Aug 18 2017 11:06am

Curtis Craddock Excerpt: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Curtis Craddock

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock

In a world of soaring continents and bottomless skies, where a burgeoning new science lifts skyships into the cloud-strewn heights, and ancient blood-borne sorceries cling to a fading glory, Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs is about to be married to a man she has barely heard of, the second son of a dying king in an empire collapsing into civil war.

Born without the sorcery that is her birthright but with a perspicacious intellect, Isabelle believes her marriage will stave off disastrous conflict and bring her opportunity and influence. But the last two women betrothed to this prince were murdered, and a sorcerer-assassin is bent on making Isabelle the third. Aided and defended by her loyal musketeer, Jean-Claude, Isabelle plunges into a great maze of prophecy, intrigue, and betrayal, where everyone wears masks of glamour and lies. Step by dangerous step, she unravels the lies of her enemies and discovers a truth more perilous than any deception.

Get a sneak peek at Curtis Craddock's An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (available August 29, 2017) with an exclusive excerpt of a selected scene.

Chapter 2

“Hurry up!” Isabelle called over her shoulder as she skipped and slid down the steep, narrow alleyway between the hostelry and the warehouse. She leapt over piles of garbage washed up from the last rain and squelched through slippery slicks of some nameless slime. Her house slippers were not meant for this sort of use, but when she slipped away from the nannies, handmaidens, and other handlers in the manor house in order to have an adventure, she took the shoes she had on. In the future, she would make sure to stow some outdoor shoes with her other secret treasures in the old millhouse.

“Slow down!” Marie protested, picking her way down the treacherous slope behind Isabelle. She had gathered her skirt so as not to muddy its hem and was trying to walk on pointe like a ballerina so as not to muddy her slippers.

Of all the noble girls her father surrounded her with—“As befits a princess,” he’d said—Marie was the only one to have earned the title of friend. She liked horses, didn’t cry at skinned knees, didn’t get all green at the sight of Isabelle’s wormfinger, and didn’t ever snitch.

Marie asked, “Why are we going this way? Why can’t we take the road?”

“This way is shorter,” Isabelle said. The road was made for horses and carts and meandered ever so gently from the docks, up a series of switchbacks, to the bluffs above the town. Taking the road took forever. “There’s a race-built frigate in the harbor. It’s supposed to be amazing.” This was entirely true, if not the entire truth.

“Oh,” Marie said, slowing down still further. “You’ve been reading mathematics again, haven’t you?”

“What makes you say that?” Isabelle asked, surprised and a little alarmed at her friend’s insight.

“You’re never in this much of a hurry unless you want to try something philosophical, and that means you’ve been doing math. Besides, if you’d just wanted to see the ship, you could have just asked, and we could have taken a coach.”

Isabelle clutched her shoulder bag to her side with her right arm. Her wormfinger twitched in response to her agitation. After several false starts, she thought she’d managed to distill some aether from the air and capture it in an aetherglass phial, but she wouldn’t know for sure until she tossed the phial off a sky cliff to see if it fell or floated.

Isabelle didn’t want to fight with Marie over this, but she didn’t want to lie to her either, so she said, “So what? Math’s fun.”

Her little brother, Guillaume, said math was hard and that’s why girls weren’t allowed to do it.

“It’ll melt your brain,” he’d said.

That was what made Isabelle interested in the first place, and she’d stolen her brother’s math primer and read it by moonlight. Maybe it was the moonlight that did it, but it was as if she’d wandered into a secret treasure cave. The numbers opened up to her, and they talked to her, and they said the most amazing things.

Marie came to a halt on a dryish patch of ground. “You’re not supposed to do math or philosophy.”

“You’re not supposed to steal cookies, or climb trees, or ride straddlewise, either,” Isabelle said. “If you think about it, if you don’t do anything you’re not supposed to, there’s hardly anything left. You might as well just sleep all day.”

“The Temple doesn’t care about cookies, but they do care about math. It’s against the Builder.”

Isabelle sniffed her contempt at the theological argument. “The Temple already thinks I’m Breaker marked because of my wormfinger and because I’m unhallowed. I don’t see how doing math is going to make it any worse.”

