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 unraveling. My broken arm aches with every move I make. I’m so tired, so afraid, it hurts so terribly, it’s useless, I’m useless, but I can’t stop, I mustn’t stop…

They need me…he needs me…

            I tighten my metal hand around Yurei’s, pulling him through the water. The faint gas-lamps of Venice cast just enough light 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 at 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, a pair of gondolas bobbing beside it like floating coffins. We struggle towards it, through the driving rain.

            Need me…they need me…

            My hand finds a mooring-post and grabs hold. The effort makes me scream through my teeth. I drag us into the shelter of a gondola and we cling to the wood. My skin is so numbed that the cold no longer stings. Only the pain in my bones reminds me that I’ve not turned to ice.

Rain streams into my mouth, garbling my voice as I choke out, “Yurei?”

He rests his masked forehead against the post. Another glassy flicker passes over him, nothing like his fading. It’s as though he’s truly vanishing, melting away, piece by piece.

His voice is the barest whisper. “I’m…well…enough.”

I’m afraid to look away, but I can’t help it. I close my eyes and search within my heart, for the dark stain I try never to think of. But I’ve no choice.

I feel for the invisible strands that bind me to the Dead of Venice, the black filaments that stretch from my heart to the hearts of every member of my Court. None are near. Every vampire is gathered in the lair beneath the cemetery of San Michele, and the three still traveling Venice move quickly, fleeing for the island.

            The Dead are hiding.

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

            I’m nothing.

            “Someone’s coming,” Yurei whispers.

            His hand slides out of mine. I turn to catch it again and see nothing but rain. A start of terror jolts through me. “Yurei!”

            His strange, silent voice slips into my ear. “I’m here.

            I breathe again. He’s only faded.

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

            I’m glad my metallaric hand is gloved as I grab the dock’s edge and try to clamber onto the stones. My drenched skirts weigh me down. Before I can slide back into the sea the man grabs me by the collar and drags me onto the dock. He shoves open a towering iron gate and pulls me through, across a withered dead lawn. The asylum wall looms out of the rain. The man opens its door and pushes me into a shabby foyer no warmer than the night outside.

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

            The man tosses his oilskin to the floor, revealing a white orderly’s uniform. His lantern lights the face of a nearby standing clock. Half past midnight.

            My heart jumps in my chest. We’ve still time.

            My lungs begin to ache with rawness. Shivers wrack me. I clench my teeth, fighting to stop their chattering. “W-we…I must speak…with a p-patient.”

            The orderly gapes at me. “It’s the middle of the—”

            “I must see him!” My voice echoes about the miserable room. “An alchemist. Mad. Raving of ghosts.”

            Every drop of color leaves the orderly’s face. The only sound is that of water, dripping from our clothes.

            “He’s a daemoniac,” he whispers. “He’s mad. He tore out his own…” His collar bobs as he swallows. “He’s a monster, siorina. You don’t—”

            Suddenly he cries out, recoiling against the wall as Yurei slips out of nowhere, his yellow eyes ablaze. “So are we.”

            His muscles quiver. There’s a thinness to his voice I’ve never heard. “Perhaps you read of what happened at the Palaso,” he says. “And of us.”

            The orderly’s eyes dart to the desk and the newspaper crumpled atop it.

            “We haven’t come to harm you,” I say. “But we must see the alchemist.”

            The orderly returns to life. He raises the lantern and motions for us to follow. We hurry after him as he crosses the foyer, trotting as though he’s trying to flee from us. I can’t fault him.

            We follow him up a flight of steps. The cold deepens the higher we climb, soaking through the bare walls. The carbolic smell turns 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.

            The orderly leads us to the highest story and a heavy door at the corridor’s end. He draws back five deadbolts with agonizing scrapes and drags open the door.

A gust of frigid air wafts over us. The orderly raises the lantern, sweeping its light over a stifling, windowless room. Leaves of yellowed paper plaster every inch of the walls, turning the stone to molting snakeskin. Inked alchemical glyphs slash across the pages, mad spiky symbols arranged in spirals and jags. A black mural curves across the papered ceiling, showing the eight phases of the moon.

But the strangeness of the room is nothing compared to the shape huddled in the corner, a man curled beneath a rat-chewed alchemist’s coat, cocooned in a nest of loose pages. His blond hair has grown long, matted into a filthy tangle. A bloodstained rag wraps around his face like a blindfold, hiding all but his mouth.

