The Venetian Lagoon
21 February 1865
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. 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, my skin 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 mooring-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 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.
“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 the man grabs me by the collar and hauls me onto the dock. He shoves open a towering iron gate and pulls me through, across a withered 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 clock. Half past midnight.
My heart jumps in my chest. We’ve still time.
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 says. “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 as Yurei slips out of nowhere, his yellow eyes ablaze. “So are we.”
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 cell at the corridor’s end. He draws back five deadbolts with agonizing scrapes and drags open the door.
A gust of dank 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. 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. 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 wet rasp. “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 retreats 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 real?” he whispers.
"Yes,” I say. “We need…perhaps we can help you.”
He shrinks. “Too late. They’re coming for me. Circling, circling…”
“You know of the wraiths,” Yurei says.
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 murmurs, “Where do I begin?”