“Maybe not for you,” Marie said.

“You can go back if you want, but you won’t get to see what I’m going to do. Besides, if you quit now, you’ll just have to climb up the way you came, and you’re already more than halfway down. Going down and then taking the road back up is much easier.”

Then Isabelle bounded away.

“Hey!” cried Marie. “No fair. Wait for me!”

By the time Marie caught up to Isabelle at the bottom of the alley run, her shoes were sodden and her hem was muddy, and since she couldn’t do anything about it now, she apparently decided it didn’t matter. “Race you to the point,” Marie said.

Isabelle almost darted away, but she heard a familiar adult voice singing, loudly and without musical merit, “ . . . but a woman’s shift and apron they were no use to meeee . . .”

Isabelle grabbed Marie by the back of the shirt with her good hand and pulled her behind a mucky rain barrel just as the musketeer Jean-Claude staggered by, a quart mug in one hand and a wine sack in the other. He fetched up against the rain-dampened corner of the warehouse and stood nose-to-brick with the building, as if challenging it for the right of way.

Isabelle wrinkled her nose and whispered, “He’s drunk.”

Marie said, “He’s always drunk, my mother says, a disgrace to the uniform, doesn’t know why your father keeps him around.”

“He has to; le roi makes him,” Isabelle said. “I don’t know why.” Or at least she didn’t believe the story she’d been told, that the king had foisted Jean-Claude on her parents as a punishment for having Isabelle. Who exactly was it supposed to be punishment for? Whatever the case, she could not remember a time when the beer-stained musketeer hadn’t been around, staggering into and out of her path, mostly oblivious to her presence, mostly at inopportune moments like this one.

Unfortunately, Jean-Claude was just the sort of adult who could take Isabelle by the ear and drag her back to the manor house without fear of repercussion, and if he didn’t shove off soon, Isabelle was going to miss her chance to try out her experiment, and she might not get another chance for weeks and weeks. She was just about to climb back up the slope and come down a different way when Jean-Claude heaved off the wall and lurched down the street at an angle that suggested a skyship at odds with the prevailing wind.

Isabelle traded glances with Marie. Marie looked ready to scamper back the way they’d come, but Isabelle gestured for her to follow and sneaked to the mouth of the alley. She peeked around the corner in the direction Jean-Claude had gone just in time to see him disappear into the next alley down the street.

Isabelle hesitated; the next alley was a dead end. There wasn’t any place for Jean-Claude to go except the butcher’s hanging closet. Should she and Marie try to sneak past before he came out, or should they wait? As like as not, he’d gone in there to make water and would be facing the other way . . . maybe.

Isabelle screwed up her courage, gestured for Marie to follow, and scurried past the mouth of the alley. The quick glance she risked showed what looked like the musketeer wrestling with his trousers and losing.

She didn’t slow down until she’d reached the next intersection and slipped around the corner. Marie joined her. They held their breath, listening for pursuit, then locked eyes with each other and broke into giggles.

They hurried down to the wharfs, past the net makers and the lumberyard and the warehouses that would soon be full of fine spring wool from the skyland’s famous Lande Glacée sheep. They climbed up on a bale of sailcloth to stare up at the race-built ship, a two-masted schooner of the newer, flat-bottomed style, long and lean like a reef pike with the turvy masts slightly longer than the tops, the bowsprit horizontal like a fencer’s thrust. It was clearly a merchant’s ship, brightly painted with a sprawling mural of great colorful birds carrying long silk banners. Isabelle itched with the desire to sneak aboard and get a look at the aetherkeel, to see, just once in person, how the great machines were put together.

Marie got bored with the ship before Isabelle and said, “Come on, let’s go see this secret philosophy thing of yours. People are staring.”

Isabelle spotted a cluster of ragged-looking men, loitering by the schooner’s gangway. Their faces, tattooed with sigils of the saints, marked them as Iconates. They believed something about the Risen Saints being ghosts that got involved in people lives, which seemed like an awful lot of bother for a bunch of dead people.

Marie was right, though; several of the men were bestowing upon the girls dolorous looks. Isabelle slid off the back of the bale. She and Marie looped around a warehouse to get out of sight and then hurried to the far end of the quay, which was usually abandoned at this time of day. Isabelle looked back along the docks. The Iconates were still huddled like supplicants at the foot of the schooner.

