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Crimson Prince Chapter One

New York City. A world of witches and blood.

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d

In one self place; but where we are is hell,

And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Christopher Marlowe, “Doctor Faustus”, Act ii, Scene i

1. INSOLENCE OF OFFICE

The townhouse in the Upper East Side had an air about it, the sort which hinted at its status as the home of the leader of the city’s coven. Many would kill to be the Witch Queen and live within its very walls.

Paris Fonnereau was not one such witch. Having had his childhood as the son of said Witch Queen, the company his mother kept was not what he had wanted. Nor did he particularly enjoy it.

The Inner Circle of the Coven always gathered here for Thanksgiving, ever since the establishment of the Coven. Paris just had to grit his teeth and bear the invasive questions as well as he could.

It was his punishment for refusing to be an active member.

A pleasure for the one dishing it up, he was sure.

The menace herself swung the heavy front door open and leered. “Are you still pretending to be human?” Holly Cranston never failed to rile him up.

Paris pushed past her as he made his way up the marble steps. “I’m sure it’s much more exciting than licking my mother’s boots, or kissing her ass.”

It was an unspoken secret that Anne Marie Fonnereau was kind to those who subjugated themselves to her absolute power.

Someone shoved Holly aside.

The Coven’s Seer, Amaryllis, raised her immaculate eyebrows and smirked. She said nothing, just led them around a corner and into the dining room. Her bleached dreadlocks, streaked through with neon dye, swished behind her, almost whacking Holly in the face with every step she took.

Aunt Marguerite had already taken her seat. Her young son, Remy, had his cousin Antoinette tempting him towards the sitting room and the promise of crappy kids’ shows. Marguerite had a white-knuckle grip on Remy’s shirt.

Antoinette’s father, Jean-Baptiste, must have been helping Anne Marie in the kitchen.

Paris ignored Antoinette’s attention-seeking cries, and the helpless pleas of Remy, and took his place to the left of the table’s head seat.

It was the Coven’s Second who sat to the right; it relegated the heir to the left hand.

But family get-togethers such as this were a minor inconvenience to the response from the business consultant he’d hired for his “human charade,” so he turned his back on Aunt Marguerite’s scathing looks to answer the emails on his start-up company.

Holly Cranston drew Marguerite’s attention away from him. The kids saw their chance and ran off. Paris had far too many emails to deal with this.

If Chris were here, he’d say something about his anti-social tendencies. Jeff would just insult witches.

But neither of them was here, so Paris suffered alone through the loud and pointed discussion from the other end of the room. Marguerite and Holly were both of the opinion that Anne Marie’s child-rearing skills needed improvement.

His hair, just as auburn as the rest of the Fonnereau clan, was too messy to have left the house in. His clothing, despite the similarities to Amaryllis’ alternative tastes, was nothing more than a cry for attention. And why hadn’t he done something about the white streaks in his hair?

Marguerite, who’d been complaining of this since he’d been old enough to even have hair, knew full well that no amount of dye or enchantments could remove the streaks. Everyone in the coven had tried.

He drew the line when they commented on how thin he was.

“When you ladies,” he told them, “have quite finished comparing me to rakes and rails. Our illustrious leader has just got out of her cab.”

They tipped their chairs over in their haste to meet his grandmother. Estelle Fonnereau couldn’t leave well enough alone. Despite her official abdication of power, she still held the reigns of the coven.

Estelle’s raised voice indicated she was, yet again, berating Holly for daring to say a word against Anne Marie.

“It is unbecoming,” said Estelle, “for the Most Favoured of any coven to insinuate her leader cannot raise a child in a manner befitting the greater good of the city. And it is atrocious to suggest such a thing from a Fonnereau.”

Paris watched as Anne Marie, flanked by Jean-Baptiste and Megaera, the Coven’s Third, left the kitchen to send away anyone not immediate family.

“If you cannot behave as an adult,” Anne Marie told Holly, “you will not stay in my home.”

