HE’D BITTEN through his lip again. Blood made a Rorschach pattern on Luc’s pillow, and he flipped it over, only to find the other side similarly daubed. His sheets smelled of blood and the alcohol he’d sweated out overnight. Luc grimaced and shoved out of bed, then briskly stripped the pillowcases and sheets. Laundry day was overdue anyway.
“And vat do you zhink this image says, Mr. Marling?” he asked in a terrible Swiss accent as he crammed his sheets into the laundry basket. “Well, I suppose it says something about curses,” he replied in his normal voice. He glared at the overfull basket. “Like how, if I didn’t have one, I’d be able to spell all this clean. Hells, without it I wouldn’t make such a mess in the first place.”
His imaginary therapist didn’t respond. Typical. No one in Luc’s family discussed the curse, even the members who were entirely make-believe.
After switching out last night’s clothes for his most comfortable sweats, Luc checked the time on his phone. Still early; he could shower and start the laundry in the main house before his parents returned from their Saturday-morning shopping. They worried for him, he knew. They’d worried about him for a long time.
Twenty-two years old and still hiding his laundry from his mother. Luc rubbed his face. He needed to get a better job, get a place, sort out his life. Maybe try writing again. He’d moved into his parents’ garage conversion as a stopgap between university and his glittering future, but a year later, he was well on the way to regressing into the little cursed kid in need of shelter from the big bad magic-using craft world.
He hated being that kid the first time around. He had no desire to revert any further.
Yet magic seemed to be everywhere Luc looked lately, despite users being in the minority. It was like a song he couldn’t get out of his head, playing in every shop and bar: there was the corner supermarket with ready-to-use charms at the checkout, the beauty salon offering ever-growing extensions, a banner outside the local primary school advertising a special pathway for craft-gifted kids. Luc didn’t know if everyone noticed those things or if his curse attuned him to their presence. He could’ve asked his family, but then they’d have to speak about the curse.
He checked the leather cuffs around his wrist. He didn’t look. Looking made the cuffs—and the curse they prevented from fully taking hold—too real. He traced the stitched symbols with his fingertips and ran his thumb beneath the band, the skin sensitive, as it had been hidden since Luc was a toddler. Present and correct. The symbols on the cuffs were beginning to fray, and the colors fade, but that could be due to a lifetime of accumulated sun exposure or the ingredients in his soap. Their fading didn’t necessarily imply anything about the magic of the cuffs. Luc blew out a breath. He’d change his handwash. Everything would be fine.
“Zis is not getting your laundry done, arsehole.”
He grabbed a change of clothes and his laundry and headed out.
LUC SANG along with his phone as he showered, rinsing away his latest poor decisions. He emerged from the bathroom in a billow of citrus-scented steam, checked the stitching on his cuffs and yanked on his clothes, and faltered at voices from downstairs. Holding his breath, he eased the bathroom door closed. The low murmuring stopped, and Maman called upstairs.
“Luc? Darling? Is that you?”
“Either him or the cleanest burglar in Birmingham.” His sister, Eloise. She’d been tending bar in Spain for the summer and would head to the family chalets in France for winter. She’d worked there for years, finding something about the village charming despite Les Menuires being so tiny they only had the one craft bar, last Luc heard.
Although maybe a place with only one craft bar would be better than Birmingham, which had an entire city quarter devoted to magic users. Luc rolled his eyes. Like he needed to stay out of trouble that badly. He could control himself. He locked eyes with his reflection in the hall mirror, who seemed skeptical about the idea.
“What’re you doing up there, Luc?” Eloise yelled. “Is the mirror talking to you?”
“That’s right, I’m the prettiest of them all!” Luc yelled back. He carefully arranged his wet hair to cover the small scars along his hairline. “Has your goggle tan faded yet?”
He grinned when Eloise let out a squawk of protest. Eloise had returned in spring with an obvious tan line delineating where she’d worn ski goggles for months. She was embarrassed but justifiably smug, considering she spent the winter in a ski resort and Luc spent it folding T-shirts at H&M.
Luc eyed his reflection. He’d look much better with a tan. Slowly, as the seed of an idea took root in his brain, he smoothed down his long-sleeved shirt and tugged it over his cuffs. He pictured himself in his ski gear and thought about the cold Alpine air. He weighed the idea against nights in Birmingham spent winding himself ever more tightly into a knot of frustration. He didn’t need help staying out of trouble, sure, but he did need a change.