Satisfied that they hadn’t been followed, Isabelle crouched amongst the piles and unlimbered her shoulder bag. She withdrew two glass phials, one with a cork painted red, the other green. She held up the green one proudly. “Distilled aether.”

Marie eyed her accomplishment dubiously. “Looks empty to me.”

Isabelle considered trying to explain how she’d contrived a galvanic compressor to pump the sublimating infinitesimal proto-gas into the phial, but Marie didn’t stay up nights worrying about things like that.

Instead Isabelle said, “Only one way to find out. The red one really is empty; if it falls faster than the green one, we know the green one had aether in it.” Otherwise it’s back to the books.

She stepped up to the very edge of the docks and peered down. The cloud tide was low today. A vague greenish tint along the top of the clouds indicated a rising Miasma, hopefully one that the sun would bake away before it reached the level of the town and sickened those who could not reach higher ground.

Marie eased up beside her, getting down on her knees and clinging to a bollard in order to peek over the edge. She winced as a sudden updraft caught her hair. The wind lifted Isabelle’s skirt and whipped it around her calves.

“I wish you’d at least hang on to something,” Marie said.

“I’ve only got one hand and I need it for this.” Isabelle waited for the gust to subside and, holding her breath, dropped the phials into empty air. The bottles tumbled and fell, like glittering jewels. Yes, yes, yes! The green bottle drifted downward fluttering like a leaf on the wind while its twin dove straight for the crushing depths.

Isabelle squealed in delight. “It worked. It worked!” Not that she’d ever had any doubts. Not many. A few. She hopped up and down, much to Marie’s consternation.

“Saints, Izzy,” she gasped. “You’re going to fall off!”

Isabelle skipped back from the edge and reached down to pull Marie to her feet. “Did you see that? It worked!”

“Yes,” Marie said, looking more relieved to be away from the precipice than excited for Isabelle’s achievement.

Isabelle babbled on, lifted by the force of her own ebullience. “That means the lodestones in the flux oscillator don’t have to be continuous as long as they’re balanced.”

Marie gave her an exasperated look that was much older than her thirteen years. “Which means what?”

“It means I can build a bigger distiller.”

“I mean, what are you going to do with it, build a ship?”

Isabelle stopped hopping about, her attention arrested. “Maybe I could.” And wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could just sail away, escape forever her wicked father and brother?

“You’re mad!” Marie protested, though the spark of adventure rekindled in her eyes.

“Maybe,” Isabelle said faintly, retreating to that inner dark place where she could concentrate and the good thoughts happened. She knew how aetherkeels worked, but that wasn’t the same as being able to build one.

“Witch!” bellowed a ragged masculine voice. “Breaker’s get.”

Isabelle snapped out of her reverie to see three of the Iconates stalking down the pier toward her, hatred etched into their faces. The one in front was a gaunt man with hollow eyes. When he spoke, ropes of yellow spittle, thick as phlegm, dangled from his lips, a sure sign of the galfesters. Indeed, his voice sounded as if his tongue were made of mud. “Caught you in the act, didn’t I? Throwing potions in the air, calling sickness up from the depths. Breaker take you back!” He shambled toward her.

Fear drained thought from Isabelle’s mind. She stepped back but realized she had nowhere further to go.

“Stay back!” she shrieked. This was just the sort of thing her governess was always threatening would happen to her if she stepped out of bounds. The wicked men will get you, barbarians and heretics.

“Leave us alone,” Marie said, stepping forward. “My father is Lord du Bois and she is the comte’s own daughter.”

Galfesters laughed, spitting up bubbles of slime. “Think I don’t know that, little witch? Great lord’s daughter had the mark of corruption. Now the sheep die on the hillside. Now the nets bring up no aerofish. Now good, faithful people die while the corrupt thrive. You think we don’t know why? You think we don’t know where the curse comes from, Breakerspawn? You murdered my wife! You killed my son!”