Amaryllis stepped forwards, dreads still swaying with her movements. “My Queen,” she said, “a divided Coven isn’t wise. We were planning a meeting tonight, and—”

“We’ll have it tomorrow.” Anne Marie pushed her hair away from her face. She had bags under her eyes, her pinched face tight around her mouth. “The meeting will be over breakfast.”

Amaryllis nodded and pulled Holly out of the house. Megaera slunk after them.

Anne Marie turned to Jean-Baptiste and Marguerite. “Find the children, then help me move everything into the dining room.”

Estelle grabbed Paris by the arm and yanked him towards her. “Why don’t we eat in the kitchen? Jean can find the brats, and Paris can tell me why he’s playing with the humans.”

Paris gaped at her. “I’m not playing with the humans.” His protests fell upon deaf ears, but he decided he didn’t care and continued anyway. “I’m establishing a business empire in the age of the internet. I’ll be famous and own a million bucks.”

Marguerite looked affronted. “But you’re the heir to the throne of the city. You’ll lead this coven to greatness. And yet you insist on throwing it all away right alongside your heritage?”

“I’m removing myself,” Paris said through gritted teeth, “from the petty dramas of this coven.”

“You’re a part of this coven, nephew, and you’ll do well to remember that.”

“This coven is the mob of the witch world.” Paris’ hand twitched with the need for a cigarette. “I want no part of something so soul consuming.”

Marguerite’s eyes narrowed. “You’d place the humans above your own family?”

“I want to leave behind the blood and murder soaking this family’s collective hands. I want to live as I want to. If that means placing humans first, then I will.”

The last thing he saw, before he turned to leave the house, was his mother’s disappointed face watching him from the kitchen.

The door slammed behind him with all the subtlety and grace of a cannonball.

When morning dawned, a biting chill came with it. Paris left his Tribeca apartment early to ensure he arrived before the crush of New York traffic could catch up with him. Paris also wished he’d worn a thicker jacket.

Coven meetings were notorious for starting late, but everyone always arrived at least half an hour before the scheduled start time.

Anne Marie had sent the mass text last night. She wanted to start as close to nine o’clock sharp as possible. It was five minutes past when Jean-Baptiste returned to the dining room after setting the kids up in front of the television.

From the way he placed his buttocks on the chair, it did not impress Aunt Marguerite.

“Now that we’re all here,” she said, “we can begin.” She cut her bacon with a grating scrape of metal on fine porcelain.

Holly hid her wince behind her cup of tea. Paris took a savage bite of his toast in return.

“Yes,” said Megaera, with more enthusiasm than should be socially acceptable before noon. “The matter of the traitor. How are we going to set an example for the rest of the Coven? We can’t just let John go free.”

“Burn the bastard,” was Estelle’s contribution. When every head turned in her direction, she bared her teeth to bite a chunk out of her toast. “One powerful lesson now, and there’s less fuss further down the line.”

“What lesson are we imparting, exactly?” Paris asked, hiding his grimace with feigned interest. “Are we telling them not to mess with the Circle, or not to betray the Coven?”

Marguerite snorted into her orange juice. “They’re the same at this point.” She sipped her juice, her eyes never leaving Paris. “We are the Coven. Everyone else is there to look pretty for the other cities.”

Estelle slapped her upside the head. Amaryllis remained silent while Marguerite whispered something to her. Jean-Baptiste and Anne Marie exchanged some glance between them that Paris would not decipher without a refill of coffee.

He’d much rather watch shitty reality TV than discuss death sentences over a fried breakfast.

“Must this be a death sentence?” he mumbled around a dry mouth and roiling stomach. “Can’t we settle for public humiliation or something like that?”

Megaera and Marguerite looked as though he’d personally offended them. Jean-Baptiste, Estelle and Anne Marie had that disappointed expression he hadn’t seen since his childhood.

Amaryllis set her cutlery down. “Estelle is right. One harsh punishment now and people pay attention. It’ll be easier in the long run when we can remind them of our loss.”

Your loss,” Paris muttered into his coffee, “since I will not remain a member of this Coven.”

