many of my customers were Containment personnel, I’d been able to get goods from the military convoys that crossed the Zone. It also helped that Gunnar worked for Devil’s Isle’s Commandant. Of course, that had unfortunate personal implications, too. Gunnar didn’t know about my magic, and I had no intention of telling him. That would be bad for both of us.
Gunnar followed me inside to the small curtained area behind the front counter. It was the building’s “kitchen,” and held a small blue refrigerator that had lived (thank God) long past its prime, a gas stove, an old farmhouse sink, and a few stingy cabinets.
I sighed with relief at the burst of cold air from the fridge. Gunnar moved beside me, and we stood in front of it for a moment, savoring the chill.
“All right. Let’s not waste the cold while we’ve got it.” Consistent power was another rarity in the Zone. Magic and electricity didn’t mix, which made the electrical system unstable. Keeping the lights on and the city dry were constant battles.
Considering that, it made sense to finish the tea while it was still good and cold. I grabbed the cut-glass pitcher and poured the rest of the tea into two plastic hurricane cups.
The pitcher had come with the store; the cups were my contribution.
Gunnar sipped, closed his eyes in obvious pleasure. “You could steal a man’s heart with this.”
I took a drink, nodded. “It’s good, but it hasn’t done much heart stealing so far.” My last go-round hadn’t been successful. Rainier Beaulieu had been tall, dark, and handsome. Unfortunately, when he told me I was the “only one,” he’d forgotten to mention “right now.”
I’d been in a lull since that little mistake. The Zone wasn’t usually a draw for the young and eligible.
Gunnar grinned. “It’s War Night. Everything could change.”
That was the best part of it: Anything seemed possible. “My fingers are crossed. Feel free to keep an eye out.”
“I love playing your wingman.”
“I can wing my own men. You’re just the scout. How are the crowds?”
“Emboldened by the heat,” Gunnar said with a grin. “And embiggening. It’s gonna be a helluva night out there.”
“War Night always is,” I said, but knew exactly what he meant. New Orleans could never be accused of shyness, and War Night would be no exception.
He glanced at the wall clock. “Tadji’s meeting us at the start. How much longer till you close up?”
Tadji Dupre was the third in our friendship trio. “Fifteen minutes if I keep her open until six.”
“Be a rebel,” he said. “Close early.”
Funds were hard to come by these days, and I wasn’t one to turn down even fifteen minutes of business. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t be missing big sales tonight. People would be thinking about jazz and booze, not dried fruit and duct tape.
Some of that jazz bloomed outside, and we walked back into the front room, drawn by the music.
Half a dozen men in brilliantly colored suits, the fabric and elaborate headpieces covered in feathers and beading, filled the sidewalk. They were the Vanguard, New Orleanians who’d served in the war and organized the first War Night parade six years ago. A few had been the feathered performers known as Mardi Gras Indians, and they’d brought some of those traditions into this celebration.
One of members stopped, tapped a dark fist against the window. I grinned back at Tony Mercier, a silver whistle between his teeth, a black patch covering the eye he’d lost in the Second Battle. Tony had fought with the Niners from the Ninth Ward. And now he was the Vanguard’s Big Chief.
He pointed down the street, signaling their destination, and then back at me. That message was obvious: They were heading to the starting line, and it was time for me to join them.
“I’m leaving soon!” I called out, and waved them on. They shuffled down the sidewalk, followed by a second line band that grooved to notes wrought through worn brass. A tuba marked the beat, a trombone and trumpet pushed the rhythm and melody, and half a dozen men, women, and children with tambourines, silver whistles, and homemade drums danced behind them.
The song, the instruments, and the parade were bittersweet reminders of life before the Veil had opened. But they were also reminders of what made New Orleans so amazing: its creativity, its traditions, its willingness to band together and face down a common enemy.
I rejected the idea that I was part of that common enemy. And besides, tonight wasn’t about fear or regret. Tonight was about life, about experience, about celebration.
“All right,” I said, grinning at Gunnar. “Lock the door. Let the good times roll.”
“Laissez les bon temps roulez,” he agreed.
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