Shock and disbelief overcame Isabelle’s fear. “I did not,” she protested, but there was no arguing with the madness in those eyes. People had been accusing her of being the Breaker’s get all her life. Even the household servants whispered it when they thought she couldn’t hear.

“Pit worm,” Galfesters muttered, shambling straight for Isabelle. She scampered left but his friends spread out to block her escape. Two more steps, and he’d be on her. There was no place to run. Marie whipped out her maidenblade.

“Marie, don’t!” Isabelle cried. The short blade was supposed to be a girl’s last defense against dishonor, meant for her to cut her own throat rather than allow herself to be ruined by a rapist. Isabelle’s governess had spent many hours drilling Isabelle on exactly how to make the cut, always with the breathless suggestion, “Think of the great honor you will do your family.”

But Marie aimed the knife at Galfesters, a kitten hissing at a mad dog.

Galfesters rounded on Marie. “Cursed b—”

There was a loud ceramic crack and an explosion of pottery shards around Galfesters’s head. Someone had hurled a crock at him. He toppled in a spray of baked clay and landed hard on the edge of the pier. Isabelle skipped aside. His club flew end over end out into empty space. His cronies blinked at him, then whirled to see what had felled him.

Jean-Claude, rushing from the alley, bellowing like bull, was on the first one before he could react. The musketeer threw an elbow at his head. The Iconate spun halfway around in a shower of blood and teeth and sprawled on the ground. The last one thrust a boat hook at Jean-Claude but hit only air as the musketeer glided to one side, seized the haft, and yanked his assailant off balance. A swift kick and a thudding blow to the neck laid him out like a rug.

Galfesters groaned and pushed himself to his elbows.

Marie, still livid, stepped forward and gave him a sturdy kick in the ribs. “That’s what you get!”

The Iconate waved an ineffectual hand at his attacker. “Pit spawn.”

Jean-Claude stepped in, planted his knee in Galfesters’s back, grabbed a fistful of hair, and yanked his head back. “If Isabelle is the Breaker’s get, then I am her hellhound. Now, who ordered this attack?”

Galfesters’s wild stare fixed on Isabelle. “Pit spawn! Cursebringer! Your fault—”

He lunged against Jean-Claude’s hold, ripping out clumps of his own hair in his frenzy.

Isabelle extended a trembling finger down the quay. “He was standing by the schooner.”

With a grunting effort, Jean-Claude wrapped an arm around Galfesters’s throat. Isabelle circled away from him. Her heart was pounding, and a wild urge to flee kept clawing at her mind.

Jean-Claude glanced Isabelle’s way. One glinting blue eye caught her wide-eyed stare.

“Stay put,” said the musketeer in a tone of such steel conviction that Isabelle’s normally restless soles felt nailed to the ground. Jean-Claude squeezed until Galfesters stopped twitching, then let him go with a plop. There must have still been some life in him because he coughed, and phlegm drizzled from his mouth. Jean-Claude searched through his clothes. The musketeer muttered imprecations under his breath and moved on to the next man.

Isabelle’s thoughts slowly came unstuck, and she assembled all she had seen. People had been calling her names as long as she could remember—worm child, Breaker’s get—but no one had ever tried to kill her before. Her skin felt cold and she was shaking like a leaf. Marie was breathing heavily and her grip on her knife was so white knuckled that Isabelle thought her fingers might fuse like that.

Jean-Claude finished his search of the downed men, then faced Isabelle and Marie. A somber look darkened his face, but there was no sign of the drunkard about him. “I think I should get you two home.”

“Are we in trouble?” Marie asked shakily, as if the fire that had sustained her had now burned out.

“I should think not,” Jean-Claude said. “At least, not if you get changed into clean clothes and put yourself back where you are supposed to be before a general alarm goes up.”

Stunned and subdued, the girls followed Jean-Claude up the long, winding cart road toward the manor, but even the brisk pace he set could not entirely quell Isabelle’s curiosity. “Who were those men?” she asked after she got used to his rolling rhythm. “Iconates?”

Jean-Claude did not answer immediately, and his face was screwed up like Isabelle’s brother’s whenever he was dealing with a tricky bit of arithmetic or grammar. Finally Jean-Claude said, “The man who attacked you is named Tallie. He used to be a fisherman until he took his boat too deep into the Miasma, brought up a catch of the galfesters, and passed it around to his family. That broke his mind and drove him into the embrace of the Iconates.”