Luc needed to take an exit from the motorway of his shitty life. With the idea firmly germinated in his brain, he leaned over the banister. Eloise stood at the bottom of the staircase, battered rucksack by her feet and phone in hand. Tall and fair-haired, Eloise took after their British father, where Luc—lean and olive skinned, with thick dark hair—was a copy of their French mother and barely any taller. As children Eloise drew friends and admirers without a thought, while Luc kept his own company.
Luc had dearly wanted an excuse to hate Eloise as a teenager. As they grew, he moved on to merely resenting the four inches of height she had on him.
“Eloise? Can I borrow you?” he asked.
Eloise grinned up at him. “You forgot I was visiting, didn’t you? Or were you distracted by your latest—”
“Hilarious, I’m sure, but seriously. A minute, please?”
“Of course, hang on.” Pocketing her phone, Eloise came upstairs and grabbed Luc into a hug before releasing him and leaning against the banister. “What’s wrong?”
Luc hesitated, second-guessing his decision. But at least it would be his decision. He’d made so few of them.
“I want to come to France with you.”
Though Luc had braced for dismissal, none came. Instead Eloise angled a considering look at him. Luc shifted in place. The five years between them seemed enormous when Eloise looked at him like that.
“I think that’s a great idea,” she said. No mention of the curse at all.
Relief washed through Luc, and he slumped against the wall. To his embarrassment, his eyes pricked with tears, and Luc wiped at them, rolling his eyes self-deprecatingly. Eloise grabbed him into another hug, resting her chin on top of his head until he lightly pinched her side.
“Hey! We were having a moment. And your hair’s soaking, so you know I meant it.”
“I’m allergic to emotions, you know that,” Luc said, extricating himself from her hug. He rubbed his arms. He couldn’t always handle physical closeness.
Eloise huffed a laugh. “Sorry, I got excited. You know, like—”
“Luc! Come and help me in the kitchen. Your father will get Eloise settled,” Maman bellowed from downstairs, saving Luc from whatever teasing Eloise had in store. He jabbed Eloise in the ribs and stuck out his tongue when she squawked.
He joined Maman in the kitchen, where she gestured to the kettle. “Fix the tea, darling.”
Luc filled the kettle, set it to boil, and leaned against the counter, shivering as water from his hair dripped down his neck. There were hair-drying charms available in Boots by the fistful, but of course he couldn’t make them work; he’d lost most of an eyebrow to a malfunctioning charm when he was a kid and far less vain, and hadn’t dared try one since.
Therefore Luc’s hair continued to drip while Maman bustled around him, fixing food as conversation struck up in the living room. From what Luc could hear, Eloise was telling one of her seasonaire anecdotes. Luc grinned, wondering if he’d have his own stories soon.
“I didn’t realize Eloise was visiting, sorry,” Luc said as Maman shooed him to the end of the counter. He started arranging biscuits on a plate.
“She called yesterday. While you were out,” Maman said pointedly.
Luc pulled a face where Maman couldn’t see. He tried not to be an ungrateful brat, aware he lived rent free by the loving grace of his parents, but he struggled after the independence of university.
“It’s good she came by, though. She’s given me an idea,” he said, opting to change the subject.
“What idea is that, darling?”
“I’m going to France with her.”
Maman dropped the bread knife. The chatter in the living room stopped, only to start again in furious whispers. Luc wished himself in there with Eloise and their father.
“Before you say anything—”
Too late. Maman surged to life. “But what about your condition? If anything happens—the village is quite old, you know, and mountain crafters can cling to old-fashioned ideas.” Maman spoke quickly, as if she could change Luc’s mind with speed alone. “And you’ve never been interested in the chalets before, darling. I thought you wanted to write. What’s brought this on?”
Luc waited a beat to check his mother had finished. Then he drummed his black fingernails on the counter. Maman caught the movement, and her mouth twisted. Some cursebearers had heightened senses, or speed, or strength; Luc had a permanent manicure. His “hooves.”
“That’s just it,” Luc said. He stuck his hand in his pocket. “I’m tired of everyone seeing the curse when they look at me—or not the curse, thanks to the cuffs, but they know something. I’ve seen it. And even non-craft kids would know if they spent five minutes thinking about it, thanks to those bloody craftumentaries. I want to start new somewhere, even for a little bit.”