            His voice is a whispering croak. “Who’s there?”

            I don’t know what to say. I don’t so much as know his name.

“Leave me alone. Let me be.” He curls up beneath the coat like a child, muffling his sob. “What more can you want from me?”

Yurei and I look to each other. He shakes his head. I’ve no notion of what to do either.

            The alchemist’s weeping lessens. Silence falls, damp, heavy, terrible.

            “Are you living?” he whispers.

            “Yes,” I say. “We need…perhaps we can help you.”

            He shrinks. “Too late. They’ve come for me. Circling, circling…”

            “You know of the wraiths,” Yurei says.

            Ever so slowly, the alchemist uncurls and pushes himself upright. His hidden face turns to us.  

            The silence thickens. Rain and thunder batter the walls.

            The alchemist whispers, “Where do I begin?”


Four Hours Past


Chapter One

Yurei

            The Most Serene Republic of Venice

            21 February 1865

            Moonrise

            The amber moon drifts high above. The night wind whistles across my mask as I pace across the Shadow Palace’s tiled roof, scattering the last remnants of the day’s mist. The city around me gleams with gaslights, dotted through the canals and lanes like perching fireflies, and the air is lighter, as though Venice has emerged from a sickroom, its fever broken, better.

            But I’m so much worse.

Sweat soaks my new collar and the tailcoat Belle stuffed me into, a black starched straitjacket of a garment she designed herself. I couldn’t escape, no matter how I tried reasoning with her as she chased me around the music room with a cravat. “It doesn’t matter how I look! No one will see me!”

“It’s still the opera!” Belle huffed, the feather in her hair fluttering as she lunged at me. “Now come here this instant!”

            I reach the northern edge of the roof and turn to pace south. What if they don’t like it? What if they think it’s stupid?

            What if they think I’m stupid?

I rub my eyes. I’m an idiot. This was my idea to begin with, when I asked Ayanda in the music room, those weeks ago…

            But that was before the battle, before the Palaso Ducale. Before what happened there.

            The moon beams, soaking me in its glow. They say there’s to be an eclipse tonight. I wonder if what I learned as a child is true, that it’s a bad omen.

            That’s the last thing I need.

            I sigh. At least Venice’s opera company survived the fiend’s attack, or most of them, in any case—

A door opens below. I run to the roof’s edge and reach it as three figures slip through the Shadow Palace’s iridescent disguise and into the lane. Belle whispers, her voice a tendril of vermillion in my head. “Shouldn’t we have told Madrina?”

Ayanda’s voice is silver-white, rippling. “She won’t fret if she doesn’t know.” She shuts the door, though her hand is slow to turn the key. “And we won’t be long.”

It’s time. I can’t hide any longer.

I leap from the roof and land crouching on the paving-stones beside them, making them start. Belle and Jette wear their chimerical illusions, the alchemical disguises that make them seem Natural. Their clothing is as dark as mine, better to blend into the shadows, but Belle’s handiwork adds splashes of light, from the golden locket around Ayanda’s neck to the sparkling pins in Jette’s hair.

All of them are changed. Jette and Belle are brighter, no longer starved and hollow-eyed, and the exhaustion that clung to Ayanda has vanished. Perhaps she can sleep, now that she doesn’t see visions of the fiend and her murders.

            Tiredness washes over me at the thought. I haven’t slept well since—

            The Campanile bell chimes, seven clashes loud enough to crack my skull. Belle adjusts her purple feather, grinning. “Shall we go?”

            We start down the lane, our shadows gliding over the paving-stones. The district is quiet despite the early hour, so deserted that I needn’t yet fade us. Shafts of warm candlelight filter through shuttered windows, glittering on frost-dusted walls, patterning dark canals. Voices slip out into the night, their colors weaving and winding, no longer dimmed with fear.

            I feel Ayanda beside me. Ayanda, so close to me…

            She saw my face, my real face, and didn’t care. And then in the cupola…

But I almost killed her.

            The memory tightens around my throat like a noose, but I can’t fall into it, I can’t see it again…

            I stare straight ahead, fixing my gaze on walls, ground, dangling wooden signs, until the memories sink back into darkness. Then I can breathe.

            I couldn’t, in the cupola. It would have been wrong, unconscionable to say anything else. Ayanda thinks she knows me now, but there’s so much of me that she doesn’t, so much that she can never know.

            No one can ever know me.