“Oh,” Isabelle said, flustered by the humanity of her erstwhile assailant. “But you said someone ordered them to attack us.”

“It’s one of the possibilities I’m investigating,” he said. “I doubt those three were part of an organized plan, but someone may have put a worm in their ear.”

“But . . . why?” She knew people thought she was a witch, but she couldn’t get her mind around Galfesters’s hatred. It had been spilling off him like heat from the Solar.

“Because the world is full of men who think that Her Highness Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs, cousin once removed to Grand Leon, should have more fingers and less intelligence. They think she should be beautiful, brainless, beatific—”

“Boring,” Isabelle supplied. “Barmy.”

Jean-Claude smiled down at her fondly. “And a bounty of other brevities beginning with ‘B.’ Yes. Fortunately for you, I find their arguments unconvincing.”

Isabelle forged into new territory. “You said you were my hellhound.”

“Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words. Say rather that I am His Majesty’s sheepdog. I wander around distant fields, stick my nose in other people’s privates, and growl at curs.”

Emboldened by Jean-Claude’s frankness, Marie said, “My mother says you’re a disgraced uniform.”

“Only on Templedays. The rest of the week I am a sot, a drunkard, a reprobate, a clown, a fool, a dolt, and a dullard. Except, of course, on Feastdays, when I take upon myself the duties and responsibilities of chief glutton, and on Fastdays, when I indulge in inestimable digestible, comestible heresy.”

Isabelle untangled Jean-Claude’s meaning from his sideways words. He was playing with her, an adult game of everything-means-something-else, but he wasn’t playing it in the same way her father did, with words full of cutting traps. This was more like a puzzle she was meant to solve.

“So you’re just pretending,” Isabelle said. “Why?”

“Because no one is afraid of the village idiot.”

Isabelle’s mind was still swimming from these revelations when Jean-Claude guided them into a narrow lane between the pickers’ tenement and the bluffs below the manor yard. He took them straight to the old millrace that provided Isabelle’s and Marie’s usual method of secret egress from the manor grounds . . . or maybe not so secret after all, since Jean-Claude apparently knew exactly where it was.

Jean-Claude shooed them toward the steep, narrow channel. “You two should stay away from town for a few days. This is a dangerous time, and I need you to be alert for anything strange or unusual. If you do that for me, I’ll let you know when it’s safe to sneak out again. Do we have a bargain?”

Isabelle was surprised. A bargain? No adult had ever made a deal with her before. They just told her what to do and then mostly pretended she wasn’t there. But would he keep his end of the bargain? Adults were always failing to keep promises, but Jean-Claude had apparently been aware of their excursions for . . . how long? And he had done nothing to stop them thus far. And she had a great many questions for him, just as soon as she could figure out how to put them into words.

She put on her best princess voice, which was rusty from disuse, and said, “We have a bargain, monsieur.”

Marie held out her hand palm up. “Builder keep you.”

“Until the Savior comes,” Jean-Claude replied, completing the traditional farewell. He doffed his hat to her and swept a low bow. He waited until she and Marie squirmed through the curtain of vines overhanging the millrace before turning and sauntering away. By the time they’d climbed ten feet, they could hear him singing a bawdy drinking song. They did not understand all the words, but it made them blush anyway.

The long, familiar ascent of the millrace gave Isabelle time to think of other things, such as how brave Marie had been. How had she done that? Isabelle’s whole mind had gone blank, white with fear. Even now, she didn’t feel normal. It was like she was running on a bog. As long as she kept going she’d stay on top, but the minute she stopped, she’d sink and be drowned.

The girls scrambled out of the hole in the roof of the old millhouse at the corner of the edgeward cow pasture and had just about reached the stile leading to the paddock behind the stables when a shrill voice caught them by the scruffs of their necks.

“Isabelle!” shouted the head governess. “Where have you been? And you!” She jabbed a knobby finger at Marie. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t have you whipped to the bone.”

Isabelle and Marie cringed. The governess was not so foolish as to disfigure them, but there were punishments that didn’t leave a mark.

