Prologue

Ayanda

            The Venetian Lagoon

            24 February 1865

            Night

Rain pours into my eyes. Seawater burns in my mouth. The frigid waves of the lagoon splash against my chest as I slog through the shallows, my skirts dragging at me like iron mail, the splint Jette bound to my forearm beginning to unravel. My broken arm aches with every move I make. I want to stop, I want to let the waves sweep me away, it’s useless, I’m useless, there’s nothing I can do…

            But they need me…he needs me…

            I tighten my metal hand around Yurei’s, pulling him through the water behind me. The faint gas-lamps of Venice cast just enough light for me to see him, slogging after me, his hair plastered to his mask, hiding his eyes. His steps are weak. For a heartbeat I see straight through him, as though he’s turned to glass.

I squeeze his hand. He needs me…everyone needs me…

            Lightning cracks the dark. The island ahead of me flashes like magnesium. A long, crenellated hulk of a fortress hunches in its center, its stone the color of old teeth, its barred windows squinting like half-sewn eyes.

            Isola di San Servolo. The Island of the Mad.

            The flash fades, but not before I glimpse a stone dock. We struggle towards it, through driving rain that pelts us like stones, struggling on through the muck.

            Need me…they need me…

My hand finds a mooring-post. I grab hold of it, my fractured bones screaming, and drag us to the dock. My skin is so numbed that the cold no longer stings. We cling to the wood, panting. Rain streams into my mouth, garbling my voice as I cough out, “Yurei!”

            He rests his forehead against the post. His voice is the barest whisper. “I’m…well…enough.”

I close my eyes, feeling for the invisible strands that bind me to the Dead of the Court, or a trace of the cold I feel when a vampire is near. But there’s nothing. Every member of the Court is gathered in the lair beneath the cemetery of San Michele, and the three still wandering Venice move quickly, racing in the direction of the island, fleeing.

            The Dead are hiding.

And I haven’t their strength, or their sight, or their senses. I’ve nothing.

            I’m nothing.

            Yurei’s strange, silent voice slips into my ear. “Someone’s coming.”

            Lantern-light glares. I look up, water blurring my eyes. A grizzled man with an oilskin draped over his head and shoulders hefts a lantern over us, yelling through the storm, “What the devil are you doing there, girl?”

            I wipe my eyes and glance sideways. Yurei’s gone, faded.

            I grab the dock’s edge and try to clamber onto the stones, but my drenched skirts weigh me down. The man grabs me by the collar and drags me out of the sea, sending me tumbling onto the dock. The glove that hides my left hand slips over my metallaric fingers. I only just have time to jerk it back into place before the man pulls me to my feet and from the dock. He shoves open a towering iron gate and drags me through, across a dead lawn and through a garden of withered topiaries. The stone wall of the asylum looms out of the rain. The man drags open its barred door and pushes me through it, into a shabby foyer no warmer than the night outside.

            A biting smell tinges the room, sweet, like carbolic acid. A sputtering lamp atop a rickety desk barely illuminates peeling walls studded with dead gaslights. Shadows pool in the corners, thick as ink.

            The man tosses his oilskin away, revealing a white orderly’s uniform. As he goes to set the lantern on the desk, I whisper, “Yurei?”

            “I’m here.

            The orderly turns up the flame, lighting the face of the nearby parlor clock. Half past midnight.

            My heart jolts in my chest. We still have time.

            The cold finally seizes me, wracking me with shivers. I grit my teeth, struggling to stop their chattering. “W-we…I must speak…with a patient.”

            The orderly gapes at me, rain streaming from his beard. “It’s the middle of the—”

            “I must see him!” My voice echoes about the dingy room. “You must know him. An alchemist. Raving mad. Talking of ghosts.”

            Every drop of color leaves the orderly’s face. “He’s a demoniac, siorina.” His collar bobs as he swallows. “I mustn’t—”

            Yurei’s voice hisses past me, deep now, commanding. “Do as she says!

            The orderly’s gaze grows glassy. He blinks hard, as though shaking off a daydream, and murmurs, “This way, siorina.

            He takes up the lantern and motions for me to follow, across the foyer and to a stairwell. The orderly trudges up the low stone steps and Yurei and I hurry after him, trailing water and mud. The cold only deepens the higher we climb, soaking through the leaking walls. The carbolic smell gives way to the stench of mold and human filth. I hear noises from each story we pass, a man singing a nonsense song, a woman sobbing, chains rattling until a crack of thunder drowns them.

            We come to the highest story. The orderly rushes me down a corridor lined with barred cells, the shadowed figures sprawled inside lifting their heads as we pass. The orderly stops at a door at the corridor’s end, thick and weathered and locked with four deadbolts. He draws each back with an agonizing scrape and drags open the door.

            A gust of frigid air wafts over us. The orderly raises the lantern, sweeping its light over a windowless room unlike any I’ve ever seen. The walls are invisible, plastered with papers, turning the stone to molting snakeskin. Inked alchemical glyphs slash across the pages, incomprehensible symbols that mean nothing to me. A black mural curves across the ceiling, showing the eight phases of the moon.

            But the strangeness of the room is nothing compared to what stands in the center of it. A man sits bound to a chair, wrapped in a gray straitjacket. His blond hair has grown long, matted into a filthy tangle. A dirty rag wraps around his face like a blindfold, hiding all but his mouth.

            “You keep him this way?” I whisper.

            “We’ve no choice, siorina!” the orderly says. “You mustn’t be fooled by—”

            A tremulous voice interrupts him. “Wh-who’s there?”

            The man in the straitjacket raises his head, turning it blindly about. “Who is it?” His voice is croaking, slipping through black, rotted teeth. “Who’s there?”

            I can’t speak. I don’t even know this man’s name. I don’t know what I can chance telling him.

            “You must listen to me,” he rasps. He twists in the chair, straining against his bindings. “Someone must listen!”

            Yurei’s unseen hand slips into mine.

            “We…” I strengthen my voice. “I will listen.”

            His hidden face turns towards me. Silence falls, damp, heavy, terrible.

            The rag flutters as he whispers, “You know of them?”

            I nod before I remember that he can see nothing. “You know what they…what these creatures are.”

            He nods.

            “Tell me,” I say. “Please. There isn’t much time—”

            “It’s too late,” he says.

            I almost scream. I want to rush at him, grab him and shake the truth out of him. But Yurei squeezes my hand.

            I collect myself, flattening my voice. “Then it won’t matter if you tell me.”

            The silence thickens. Rain and thunder batter the walls.

            The wooden chair creaks as the alchemist sits back, and begins to speak.

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