“You are,” Estelle almost snarled, “a member of this coven by virtue of your blood. You have the blood of the Fonnereaus running through your veins. We who escaped the persecutions time and time again in Europe before I brought us to this new land. You will accept your place here, or you won’t be here at all. You’re the sole heir to the throne of the Coven. Accept your place, or risk excommunication.”

Paris got to his feet a hell of a lot steadier than he felt. “Then I’ll save you the trouble and remove myself from the premises.” His heart almost burst from his chest with how fast it pounded against his rib cage. “I don’t want to be part of something where my status in the coven depends on who my mother is. I’d rather be a human and live my life in ignorance of it all.”

He left before they could say anything, the soundtrack of their snide remarks and general inane chatter following him as he took a seat on the front steps.

He lit a cigarette with shaking hands to calm his nerves. He wanted fortitude before he braved the bustle of the main streets.

The human rumours had always been right, he knew. His family were criminals in all but name.

The front door squeaked open behind him, then it banged closed loud enough to make him jump. Amaryllis’s signature chunky books appeared within his eyeline. Her asymmetrical skirt flared out as she sat beside him.

She gave a wry smile. “Don’t you hate it when she does that?”

Paris snorted as he tried not to bite down on the filter, though the cigarette hung from his lips. “At least she’s not outright threatening to kill me now. Why doesn’t Jean-Baptiste just replace me as heir? He’s better at the whole being a witch thing than I am.”

Amaryllis materialised her own cigarette. Paris had a suspicion it came from the pack in his pocket. “We’re a monarchy of the old traditions, firstborns of the firstborns only, I’m afraid. Just be glad they didn’t sacrifice you to the Patron at birth. Estelle was all for it when she learned you were going to be a boy.”

“Only the females will do, huh?” Paris flicked the end of his cigarette with hands which were no longer shaking.

She grinned around the cigarette. “We’re the best, and you know it!” She blew out the smoke, and her face hardened. “Why don’t we meet up in a few hours for an early lunch? We can talk more there.”

“Exercising your duty as the Seer of the Coven to prevent scandal before it hit the main coven?” he asked her with a mocking grin.

“As your friend,” she said, “I feel I have expert knowledge to impart to you. But should I do so, I would diminish my title as the Great and All-Knowing Prophetess.” She took a drag, then blew the smoke in a cloud. “We’ll have to wait awhile for you to get worked up wondering what I have to say. When in Delphi, and all that.”

Paris stubbed out the cigarette butt on the rim of his mother’s plant pot. “Has anyone ever said you’re mad?”

She just laughed, grinding the remains of her cigarette under her heel. “Only when I want to be, and even then, only when I say something they don’t want to hear. I’ll see you later, kid.”

They left the steps in opposite directions.

And despite being a few blocks east of the Fonnereau townhouse, Paris spent the wait for Amaryllis in the Full Moon Café with copious amounts of coffee in a variety of flavours.

The current contender for the new favourite was a caramel cappuccino.

He’s also reached fifteen duck face selfies by the time Amaryllis had taken her seat with a teacup of red tea and a single gingerbread cupcake.

“All right,” she said, breaking off a chunk of the cupcake to nibble, “let’s get down to business.” She sipped her tea with all the grace of a queen, as not as though she’d just imitated a mob boss from a gangster movie.

“How are we doing this?” Paris placed his cell phone on the scratched and tacky vinyl of the table. He feared for its integrity. “Are we reading tea leaves or pulling apart a dead chicken?”

The look Amaryllis gave him in response could rival his mother’s at its best. It was all pinched lips and narrowed eyes. He could already feel his dick shrivel.

“Tarot cards,” she said through a locked jaw. “They’re a timeless tool to divining the future. But you are going to do all the work.”

He gave the classic reply of a confused grunt when she started at him in pointed silence while expecting an answer.

She sighed and pulled the card deck from somewhere. When she tipped the deck onto the table, Paris could see the intricate drawings had faded into monochrome. The white had aged well into a pale yellow around the tattered corners.