“Come here,” the governess said, even while storming toward them. “I have been looking for you two for an hour! The comte has summoned you both, and look at you. You’re filthy! I’d strip you down and send you in there naked if I thought you had any sense of shame, but you’d enjoy humiliating your father in front of his guests. Builder do us all a favor and turn you into a pig. You’d be cleaner.”

She grabbed Isabelle by the ear, much too hard, and dragged her back to the manor house. “Stop mewling. You will learn to behave as a proper lady, or I will break you.”

The berating went on through the entire process of being stripped out of layers of clothing, scrubbed like a dirty pot, scraped dry, and stuffed into her most formal gown, rose pink with a spray of white lace at the throat. The double knot in the silver cincture around her waist announced her maiden status to anyone who cared.

None of this rough handling distracted her from her more pressing question. Why had her father summoned her? She prayed to whatever powers would listen that he had not come up with yet another scheme to try to force her to manifest a bloodshadow.

Father had never been able to accept that, saintblooded though she was, descended in a direct line from the Risen Saints themselves, she was unhallowed and had no sorcery. He kept trying to drag magic out of her soul using his own bloodshadow as block and tackle. How many times had he racked her with his own power, ripping away at her very soul in the effort to provoke some latent power to rise and defend itself? Year after year, that had been her fate, until her brother, Guillaume, had manifested his bloodshadow.

At last, Father had a viable heir, undamaged, ensorcelled, and of the correct gender. Ever since, Father had done everything short of exiling her to pretend Isabelle didn’t exist, a dearth of attention for which she was profoundly grateful. Please don’t let him start in again.

Isabelle’s heart fluttered with dread, and her skin was cold. A squadron of governesses herded her toward the audience chamber. She reached the glass promenade, a long, tall hallway with an entire wall of windows that looked out over rolling pastureland to the rocky Oreamnos Hills, which clung like barnacles to the skyland’s rim.

Marie was already waiting there, looking very pretty, and very nervous, in her best ball gown, pale blue. Her cincture had only one knot, signifying a maiden betrothed. Some lord from the Craton Massif, the old continent, had picked her for his son as soon as she’d become eligible. She was to be delivered in two years, when she’d ripened to fifteen.

Which reminded Isabelle of the second reason Father ever called her: to parade her in front of old men who were searching for brides for either themselves or their sons. Had the merchant ship in the harbor brought her a suitor? She could imagine herself married to an aeronaut, soaring on one of the great ships . . . but usually suitors got one look at Isabelle’s wormfinger, learned about her magical blight, and made their good-byes. Even the fact that Isabelle was le roi’s cousin did not impress them.

Her lack of marital prospects was not a good thing. She was twelve; the bloom was very nearly off her rose, and she had been made to understand that the world had no use for princesses who could not manage to get married.

Yet if some new suitor had come, why summon Marie? She could only make Isabelle look homely by comparison. Half a girl wide and a girl and a half tall, with a long face, Isabelle was well on her way to being horsey.

Marie fell in beside Isabelle and whispered, “What’s going on?”

“I have no idea,” Isabelle said.

“Is this because we ran off?”

“No. They were looking for us before they knew we’d run off, remember?”

“Hush, you two,” said the governess.

Marie stiffened up. The doorway to the audience hall loomed before them.

In the silence that congealed while everyone marshaled themselves to stand before the comte, voices drifted through the door, muffled almost below the level of hearing.

An unfamiliar voice that sounded like it had been hammered out of copper said, “ . . . royal blood cannot be diluted or corrupted.”

“I do not care about your pet theory,” her father replied, dry and disdainful. “In the meantime, this charade grows wearisome.”

“Have you also grown weary of your prize, or shall I take that from you as well?”

Isabelle’s curiosity flared and she strained to hear more of the conversation. Who would dare speak to her father like that in his own house? And what prize were they talking about?”

Alas, the doors swung open and a short fanfare of trumpets announced her presence in the audience hall.