Maman didn’t get it. None of them did. The Dufour curse took one male in every generation, and the last cursebearer—Maman’s brother, Oncle Thierry—couldn’t share his experience; a few years after Luc was born, Thierry disappeared. No one explicitly blamed the curse for Thierry vanishing, but no one spoke about him. The only parts of him remaining were the magical cuffs he had discovered, which prevented the nightly shift and which Maman received in the mail not long after he disappeared. When he got older and learned where the cuffs came from, Luc figured Thierry was dead, even if no one would admit it.
If it weren’t for the strange inheritance of his cuffs, Luc would likely have been lost years ago. Among other things, the cuffs helped Luc retain his mind when switching forms, not that he changed often. Big shifters were rare, according to his research and Curses Anonymous, and no one had agreed if they were metas or something different. Luc kept to human shape, as he didn’t fancy being an academic curiosity, to say nothing of the value he’d fetch on the black magic market.
And lately he didn’t change because he feared he wouldn’t be able to change back.
On the positive side, the latest studies put craft users at around one in five, which meant the majority of the population didn’t give a shit about cursebearers. Or at least they hadn’t until Ava Gloss appeared on Curses Anonymous. Even if half the stories on the television show were straight-up fictional and two-thirds were craft-gone-wrong rather than true curses, viewers didn’t care. Old-school “fairy tale” curses like Luc’s were increasingly rare thanks to the passage of time and the greed of hunters, but the show had interviewed the Lentowiczs about their cursebreak on Ava Gloss and showed people how to look for things that didn’t fit either mundane or meta. And thanks to the cursed singer’s high profile, the episode seemed to be permanently on repeat.
It might be fine for Ava Gloss to talk about her former curse, but people like Luc would be vulnerable if discovered. He hoped they didn’t get the same shows on French Netflix.
And he hoped the fading symbols on his cuffs were due to his soap and not anything more sinister.
As if reading his worries, Maman sighed and smoothed back Luc’s hair like she’d done when he was a kid. “Promise me you’ll be careful, Luc. You know your father and I worry about you.”
“I’m old enough to worry about myself.”
“You’ll never be too old for us not to worry about you, darling.”
Luc’s cheeks warmed, and he mumbled something even he didn’t understand. Maman seemed to, if her soft expression meant anything. She smoothed his hair again and turned away to finish dinner, speaking as she worked.
“If you wish to go, of course I wish that for you as well. The mountain sun will be good for you. You’re looking pale. And you can finally work on that book you keep telling us about. We’re all looking forward to it, you know.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Could you please get the plates?”
Crouching down to go through the cupboard, Luc gathered the crockery and narrowly avoided bashing his head against the shelves. He mentioned wanting to write a book once—okay, maybe twice—and his mother had never let him forget it. But if Maman distracted herself with Luc’s Great Unwritten Novel, she wouldn’t be thinking about his curse, or cuffs, or that Solstice would happen while he worked in France. Magic went strange around then, and Luc had always spent high magical days with his family. Not to mention if his cuffs ever broke, he’d be stuck changing every damn night, with the corresponding vulnerability.
Luc’s literary pursuits were definitely a better place for his mother to direct her concerns.
Luc rose to his feet and stacked the plates on the counter. “Do you need anything else?”
“Only for you to be happy.”
Luc leveled a look at his mother. Maman kept the solemn expression for a heartbeat before giggling and waving her hands at him.
“Go on and tell your father the news. And maybe you will finally meet a nice girl, yes?”
“Maman. I’m still gay.”
She waved her hands again. “Very well. A nice boy, then.”
Luc firmed his smile. Nice boys weren’t interested in people like him. He didn’t see how living up a mountain would change that.
“Sure, maybe I’ll meet someone,” he said to keep the peace. He brushed a kiss to his mother’s cheek and grabbed the plates to carry them into the living room. His thumbnails were dark against the porcelain.
“Here he is!” Eloise announced. She shuffled over on the sofa. “We were just talking about you.”
Their father helped Luc arrange the plates, then leaned back on his armchair. The movement dislodged one of the journals on the arm of his chair, causing a paper avalanche. Everyone ignored it; Father had been researching craft for decades, and they’d grown used to finding articles and magazines everywhere in the house.
“Eloise says you’re going with her this time?” he asked.
“That’s right.” Luc paused in the doorway on the way back to the kitchen. “I suppose I should find my passport.”
“And you’ll be careful, son? No more fighting?”
Luc resisted the urge to sigh. The question was valid. Fifteen and heartbroken, Luc had taken the end of his first relationship—too many secrets, Matthew said—as a sign to avoid connections altogether. He distracted himself with fighting until university and bars made casual sex easy to find.
