The Alchemy of Forever
one san francisco, present day
The late autumn day is oddly hot for San Francisco. The morning fog has lifted and the sun’s rays reach my pale skin, but do not warm me. For the past year I’ve stayed bone white, no matter how much time I spend in the sun, and I’m freezing, all the time. It is always this way when death is near. I’ve put this body through hell, and it’s finally catching up with me.
I wince as I lean back on one of the steel chaise longues scattered around the pool on the roof of my apartment building, a brash glass tower, all angles and blue tints, jutting upward over the SOMA neighborhood. The sunlight
glints off the surface of the pool; it’s almost too bright for me, even behind my large sunglasses. I blink, watching a hummingbird makes his way to the roof deck, zigzagging madly between the ruby-colored morning glory blossoms spilling out from galvanized planter boxes I had bought at the local flea market. I am always amazed when birds appear here, twenty stories up in the middle of the city. How did he know there were flowers? Was it instinct that drove him upward, or blind luck?
When I try to fly away, will I be as lucky and find what I am looking for?
Living like this—the persistent cold, the pain radiating through my joints at a constant interval, the shortness of breath accompanying my every movement—has made my choice for me. For once my body is as weary as my soul. I’ve dragged it all over the globe for six hundred years—it’s time to let go of this life and figure out what comes next. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified, but a thrill of excitement runs up my spine every time I think about it. It’s been so long since I’ve ventured into the unknown.
“I know that look. What are you thinking about?” Charlotte, my best friend, asks as she comes through the glass door to the deck. She carries a tray of iced tea, moisture already beading like wobbly diamonds on the outside
of the glasses. When I take one, the little droplets fall to the ground and immediately turn to steam.
I push my sunglasses up into my dark hair and smile at Charlotte. “Nothing,” I lie. “Just enjoying the sun.”
I can tell no one of my plan to die, not even Charlotte. Cyrus would never let me leave. Not without a fight, and one that I would surely lose. More than anything I want to be free of the man who controls me with his fists, his words, and his iron will—the man who made me what I am.
Charlotte narrows her hazel eyes at me, but says nothing. After two centuries of friendship, I can’t get anything by her, but I also know she won’t pry. I cherish her understanding and acceptance; it is what I’ll miss most when I leave. That and the sunshine, but I can’t afford to think about what I’m leaving behind if my plan is going to work.
Moving around the deck, Charlotte offers drinks to our other friends. Jared pulls out a flask to spice up his, looking every bit the pirate he was when I first met him in 1660, a row of studs and hoops trailing up his earlobe like a rocky coastline. Amelia declines, her white-blond hair gleaming in the sunlight and her deep tan a stark contrast to my milky skin.
When Charlotte approaches Sébastien, his long dread-locks pulled back in a low ponytail, a shy smile flickers
across her face. He leans on the orange metal railing that encircles the deck. I notice his fingers grazing hers as he takes his tea, making her shake her head, slightly embarrassed, her copper curls falling forward in her face.
I have always loved her red hair, which is not so different from the hair she was born with. All of us have had a similar experience: When Cyrus made us Incarnates, we went through periods of trying out different kinds of bodies. Old, young, male, female. But we all found the experience too disorienting, and eventually settled in forms that reminded us of our former selves. I’ve been a different incarnation of myself—brown eyes, long brown hair—for centuries.
The glass doors open once more, and Cyrus, our leader, joins us on the deck. He’s wearing a well-tailored black shirt that sets off his platinum hair and tall, lean frame. Around his neck is the vial of elixir he used to make us Incarnates. I can’t say he’s not beautiful, though the magic I once felt when looking at him has long since dissipated.
He sits next to me, regarding me with his icy blue eyes and running his hands through my hair possessively. I shiver but don’t pull away. “I want to discuss Sera’s party,” he tells us. Yes, the party in my honor. Although it would be more apt to call it an execution.
I sit up, my muscles straining from the effort, and
am momentarily dizzy. When my vision clears, I see the hummingbird fluttering around a cluster of lilies, his wings a red blur.
“It’s going to be at Emerald City,” he announces, and Amelia’s eyes brighten. Emerald City is the most exclusive nightclub in San Francisco. People more important and more beautiful than Cyrus have been turned away at the door.
Jared lets out a low whistle and pulls his chair closer to Cyrus, the metal screeching against the concrete deck. “Pulling out all the stops, eh?”
Amelia chuckles, arching her back toward the sun. “It’s not that often that Saint Sera deigns to take a new body.”