Isabelle pulled herself even straighter and did her gangly best to glide into her father’s presence. The audience hall was built to classical proportions, like an Aetegian chapel, with height, width, and length as strict multiples of the golden mean, a fact that Isabelle was sure only she found interesting. Everything in the chamber was clad in polished white marble. A double colonnade of classical columns surrounded the main floor, with a two-step dais in the position traditionally occupied by an altar.

Two thronelike chairs sat upon the dais. The lesser chair was empty, as it had been for the ten years since Isabelle’s mother had died giving birth to Guillaume.

The greater chair was made of loxodont ivory, the legs and arms carved from great curving tusks. Isabelle’s father was ensconced therein. He was dressed in his court finest, white brocade doublet embroidered with thread of silver and festooned with pearls. One of Isabelle’s secret books said ivory was a kind of tooth. With Father’s bloodred shadow spilled out in front of him like a tongue, the whole arrangement gave the impression of a great mouth about to bite him in half, though that was too much to hope for.

Standing to one side of her father was a Temple hormougant. Isabelle had never seen one, but their vestments were unmistakable. Most Temple officers wore yellow, but the hormougant wore a white chasuble trimmed with black and silver interlocking gears over a black cassock. The panels of his long stole were embroidered with black winged daggers. His skinny body was bent over a distended gut that swayed like a kettle when he shifted his weight. Both his eyes were white as lumps of lard, but a single green gem glowed from a metal setting in the center of his forehead. In one hand he held a staff of quondam metal, an artifact left over from the Primus Mundi. She could tell because the metal was the color of brass with a purple patina. It was capped with a spiny ball, like an urchin.

But what was a hormougant doing here? They were the Temple’s prophets, interpreters of ancient signs, judges of Enlightenment who decided which new discoveries comported with the Template of Creation and which were heresy. Was he here for Isabelle? Did he know she’d been studying math?

Curiosity had been Saint Iav’s great sin. Her striving to understand the secret of life had unleashed the Breaker and shattered the world. The penalty for a woman prying into forbidden secrets was to have her eyes plucked out. Isabelle’s thoughts fled to the cache of books hidden in a gap behind the molding of her bedroom’s wainscoting. Had they brought Marie here to witness against her?

Isabelle’s heart squeezed so tight she thought it would implode. She and Marie made their way at a stately pace down the white carpet that bisected the glossy white floor, the better to show off bloodshadows. They curtsied at the foot of the dais.

Her father scowled at Isabelle and said in a sepulchral tone, “Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs, have you claimed your sorcery?”

“No, Father,” Isabelle said evenly, even as she cringed inside; it was going to be one of those audiences, another attempt to wake the nascent bloodshadow Father was convinced she had to possess. This hormougant was only the latest petitioner to have some plan for her sorcery’s miraculous vivification. What would it be this time? Would it be another potion, a diet, a strange regimen of exercises, or would he resurrect old favorites like attacking her with his bloodshadow and trying to provoke hers into a response?

“The time has come to determine once and for all, in the eyes of the Temple, if you are truly unhallowed or merely obstinate and spiteful. Only a hormougant can make that decision.”

Despite her father’s nasty tone and the warning Jean-Claude had put in her ear, a hope flickered in Isabelle’s chest. Could this truly be the last time she had to endure trial by ordeal?

She regarded the hormougant with increasing interest. “Enlightened, I . . . Can you certify that I am unhallowed?” No more tests. No more torture.

“Indeed,” he said.

Her father snarled. “Are you so eager to reject your birthright, then? Do you think it is not good enough for you?”

Isabelle winced. “No. Of course not, but, Father—”

“No one who rejects their saintly blood is any child of mine.”

Tears stood in Isabelle’s eyes, and she felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest. It was stupid to talk to him, stupid to think he’d ever care about her, but she couldn’t stop trying. “I don’t reject it. I just don’t have it.” Having a bloodshadow would make her a true Sanguinaire, a proud link in an endless chain stretching back to the Risen Saints. Not having a bloodshadow was a defect even worse than a wormfinger. Without sorcery, no one would ever want her.

“Your denial is insincere,” her father said. His bloodshadow rippled at his feet like a restless snake.

The hormougant said, “Do you consent to the test?”

Isabelle summoned all her courage. If Marie could be brave in front of all those Iconates, then Isabelle could be brave here. She cast a glance at Marie for strength. “Yes.”