He nodded. “I’m over that stuff.”
“And I’ll be there,” Eloise added. “Don’t worry.”
Luc raised his eyebrows at Eloise and grinned. “Well. Maybe worry a little bit.”
He returned to the kitchen before his exit could be ruined, and he nearly collided with Maman. Steadying her grip on the tray, he took it from her and tilted his head for her to go into the living room first. As she passed, Maman cupped his cheek. Luc remembered the gesture from after a group of hunters had tried to grab him before he had Thierry’s cuffs, when he was small and frightened and knew only that his mother loved him no matter what.
She wanted him to have a good time, to be happy, to write his damned book. And who knew? A few months in the mountains could clear the cobwebs. Until then Luc could find entertainment with single men on vacation and looking to waste time with a willing body. Luc had one of those, didn’t he?
Not that he’d mention that part to his mother.
“You are certain about this?” Maman asked. When Luc nodded, she beamed. “Then I am happy for you. And just think, all that snow for Solstice! Won’t it be wonderful? So magical.”
Like magic wasn’t the entire problem with their family.
LUC UNPACKED his suitcase in the room he and Eloise would share for the season. Shoving his stuff into the old wooden furniture, some already decorated with fairy lights, Luc reminded himself it would only be a few months. And he’d look amazing with a tan, as long as he avoided goggle lines.
He might’ve become a little nervous between Birmingham and France, okay?
The chalets were owned by Luc’s tante Corinne, Maman’s sister, and located in a small ski resort called Les Menuires. Maman had been a Dufour when she fell in love with a British tourist, and they lived in Les Menuires a few years before moving to the UK. Eloise had inherited her romantic nature, Maman said, while Luc inherited her stubbornness—and the Dufour curse. Eloise had worked as a chalet host for years and loved it, though Luc never fancied leaving the city. But people changed.
“And here we are,” he muttered to his reflection. His hair fell over his scars, and he made sure to smooth out his scowl. They’d gone straight into Solstice season on arrival, with half the trees in the village already thick with lights. Everywhere a reminder something might go wrong for him.
Still, festivities aside, the opportunity to ski every day held appeal, and Luc didn’t even have to deal with customers. Tante Corinne had explained Eloise and their cousin, Amandine, would be chalet hosts, cooking and cleaning for up to eight guests a week, with Luc helping out as general handyman, driver, and extra pair of hands. With Luc to assist, they’d all get a decent amount of time on the slopes. He even brought his seen-better-days laptop in case inspiration struck.
Luc poked at the fairy lights draped around the mirror. If he stole one of the bulbs, the whole thing would turn dark and stop being so irritatingly cheerful.
“I can hear you plotting in there. Stop it.” Eloise leaned against the doorframe, arms folded, her snowman sweater rumpling into even uglier patterns. Although exhausted after the flight and transfer through the winding roads of the Alps, not to mention the stress of anticipating the sunset and wondering if tonight would be when his cuffs finally broke, Luc could find some extra energy to lose for the knitted monstrosity.
“I’m not plotting. But seriously, Solstice isn’t for weeks. You know that, right?”
Eloise sighed. “Even if the date had somehow slipped my attention, you’ve mentioned it six times today.”
“I have a lot of feelings.”
“Trust me, we’re all very aware of your feelings. The whole of Les Menuires is aware of your feelings.” Eloise pushed off the doorframe and looked at him pointedly. “Now are you going to mope in here all day, or are you going to help?”
While Luc could make a strong argument for moping, he decided against it. Best to save something in the tank for when they least expected. He grabbed his coat and followed Eloise outside. He stood on a thin layer of snow and inhaled the crisp, cold winter air. Like coming home.
One of the smaller resorts in the area, Les Menuires held nostalgic fondness for Luc. He’d spent a week throwing himself down mountains every winter until starting university, and despite the draw of bigger and brighter resorts like Val d’Isére and Val Thorens, Les Menuires would always be home away from home. Strange to return without Maman and Father, though. Like a rite of passage no one had mentioned.
The Dufour Chalets were tucked away in the Les Fontanettes area of Les Menuires, a short walk from the center where most hotels were located. The Dufours had owned the chalets since Grandfather Lucien—Luc’s namesake, and another bearer of the curse—left the family farm in Toulouse to pursue a life of fondue and alpine jumping back in the 1960s, landing on his financial feet when the area was later developed into a ski resort as part of Les 3 Vallées.