            Belle speaks, startling me. “This is rather fun, isn’t it? Just…going about, not worrying about something killing us horribly,” she says. “Or even Naturals murdering us! We do look just like them. And Yurei? What’s—”

            “Not so loud!” Jette hisses.

            Belle lowers her voice. “What is this opera about?”

            I glance back and find all of them looking directly at me, three sets of eyes skewering me. I still can hardly stand to be looked at, to be seen…

            I look back to the lane and dodge a dangling moonblossom. “I-it’s…about a girl. Countess Mircalla von Karnstein. A lyric soprano with a bright yet melancholy timbre, that’s the only voice that will…” Enough of that, that means nothing to them! “I mean…well…”

            I swallow. “Her noble family is decayed, impoverished. She lives in a ruined castle, all alone, until a baron discovers her and they fall in love.”

            Now what?

            I snatch for pieces to describe next. There’s the servant girl who sidles in now and then with a comic aria, but the baron’s clumsy valet had to be replaced after the tenor transformed into a vampire, and the understudy can’t remember his staging and has the director tearing out his hair in clumps—

            Belle sounds plaintive. “That’s all?”

            “No! No, then the werewolf arrives—”

“The what?

            “Yes, he sings too—”

            A cloud of soot stings my eyes. The four of us stop as one, at the mouth of a burned, ruined lane. The smell of char and aethership fuel taint the air. Lone flakes of ash drift lazily, slipping from the hulking skeletons of what were once homes, shops, grand palasi. Bars of moonlight stream through shattered roofs and rafters, casting mottled shadows on the ground.

            This was where the aethership crashed. I saw it happened from the palace, plunging from the sky, the fiend’s Dead creatures swarming it like insects. The fires are long extinguished, the Naturals fled or worse, but their remnants scar the city like a scorch on a map

            I’ve kept away from this place. I’ve seen enough death.

            Ayanda tries to sound resolute, but I can see the thread of gray in her voice. “We don’t want to be late.”

            We begin to walk again, quickly, weaving through the rubble and over canals dotted with rotting fish.

            None of us have spoken of what happened. I’ll be glad if we never do. My nightmares are enough.

            Belle’s voice is too cheerful. “What’s a werewolf, any—”

            Crrrrunch.

            A footstep on ash.

            Cold seizes me, a weight wrapping around me like a frigid fist. I stop so suddenly that Jette knocks into me. Silence slams down, utter, perfect silence.

            The wind has stopped.

Crrrrunch.

            We spin. Jette and Ayanda’s hands go to their sides. Belle looks about wildly, her silver-tipped fingers curling into claws.

My voice is dead in my throat, croaking only inside my head. Run…run, we can’t fight this…

            Crrrrunch.

            A silhouette stirs in the ruins, a man shambling through the remnants of a palaso.His face is gaunt, his cheeks hollow, his black hair speckled with weeds. Water pours from his clothing, streaming from the hems of his black coat. An alchemist’s uniform.

            I engage my weapon, letting its metal weight drop into my hand. The cold encroaches, wafting ahead of the alchemist like a rolling fog. His skin is gray, that of a drowned corpse. Something’s wrong with his movement. There’s nothing Natural in the clumsy bending of his limbs, the jerky swinging of his arms, the tilting and rolling of his head atop his neck. He moves as though he isn’t a man at all, but something wearing his skin.

            Run…run…

            More lurch from the shadows, loose and twisted, broken apart and badly put back together. They stagger over wood and stone, more alchemists, fishers and aethershipmen, dockwomen and sailors, a gondolier. Their joints grind. Their gazes are empty, their eyes rolling as though loose in their sockets, tinted with a glassy, greenish shine.

            The sickening cold sinks into my flesh. I can’t move, can’t think, can’t breathe, can’t scream for them to run, run…

“Ayanda?” Jette murmurs. “Which varianta are they?”

            Ayanda’s gaze darts from one bony face to another. Belle’s voice rises, shrilling with fear. “Ayanda!”

            “None,” Ayanda whispers. Her face is tight, eyes huge, stunned. “They aren’t Dead.”

            The creatures halt, frozen in grotesque positions, so unbalanced that it seems impossible that they remain upright. Jette yanks out her staff. “What do you want?” she yells.

            The creatures make no sound. Moonlight drenches them, gleaming in their eyes, turning them to deformed, broken statues. The night falls silent, the air weighs down.

The creatures’ mouths drop open. Sparks of sickly green light flare in their throats. Their rolling eyes fix on ours, and they bolt at us.