“The point of the cards,” she gathered them up in a practiced move and shuffled them with ease, “is to ask for guidance about the future. Ask the cards an open-ended question, let your hand find a single card in this case, and its meaning will help you to make your choice.”

“So I ask the cards ‘what is my future in the coven?’” Paris said, “and just pick a card. The card tells me the answer.”

“Not exactly.” Amaryllis spread the cards in an arc across the table. “The cards will guide you to the answer you see. Now pick a card and get on with it.”

Paris picked the card at the pinnacle of the spread, turned it over, and dropped it on the table. The stern face of a man seated on an ivy-covered throne stared up at him. In the man’s left hand was a pentagram. The other grasped a sceptre.

“Ah,” said Amaryllis, “the King of Pentacles. He’s a business owner, but the cards have many meanings. This one can also mean evil and vice. Corruption is a common theme for this card.”

“So is the Coven corrupt?” Paris frowned. “I think even the humans know the Coven’s corrupt.”

“Nothing is certain with Tarot cards. And nothing is as clear cut as we want it to be.” Amaryllis sipped her tea again. “We don’t have any context beyond your involvement, since you were the one to pick the card. Do you end the corruption, or do you cause it? The card suggests there’s a business owner involved, or a business, at least. Maybe the Coven itself is the business.” She stared off into some middle distance.

“I think,” Paris said, the sharp suddenness making Amaryllis jump and bang her elbows on the table, “the Coven is the corrupt business. And I’m going to turn my back on it all.”

Amaryllis gave a wry little smile. “No-one has ever been successful at leaving the Coven. You’ll come crawling back eventually, just like everyone before you. You’re in this for life, there’s no escape from it, no reprieve.”

“I’ll find a way,” he promised, more to himself than to anyone else. “I’ll leave this life behind and make my own way in the world.”

Amaryllis snorted into her tea. “You’ve said that for the last decade. Start acting on your promises and perhaps we’ll start believing you. You’ll come crawling back before the month is out, you just wait and see.”

Paris growled. “This time,” he said, “I have something to run to. I’m starting my own business. I’ll be something to remember. I don’t need my mother, or the Coven, to become something great.”

Amaryllis bit into her cupcake and frowned. “You could say the King of Pentacles is a corrupt entrepreneur, but it’s always down to the interpretation. We all interpret the cards in our own way.”

“I don’t want any part of the Coven,” he said. “You know this. I don’t want to kill anyone or do anything strange like have a bonfire in Central Park where the flames are blue.”

She laughed. “We have never had a fire with blue flames.” She tapped a nail against the china teacup. “Just think this over and decide where your loyalties lie. At the very least, just remember that if your mother dies, it’ll be you who leads the coven next.”

“And until that day comes,” he said, “and let’s hope it’s a long time yet, I’ll be building my own empire. Away from the Coven and its shit.”

“You can’t,” she smirked. “You’re expected to witness the execution tomorrow. Show your face and present a united front to the rest of the Coven. It sends the message, after all, not to mess with the Inner Circle.”

Paris groaned, downed the last of his coffee, and left her to pick up his tab.

Anne Marie requested his presence for lunch via the esteemed services of the text message.

Paris stood on the porch for near to a minute, waiting for his watch to declare it was on the hour.

The door swung open before he could knock, though, and Amaryllis gave him a tight smile as she slipped past him.

“They’re in the kitchen,” she said, not stopping for anything but the waiting cab at the curb. She was speeding away before he could so much as say hello, tires squealing on the asphalt as the driver took her somewhere which wasn’t his mother’s house.

He toed off his shoes just to the right of the door. Mud anywhere but the foyer wasn’t something Anne Marie would tolerate.

He paused under the arch to the kitchen when he heard Holly’s shrill tones.

“He’s just not leadership material,” Holly bitched. He could imagine her pacing while waving a spatula about. “He’s not good at anything but pissing around and ignoring his duties. You should have drowned him at birth, Marie, that’s what they used to do with the runts of the family.”

Paris could feel his hands tremble. They always did when he wanted to punch someone, but he stopped himself, just as he always did.

