Read an Excerpt
One of his hands tugged cruelly at her hair as the other squeezed her throat. Miss Temple could not breathe—he was too strong, too angry—and even as part of her mind screamed that she must not, that there must be another way, she ground the revolver into the man's body and pulled the trigger. It kicked against her wrist with a deafening crack and Roger Bascombe was thrown into the cabin wall. The red imprint of his fingers marked her windpipe, but his shocked blue eyes—the fiance who had cruelly thrown her over—showed only dismay at her betrayal. His gaze punctured her heart like a blade. What had she done? She stumbled, aware for the first time that her feet were freezing, that she stood in six inches of icy seawater. The airship had spiraled into the ocean. They were sinking. She would drown.
Dimly, Miss Temple heard her name—Celeste! Celeste!—the calls of Doctor Svenson and of Chang. Her memory seemed two steps behind . . . they had climbed to the roof, with Eloise. She must follow, it was her only chance to survive . . . but she looked again at Roger, crumpled and wan, and could not move—would they die together after all? But then something nudged Miss Temple's leg. She cried out, thinking of rats on a ship, and saw it was another body, floating with the rising water . . . the Comte d'Orkancz, alchemist savant who discovered the blue glass, run through with a saber by Cardinal Chang. Miss Temple forced herself to slog past the dead man's bulk, barely able to feel her legs. Other bodies loomed as she crossed the cabin, each more gruesome than the last . . . Francis Xonck, with his flaming red hair and elegant silk waistcoat, shot by Doctor Svenson . . . Lydia Vandaariff, decapitated with a blue glass book . . . the Prince of Macklenburg, legs broken clean away. Miss Temple crawled up the stairs, the foaming water keeping pace as her fingers clawed the cold metal. The cries above were fainter. With a piercing shock she remembered the one body she had not seen, the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza . . . had she jumped to her death? Had she somehow hidden and killed the others? Was she even then waiting for Miss Temple?
The cold salt water reached her throat, splashing at her mouth. Her arms became too heavy to lift. Behind lay Roger . . . her terrible guilt. Above floated the open hatch. She could not move for the ice forming around her legs, locking her joints stiff. She would perish after all, just as she deserved . . .
Miss Temple woke—weak, starving, and riddled with aches—to a sour-smelling room with dark raw-cut beams above her head. A single smeared window framed the feeble light of a heavy, cloud-covered sky, the very image of boiled wool. She sat up in the frankly noisome bed, doing her best to shake away the vision of the sinking airship.
"At least it does not reek of fish," she muttered, and looked about her for any sign of where she was or, for that matter, her clothing. But the room was bare.
She crept gingerly off the bed, feeling the unsoundness of her limbs and the lightness of her head, and peered under the frame, to find a chipped porcelain chamber pot. As Miss Temple squatted down, she rubbed her eyes, and looked at her hands, which were flecked with half-healed abrasions and cuts. She stood, slid the pot back beneath the bed with her foot, and noticed a small rectangle of glass, no bigger than a page of poetry, hanging from a nail—a mirror. She was forced to stand on her toes, but despite the effort, stayed staring into the glass for some minutes, curious and dismayed at the young woman she there met.
Her chestnut curls hung flat and lank, which had the effect of making her face—from a certain vantage somewhat round—even rounder. This was only set off by her sunken cheeks, the dark circles of distress beneath each eye, and once more a scattering of livid marks—the searing trace of a bullet above one ear, welts across both cheekbones, and greenish bruises on her throat that perfectly matched a vicious, squeezing palm. All this Miss Temple took in with a sigh, grateful she had not, for instance, lost a tooth—that all could be mended by time, food, and the touch of a skillful maid. What struck her more fully, however—what she found mysterious—was what had happened to her eyes. They were still grey, still insistent, impatient, and sharp, but possessed a new quality she could not at first name. A moment later the truth appeared. She was a killer.
Miss Temple sat back on the bed and stared up at the darkening clouds. She had shot Roger Bascombe and left his body to the sea. Certainly the man had betrayed her, betrayed everything, and yet . . . what had she become in defeating him, in thwarting the powerful figures Roger had chosen to serve, chosen over her love, their marriage . . . what had she herself cast away?