The hormougant nodded to the comte. The comte fixed his gaze on Isabelle’s friend and said, “Lady Marie du Bois.”

Marie popped up like a startled doe. “Excellency!”

Isabelle’s breath caught; what was her father doing?

“You are my daughter’s handmaiden sworn to her service, bound to her need, subject to her command, and protected by her mighty hand. Yes?”

“Yes, Excellency.”

“Then it is her duty to protect you.”

The comte’s shadow darted across the floor toward Marie. Marie hopped away, but des Zephyrs’s sorcery grabbed her gray shadow by its ankle and jerked her to a halt.

“Father, no!” Isabelle bolted toward Marie, but adult hands snared and held her fast.

The bloodshadow pierced the boundary of Marie’s shadow and began filling it up, the red stain spreading through the gray silhouette like ink spreading in water.

Marie screamed and tried to pull away, but the sanguine rot spread to her shadow’s legs and arms, making her movements dull and sluggish.

“Stop!” Marie screamed, even as the color drained from her skin. “Please!”

“No!” Isabelle surged against her captors. She knew what it felt like to be mauled by a bloodshadow, the icy razors of pain, the mind-sucking soul numbness.

“You can stop it, Isabelle,” her father said. “Your bloodshadow can fight mine. Stop denying your birthright.”

Isabelle reached within herself, searching inside for something, anything, but there was no answering will echoing up from the depths of her soul, no tincture in her inner darkness.

“Please! Mercy,” Marie begged. In the middle of the marble floor, she looked like a fish mired in mud, her body slowly writhing, useless limbs flopping, mouth agape, and eyes staring.

“Stop!” Isabelle wailed. Not Marie. No!

Isabelle wrenched free of her handlers and sprinted toward Marie. The color drained from Marie’s features. Her hair turned white. Her flesh became translucent. Isabelle tried to cover her, to somehow get in the way, but a strand of her father’s bloodshadow whipped out and pinned her shadow by its neck. Suddenly, she couldn’t move at all. Her body might as well have been made of wood. There was nothing she could do. About anything. Nothing!

“Fight like a sorcerer!” her father spat.

“I can’t!” She had tried. She had searched. There was no magic in her.

“You are weak,” her father said. “Worthless.”

Marie’s whole body arched. She loosed a horrible haunted wail. Isabelle could see all the way through her skin and flesh, all the way to her bones.

Tears flooded Isabelle’s cheeks and she thought her chest would explode with helpless horror. “Stop. Please!”

The comte said, “The weak cannot protect their own. They deserve no mercy.”

Marie’s wail became a deathly keening, a threadbare sound, unraveling into nothing.

“Are you satisfied, Sleith?” Father asked the hormougant.

“Yes. Isabelle is unhallowed.”

The bloodshadow withdrew from Marie, gorged and sated, its color thick, rich, like the finest wine. The bloodshadow’s grip on Isabelle’s body released as if cut. She stumbled forward and hugged Marie around the shoulders, but her friend’s skin was ice cold, her expression slack, her transparent eyes unfocused as a doll’s.

“Marie!” she shrieked. “Come back!” She rounded on her father. “Bring her back!”

“She will not return,” her father said. “She is a bloodhollow now, but do not worry; she will serve you as she always has, only a bit more . . . docilely.”

Isabelle squeezed Marie tight, as if that could force heat and life back into her numb flesh, even as she cursed her father. “I hate you! I hope you die!”

Marie shrugged Isabelle’s grip off, and Isabelle stepped back, but the hope that bloomed in her mind died when Marie’s ghostly features warped and her father’s visage emerged from within. “But if I die, so does your friend. I am the only thing keeping her alive. As a bloodhollow, she is an extension of me, my eyes and ears and hands and voice, and she will keep watch on you . . . always.”

Many sets of hands took Isabelle by the arms and tugged her, sobbing, from the room. Bloodhollow Marie trailed behind.

Copyright © 2017 by Curtis Craddock.
Learn more about or order a copy of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock, available August 29, 2017:

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Curtis Craddock lives in Sterling, CO, where he teaches English to inmates in a state penitentiary. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is his first book.

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