He waited. Anne Marie wasn’t the type of person to let him get away with wiping the floor with the Most Favoured of the Coven.

But then Anne Marie’s voice sang out, soft but strong and ready for anything.

“He’s still my son, Holly.” The clatter of a knife on a wooden board rang loud. “If I wanted to draw attention to the Coven, I’d listen to you on parenting matters. As it is, he’s got to learn for himself there’s no place in the human world for people who don’t fit in. His hair along would raise suspicions if it wasn’t already known that he’s my son.”

“So you agree,” Holly said, “that we shouldn’t give him the coven.”

“No,” said Anne Marie, her heels clicking against the flagstone floor of the kitchen. “That’s not what I said at all. I only agree that he’s not ready yet. He will, in time, learn what it takes to lead this Coven, but first he needs the right push.”

“The right push,” Holly muttered, her voice creeping closer to the doorway.

Paris stumbled backwards onto the staircase. If they caught him eavesdropping, there would no doubt be a mocking and ribbing about what listening into conversations got him.

He bumped into something, a side table or something with a sharp edge capable of jabbing him in the back. Whatever was resting on top of it shattered on the floor.

Shit, he thought, pressed up as he was against the stairs. Holly and Anne Marie came tearing out of the kitchen at the noise.

Paris stared down at what he’d knocked over.

A vase, once a vibrant sunflower yellow and now only used for colourful decoration in the foyer, lay in pieces on the herringbone hardwood floor. It wasn’t one of Anne Marie’s favourite vases. She placed those in the sitting room, and the single berating he’d received for almost destroying one still haunted him.

But it was the first thing anyone saw when they entered the house.

“You,” Holly snarled, beating Anne Marie to the post by a single second, “are the absolute worst. A terrible witch, and an even worse adult. Your incompetence at anything you turn your hand to will one day get all of us killed, or at the very least expose us to the humans.”

Paris opened his mouth to respond, but Anne Marie got there first.

“Get it out of your system now, Holly. I don’t want this lunch to be another example of why I was wrong to choose you over Megaera for the best witch for the job.”

Holly seethed, her lips pinched as she glared at Paris through narrowed eyes. But she remained silent as Anne Marie herded them both into the kitchen and had them sit on opposite sides of the kitchen table.

Anne Marie stood over them with her hands on her hips. The disappointed expression returned in full force. “Don’t make me send one of you to eat alone in the breakfast nook.”

They all sat and remained in silence. Paris ignored Holly’s attempts to get a reaction out of him. Her faces and gestures going unnoticed by Anne Marie as she described how she’d pay him back later.

Paris remembered what Anne Marie had been like when he was a child, how she still treated him as a child.

He was twenty-three, and she’s still sent him into Time Out five times this year alone.

Anne Marie brought over two bowls of pumpkin soup, the last bowl and the basket of crusty bread rolls floated behind her.

Once everything was in its proper place, they waited for Anne Marie to take the first bite.

Paris restrained himself from flicking parts of his roll at Holly. Previous experience taught him Anne Marie would lock him outside for an hour to ‘cool off’, no matter how necessary irritating people were. He’d let Holly take that particular punishment.

Anne Marie kept her narrowed her eyes at both of them, and he knew she was waiting for them to crack and do something.

Paris lasted until they were clearing the bowls from the table to load into the dishwasher. He threw a spoon at Holly while Anne Marie’s back was turned.

Anne Marie only caught sight of Holly reaching out with hooked fingers ready to strangle her son.

He took this as his cue to make a hasty advance in the opposite direction.

He gave a quick smile to Anne Marie. “I’ve got to get to the office,” he said, ignoring Holly’s sarcastic eye roll as he inched towards the door. “We’re getting ready for the official launch tomorrow.”

Anne Marie nodded, and even gave him a hug before she was pushing him into the foyer. “Tell me all about it later.”

He didn’t look back as he left for the office.

The office space was rented and on the third floor of an office block with a fantastic view of Times Square. The rooms themselves comprised a few rows of computer banks with double glass doors leading to a smaller, more personal office.