In a second they’re upon us. I fumble with my weapon, turning its weight to a blade, and fling it at the eye of a gondolier. The blade misses, gouging a furrow in its check, but no blood wells. Tendrils of black mist leak from the wound, curling from the creature’s face like feelers.

I reel in my weapon, grab it by the cord and spin the blade over my head like a lasso. The creature advances again, further into the moonlight, and recoils. The feelers of mist begin to wither, dissolving in the moonlight like smoke.

The cold sinks its claws into my spine, weakening my muscles, but I take the chance. I whip my weapon at a broken beam jutting above the creature’s head. The blade lodges in the wood. I wrench the cord, ripping the beam free and bringing it down onto the creature’s shoulders. It falls, writhing under the beam, and begins to rise again.

Jette rushes past me with a roar, transforming as she swings her staff at a lunging dockwoman. Belle’s scream makes me whirl. She grapples with an aetherman clinging to her like a monkey. I run for her, spinning my blade. Sparks crackle from her hands and the creature reels away, its clothing erupting into flames. I whip my weapon at its legs and drag it to the ground. Belle sags, holding her throat, but before I can reach her something seizes me from behind, clamping hold of my shoulders. The hands spin me about. The sunken face of an alchemist stares into mine, her glassy green eyes burning…

            The chaos about us vanishes. Images I’ve never seen pour into my head, a sickening whirl, as though I’ve been hurled into a stranger’s dreams. A fortress of bars and stone towers above me. Two men in white drag another man in an alchemist’s uniform, wrestling him through the doors as he screams, Listen to me! It’s the wraiths! The wraiths! The wraiths are—

            He vanishes. An island rises from the sea, a jagged blot against the stars, its black dead trees reaching from the ground like hands from a grave…

            Distantly I feel something winding around me, ghostly spider strands sinking into my flesh—

            The island disappears. The walls of an ancient, ruined tower surround me, alchemical scrawls burning on its stones. The moon drifts above, shining through the crumbling roof, stained red, a bloodshot eye in the dark…

            The strands sink through my ribs, burrow into my skull, tendrils tightening on something deep within me—

            I see the voice before I hear it, a ribbon of hues, changing like the colors of the sea…

            The colors of a river.

            No…

            The ribbon nears, undulating like a swimming snake, circling, carrying words, a woman’s voice, a woman singing…

            Yuki mo…chiratsuku shi…ko mo naku shi…

            Terror slashes through me and rips out of my throat in a shriek. I tear out of the thing’s grip. The ribbon shatters like ice, but the voice clings to me, coiling around my heart, an impossible voice, her voice—

A yell cracks through the chaos. Ayanda heaves the creature away from me and swings her glaive. The blade slices into its middle and lodges in its spine.

A blow that should have cleaved the creature in two.

Horror dawns on her face. I understand.

            These creatures aren’t vampires. Ayanda doesn’t have their abilities. She’s no stronger than any Natural girl.

            The creature swings about, catching hold of the glaive’s shaft. I throw myself at it and grab its arm, fighting to break its grip, but it wheels again and sends both Ayanda and me sprawling onto the ground. A scream bursts from Ayanda’s throat. She clutches her arm, gasping, tears flooding her eyes.

            I grab her metallaric arm and drag her to her feet. The creature turns to face us again, and has no time to do anything else. Jette hurtles out of the shadows with a raging snarl. The head of her staff smashes into the thing’s skull, bursting it into a cloud of mist, bone and brains.

            Jette sways on her feet, her eyelids fluttering. The black flees her eyes and hair, her ash-gray skin fades to white. Her knees buckle and I lunge to catch her, holding her upright as Belle screams, “Run! Run!

            Ayanda grabs Jette’s other arm. We drag her across the square as moaning, hissing corpses stagger about to follow us. Belle stands at the lane’s end, violet sparks crackling at her fingertips, locks of hair drifting around her head like tentacles. She draws back one hand and hurls are blast of volta at the burned palaso’s wall. Thunder cracks like a bullwhip. The wall bursts into rubble and steam. In an avalanche the entire palaso begins to collapse, dissolving into a storm of dust and cinders.

            Jette sags. Ayanda and I drag her, following Belle out of the square, running out of the scarred ruins. But an echo of a voice chases me, a rotten worm burrowing into my brain.

            Yuki mo…chiratsuku ki…ko mo naku shi…

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