I detect an undercurrent of nastiness, but I don’t let it get to me. She’s right. I’ve been putting off this moment for as long as I could. We get about ten years in a body, even if the body we take is already sick, broken, run down by years of abuse. When we transfer our spirits, the body regenerates. But the energy expended in healing the body is also its doom, leading to organ failure five or ten years down the road. Unlike my friends, I try to stay in a body for as long as possible rather than switching into a new one as casually as I might try on a dress. Even Charlotte has no qualms about killing. It’s the only way for us to stay alive, she says. Why waste this gift?
“My little darling,” Cyrus murmurs affectionately, pulling
me into his lap. I try not to cringe at his touch. “I’m going to miss this body when it’s gone. Only one more week. But don’t worry, we’ll find you another just as beautiful.” Amelia looks away, scowling.
He does love me, I’ve never doubted that. I’m his touchstone, his only link to his real past, to the body into which he was born. He’s told me as much, crushing me in embraces that leave bruises the following day. Seraphina, I would die without you.
What will he do when I’m gone?
Jared and Sébastien will be fine, as long as they continue to follow orders. Amelia will be happier without me—she’s always had a crush on Cyrus. I worry about Charlotte, though. Cyrus has never liked her.
I met Charlotte in New York in the early 1800s. I bought flowers from her at the market in Five Points and, much to Cyrus’s dismay, struck up a friendship with her. I took her shopping for dresses she could never afford on her own, and she regaled me with stories about her seven brothers. When she did not show up at her stand one morning, I sought her out at her home and found her and her younger brother Jack in the throes of scarlet fever.
I begged Cyrus to let me save her, and he finally said yes to shut me up. I don’t think he really considered the
consequences—that I would finally have an ally, someone who knew my true self. I turned her into a killer so I could have a friend, and I will regret that for eternity.
The hummingbird approaches the railing, then dips under it, taking off into the sky. I catch Amelia watching it from her perch two seats down. She was an aerialist when Cyrus turned her and used to “fly” for a living.
Cyrus turns his attention to the group. “Amelia, you’re in charge of the guest list. Under my close supervision, of course.” She beams. “I want plenty of options for Seraphina.”
Plenty of options for himself, he means. He would pick for me—he always did. He has a type: willowy build, long dark hair, Mediterranean skin. She would be a failed model who had turned to drugs or an aspiring poet with a streak of madness who would never live to see age thirty. I stopped caring long ago what my body looks like; I only care that my new host either doesn’t want to be alive or doesn’t deserve to be.
I do have one request. “Amelia,” I say, “please don’t invite anyone too young.”
She smirks at me, but it doesn’t feel cruel. Just matter of fact. “Don’t worry, you can go straight to confession afterward.”
“Jared,” Cyrus continues, “you’re in charge of security. I
don’t want the club staff on this—we need a crew who will be discreet.”
“Of course, Cy.” Jared nods, pushing his black hair off his tattooed neck.
The mention of security sends a jolt of nervous adrenaline through my veins. Jared won’t mess around. He knows this is more than a dance party. Someone is going to die.
I’m trying to control my breathing, which is coming in quick, shallow gasps. I glance down, willing myself to stop fidgeting with the heavy ring on my left hand. Its antique garnet catches the sunlight like a glass of red wine—or blood.
I asked Cyrus to buy it for me a couple of weeks ago, on a fog-swathed day in Hayes Valley. “It’s a Victorian antique,” the saleswoman had remarked. I silently thanked the other customer who drew her attention just then, keeping her from saying more. Because it was more than just a Victorian bauble. It was a poison ring, with a hidden compartment under the bloodred stone. Not much room, just enough for the tiniest pinch of powder or a single pill. It would be enough.
Sébastien, who has been silent until now, shoots me a concerned glance. “You okay? You seem tired.” Next to me, I feel Cyrus stiffen.
“She’s fine,” he says coldly. “Aren’t you?” I can feel the
rage burning under his skin. He hates it when anyone else thinks they know how I feel, as though he’s the only one allowed that ability.
I smile weakly. “I’m just . . . excited.”
Cyrus sighs heavily and stands up, the sun shining around his platinum hair like a halo. “I think I’m done for the day. We’ll continue this later. Sébastien, I’ll need you to work on the DJ lineup.”
Sébastien flashes one of his rare smiles, white teeth brilliant against his brown skin. Music is one of the only things he cares about. Music and Charlotte. When I’m gone, I hope he will comfort her—and protect her. Because if Cyrus suspects she had any involvement in my escape . . . well, he’s killed for much less.