His office, with a panoramic window overlooking the crowded square.

It cost more than a space that size should.

Paris grinned when he caught sight of Chris trying, and failing, to connect one computer to the mainframe. His dark skin glistened with sweat as he jabbed the back of a monitor with the cable.

“What’re you doing?” he asked, watching as Chris jumped and landed on his ass.

“Shit, man,” Christ glared, but it ruined the effect when he broke into a smile, all white teeth and crinkled eyes. “What took you so long to get here? I’ve been here all morning working on your business venture.”

“I told you.” Paris pulled one of the swivel chairs out from under the desk to straddle it. “Mom called me to a lunch, but Holly was there. It was so awkward, I swear to God, I could have beat her to death with a spoon if I didn’t think Mom would send me to the naughty corner.”

“Well,” Chris stood and rolled his shoulders with some audible clicks and cracks, “you can start by setting up the stationary over on that table over there.” He pointed to a lone table on the far side of the room. “One the rare chance some fuckers forgot their pen, it’s best to provide some. I counted them, by the way, I’ll know if some end up in your loft. I left the complete inventory on your desk.”

“If it’s necessary.” Paris went to tip the boxes and packets of cheap pens into a pot. “I still think something bad’s going to happen.”

Chris, the Eternal Optimist, and Paris, the Pessimist, had turned a common conversation into a bet. The fate of starting a business in the city and how likely they were to succeed.

Paris turned to face Chris. “The office could blow up. Nothing gets done this smooth.”

The papers had cleared in record time, and a benefactor showed up just when they’d almost run out of money. While Paris had believed a downfall was imminent, Chris had run a hand over his buzz cut and went all serious.

“Paris,” he’d said, “don’t question the good shit, and the good shit stays.”

And Chris kept repeating it, even when the computer fired up in a series of screen flashes and whirs.

And now, when the desk in his office was set up to a perfectionist’s standards, the main office doors burst open. And there stood Holly Cranston, in all her sexy and curvaceous glory.

Chris might as well have been drooling. Paris just sighed and stared.

“What are you doing here, Holly?” he asked, planting his feet between the femme fatale wannabe and the human.

“Can’t I visit the little witch who wants to play at being human?” She pouted. It would have looked better on a child. “It’s strange, you must be the only witch in the city who wants to get away from such a loving coven.”

“That’s not why you’re here.” Paris could see Chris from the corner of his eye. He shifted until he no longer could. “Why don’t you go back to kissing my mother’s ass?”

Holly’s face flickered through many expressions, her olive skin eventually settling on a burning red hue. She screeched, flinging her arms up.

The furniture rattled as a miniature hurricane swept around her, drawing into the vortex everything not tied to the floor.

But Paris wasn’t about to let her beat him. Not when the woman thought she could pull off the imitation of the Seer. Holly had styled her dreadlocks after Amaryllis, after all.

He cast a quick glance at Chris, who wasn’t in danger of impending unconsciousness by way of a floating table. He rolled his eyes, huffed out a breath, and felt for the magic in the room. He could sense the burning thrum of the amber electricity running under the floor, even through his rubber-soled shoes.

The swirling mass surrounding Holly threatened to extend throughout the room. And Paris didn’t want to put Chris in any more danger.

Paris snapped his fingers, and the electricity jumped from the cables to Holly. She started enough to drop everything in a heap.

She growled, but the swirling energy dissipated.

Paris gave in to his inner child. “Is now the time to say I’m telling Mom on you?”

Chris gave a startled laugh as Holly stalked out of the room with her proverbial tail between her legs.

Paris spun to face Chris; he expected a horrified expression.

Chris just raised a single eyebrow at him. “That certainly explains how the bullies in fifth grade ended up on the roof when there weren’t any trees or walls near the building.”

Paris would never admit he giggled an octave higher from the sheer relief of Chris not running away screaming.

But Chris wasn’t finished yet.

“Now, explain to me what that woman meant when she said ‘coven’. You owe me a mocha for the shit you put me through.”