Such thoughts were impossible on an empty stomach. She would eat, bathe, dress, locate her friends—still an oddly foreign notion to Miss Temple—and take assurance from their survival, that it had all been necessary.
But when she called to the door, her voice an alarmingly ragged croak, there came no answer. Instead of calling again, Miss Temple lay down and pulled the blankets up over her face.
As she lay sniffing the dusty wool, she recalled what she could of her coming ashore. They had been on the roof of the dirigible's cabin, waiting to drown as it dropped into the sea, but instead of sinking they came aground on fortunate rocks, saved. She reached the sand on her hands and knees, half-drowned and cold to the bone, frozen anew by the pitiless wind whose lashing impact curled her to a shivering ball. Chang carried her beyond the narrow ribbon of beach and over a hedge of sharp black rocks, but already she felt her body failing, unable to form words for her chattering teeth. There were black trees, the Doctor banging on a wooden door, racks of drying and salted fish, and then she was bundled in front of a burning hearth. Outside it was morning, but inside the hut the air was close and foul, as if it had been nailed tight against the cold all winter. The dirigible's original destination had been the Duchy of Macklenburg, on the Baltic Sea—how far north had the airship flown? Someone held hot tea for her to drink, then they—Eloise?—took off her clothes and wrapped her in blankets. Miss Temple felt her chills swiftly escalate into fever . . . and then dreams had swallowed her whole.
Miss Temple sighed heavily, the sound quite muffled beneath the bedding, and slept.
When she next awoke the window had gone dark and there were sounds outside the door. Miss Temple crawled from the bed and stood more steadily than before. She plucked at her simple shift, wondering where it had come from, and pushed the hair from her face. How much must have happened while she slept? Yet instead of forming the many questions she ought to have had—about her companions, their location, the very date—Miss Temple found her attention drawn to a lurid flickering—already—beneath the surface of her mind, like tiny bubbles in a pot growing to boil. This was the Contessa's blue glass book of memories that Miss Temple had absorbed—and she shuddered to realize that each tiny bubble of memory found an echo in her flesh, each one threatening to expand to prominence in her mind, until the memory blotted out the present altogether. She had peered into the shimmering depths of the blue glass and been changed. How many of its memories had she consumed—experienced in her own body—and thus made her own? How many acts that she had never performed did she now remember? The Contessa's book was a catalog of insidious and unmentionable delight, the sensual experience of a thousand souls crammed together. The more Miss Temple thought about it the more insistent the memories became. Her face flushed. Her breath quickened. Her nostrils flared with anger. She would not have it.
She jerked open the door. Before her two women huddled over a large woven basket near an iron stove. At the sound of the door both looked up, faces blank with surprise. They wore plain dresses, soiled aprons, and heavy shoes, with their hair stuffed tightly under woolen caps—a mother and a daughter, sharing a thick nose and a certain flatness about the eyes. Miss Temple smiled primly and noticed that the basket was bundled full of linens quite broadly stained with blood. The younger of the two abruptly upended the pile to obscure the stains and shoved the entire basket from view behind the stove. The older turned to Miss Temple with a doting smile—which Miss Temple would have been less disposed to despise had it not appeared as so open a distraction from the basket—and rubbed her chapped hands together.
"Good day," said Miss Temple.
"You are awake!" The woman's voice bore an accent Miss Temple had heard before, from the mouths of sailors.
"Exactly so," replied Miss Temple. "And though I do not intend any inconvenience, it is true that I require rather many things in a short time. I should like breakfast—I have no sense of the time, so perhaps it is more supper I should ask for—and if possible a bath, and then some clothing, and more than anything, information: where precisely might I be, and where are my companions? And, of course, who are you?" she added, smiling again. "I am sure you have been instrumental to my recovery. I trust I was not a burden. One never enjoys being ill—often one calls out, sometimes brusquely. I have no memory of calling out at all—I have no memory of coming here—so I trust you will accept my open regrets for any . . . well, for anything untoward. I do indeed feel much better. Some tea would be lovely. And toast—toast of any kind. And, yes, something to wear. And news. Indeed, most of all news."