Some said he’d been looking for a cure for the curse too, but all he found was snow.
“Luc, help chop firewood!” Amandine’s no-nonsense voice broke into Luc’s brooding, her French-accented English as familiar as the mountains. They’d agreed to speak English at the chalets… unless complaining about a guest. “If we complete the chores, later we will try the wines.”
Eloise might try to jostle Luc into the—extremely preemptive—festive spirit, but Amandine tended toward straightforwardness. Wine offered a good bribe, but the axe in her hand made the most convincing argument. Bearing a strong resemblance to Audrey Tautou, Amandine could bench-press twice her own weight and had little patience for shirkers. Luc hurried to help.
He didn’t look at the sun.
FOLLOWING AN afternoon of cleaning and repairing, sunset came almost as a relief. Amandine retired for the night, threatening an early start the next day. Eloise lingered in the kitchen, clattering about as she took inventory. Despite the offer of wine tasting, Luc claimed exhaustion and turned in for an early night; he’d had an unpleasant shock after stumbling across the family tapestry. He’d forgotten about the damn thing until Amandine switched around various decorations and it came to rest in the hallway instead of out in the trash where it belonged.
As a kid Luc loved tracing his name in the bespelled fabric, his fingertips tingling as the gentle charms reacted with his curse. He imagined the lives of people he’d never met and never would, delighted to be able to trace his family back until the names blurred.
Then he grew older and started wondering which bastard had cursed him.
Now the very concept of the tapestry drained him. All that history he failed to live up to. Luc hated it. But it wasn’t the only reason for his early night: he’d been resisting the urge to scratch across the top of his skull for hours, like his absent antlers were in velvet. When he was younger, Luc scratched fit to burst skin at the points where the itching centered. Thin silvery scars in his hairline served as permanent reminders of his familial legacy, and he grew out his hair to cover them.
Dressed in boxers and one of his many long-sleeved shirts, Luc curled up on his twin bed in the room he shared with Eloise. He’d turned off the lights, leaving the soft glow of Eloise’s fairy lights reflecting like starbursts in the mirror. They reminded him of something he’d seen as a kid, some floating charms in a shop window around Winter Solstice. He couldn’t remember the arrangement of the display, only how Maman and Father tightly gripped his hands when they found him.
Thierry had disappeared—died—that year. Luc hated Solstice.
He fussed with the buckles on his cuffs and traced the symbols. He could redraw them from memory, though he’d never discovered their meaning. The language of cursebreakers was a secret one, passed down from generation to generation, and they didn’t share. Even for television crews. Cursebearers had to try their luck with each cursebreaker anew, paying their money and hoping this one would prove fruitful. Hoping this one wasn’t a hunter in disguise.
Cursed or not, Luc recognized a losing bet when he saw one. He was relieved his family had abandoned the search for cursebreakers; better to burn out under a curse than go bankrupt chasing false hope. Sometimes he felt guilty about future Dufours, but he quashed the stray thoughts. The guilt wasn’t his to bear.
Luc gasped as a bolt of lightning shot up his spine and burst from the top of his head. He flinched wildly, knocking something from his bedside table, and heaved for breath when the shock finally released him. His hands trembled.
The bedroom door slammed open, light carving into the room. Eloise stood in the doorway. “Luc? Are you okay?”
Luc’s heart beat hard in his chest, surely so loud Eloise could hear it. He swallowed around his fear, thankful for the dark. “Knocked something over. Don’t worry.”
“Are you sure?” Without waiting for an answer, Eloise carefully navigated the furniture to crouch by Luc’s bed. Lights flickered colors over her hair. “You’re looking pale.”
“It’s the altitude. Need to get used to it, is all.”
Eloise frowned but got to her feet. “Have some vegetables tomorrow. I know what you’re like.”
“I’m not a kid!”
“Keep telling yourself that. See you in the morning, Prancer.”
Luc jerked up to throw a pillow at the doorway as Eloise walked through it, fear temporarily forgotten. The brief flash of amusement sank as Luc did. He curled up, tightening his fingers around his legs when a shiver made his muscles cramp and release in rapid succession. He clamped his teeth around a cry as a violent tremor gripped him in its brutal fist. Tears burned his eyes. The curse had never affected him in such a way. If he knew what god was listening, he would pray. As it was, Luc hoped the altitude, or relocation, or some French soap even, had affected the curse. Anything other than his cuffs’ failure.
Welcome to France.