She smiled at them, expectant and, she hoped, the picture of kind gratitude. The women stared at her for perhaps four seconds, when the older suddenly clapped her hands, startling a squeak from the girl as if she had been pinched. At once the poor thing darted from the room, pausing only to snatch up the basket as she went.
"Bette will come back with food," the woman announced, lips pursed, her hands again rubbing together. "Perhaps you will sit by the stove."
She indicated a rough wooden stool, but before Miss Temple could respond the woman took her arm and guided her to it. Wood chips and cinders beneath her feet, Miss Temple sat—for it was cold outside of her blanket, and much warmer by the stove.
"What is your name?" asked Miss Temple. "And where are we? I expect you know my name—undoubtedly my companions have spoken of how we came to be here. I should actually be quite curious what they said—"
"I am Lina," the woman said. "I will make tea."
The woman brusquely turned away, stepping closer to the stove and placing an iron kettle onto its flat, oily top. Keeping her back to Miss Temple, Lina crossed to a low, humble cupboard for a teapot and metal mug, and a small stoppered jar that held a dusty inch of black tea—each action making clear there was scarce hope of a lemon.
"And where are we exactly?" asked Miss Temple, even in her weakened state not entirely pleased with having to repeat herself.
Lina did not respond, pretending—poorly—not to have heard. Rolling her eyes, Miss Temple stood and without another word walked past the woman to the door through which Bette had disappeared. There was a sharp exhalation from Lina as Miss Temple pulled it open, but a moment later she was through, shutting it behind her and slipping a conveniently placed wooden latch. Lina yanked on the door from the other side. Miss Temple ignored her.
Bette—who Miss Temple now saw, as the girl looked up at her with shock—was, if not exactly fat, what one might in charity term healthy, with a wide, pale pink neck and heavy arms that shook the entirety of her torso when they worked. At the moment Miss Temple entered Bette had been fully occupied—not with any meal at all, but in scrubbing the blood-soaked bedding in a steaming bucket of water, crimson-tinged soap suds lathering nearly to each elbow.
"Hello again," said Miss Temple. "Lina is making my tea. I have been alone so long that I am quite keen for company. And whatever are you doing?"
Bette shifted on her feet, torn between the urge to hide the blood and to curtsey to a social superior, and succeeded only in losing her balance and sitting down on the floor. The impact caused one black-booted foot to kick the tub, launching a jet of bloody foam into the air.
The latched door rattled again. Miss Temple studied the room, of a piece with where she had slept—dark wooden beams with a wall of inset shelves, all covered with boxes and pots and jars, one half taken up with soaps and oils and the other equally occupied with fishing paraphernalia. There were two more wooden tubs the size of the one Bette presently used, and the width of the room was spread with hanging cords upon which to dry things. Miss Temple saw these were strung with more bedding, and nothing she might wear.
"That seems a lot of blood," said Miss Temple. "I am hopeful that it represents a happy outcome—the birth of a child?"
Bette shook her head. Miss Temple nodded seriously.
"I see. Someone has been injured?"
Bette nodded again.
"And poor you with the horrid task of washing it out." Miss Temple continued to ignore the rattling door behind her. She stepped to one of the other tubs, perching herself on its edge. "Do you know what happened?"
Bette glanced past Miss Temple to the door. Miss Temple leaned closer to the girl.
Bette's hesitant answer was so hushed to be nearly inaudible.
"It was the storm . . ."
She wriggled back onto her toes and sank her hands once more into the tub, as if resuming her work would balance the impulse to gossip.
"After you came ashore."
"I remember no storm," said Miss Temple. "But perhaps I was in no state to mark it—go on."
"It rained for two days," whispered the girl. "And when it was over the beaches were different, and trees had come down, and the river had flooded the forest. That was why they said—because of the forest—"
"The blood, Bette." Miss Temple attempted to be patient. "Blood, not forests."
"But they said that was why. No one had called on Jorgens since the storm, because he lived near the river, and the path was washed away. When someone thought to call they found . . . they found them dead. Jorgens and his wife. The door opened, dogs gone, their . . . their throats . . . and then—"
Lina banged on the door, frightening the girl to silence. Miss Temple spun around and barked with annoyance, "I will have my tea when I am ready for it!"
"Celeste!" cried Eloise Dujong. "You must come out at once—there is no time!"