Book Two of the Night's Masque series, sequel to The Alchemist of Souls.
Exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth for accusing a powerful nobleman of treason, swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn has been living in France with his young valet Coby Hendricks for the past year.
But Mal harbours a darker secret: he and his twin brother share a soul that once belonged to a skrayling, one of the mystical creatures from the New World.
When Mal’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean proves reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.
Mal leant over the ship’s rail, scanning the shore for any sign of a wreck. The mistral had swept the sky bare, leaving the coast etched in hard lines by the cold clear light of a January morn.
“There,” he said at last, pointing to a dark shape on the beach.
Coby joined him at the rail. “Are you sure it’s the skrayling carrack, sir? Those timbers could belong to any ship.”
“You still don’t believe me.”
“I—‘ Her head drooped, expression hidden by the hood of her cloak. “It’s been more than a year, sir. I thought…I thought all that was over.”
It’ll never be over, he wanted to tell her. Not whilst I have this thing inside me.
The ship tacked westwards, closer to the white sands. A rocky headland loomed to their left, the prevailing winds threatening to dash them onto its rocks as it had the ship they sought. Ahead, the northernmost tip of Corsica rose in low hills seared to colourlessness by the mistral. As they drew nearer, pieces of flotsam dashed themselves against the bow, as if clamouring to board a sound vessel. A scrap of dull red sailcloth tangled in rigging confirmed Mal’s suspicion. This was the skrayling ship from his dream.
“I don’t see any bodies,” Coby said after a while.
“No, thank the Lord.” He made the sign of the cross, then turned to their captain and addressed him in French. “Set us ashore here.”
“Is that wise?” the Moor replied in the same language, his native accent heavy. “Just the two of you?”
“Would you rather come with us, and be mistaken for a corsair raiding party?”
Captain Youssef shrugged, and waved to two of his men to lower the jolly-boat. Mal glanced at his companion. Dressed in masculine attire, she easily passed for a boy of fifteen or so, and a hard life had given her a toughness beyond that of most young women. Still, he worried every time he took her into peril.
As if guessing his thoughts, she grinned at him and patted the knife at her belt.
“If any are left alive, we’ll find them,” she said. “Ambassador Kiiren would never forgive us if we did not.”
* * *
They poked amongst the wreckage on the beach, but found no one either dead or alive, nor any sign of the ship’s cargo.
“You think the islanders already picked it clean?” Coby asked, straightening up and brushing sand from her breeches.
“They’ve had a good couple of days,” Mal replied. “I doubt this is the first vessel to fetch up here, nor will it be the last.”
“No footprints besides our own.”
Mal shrugged. “Erased by the mistral’s dying breath, perhaps.”
They found a narrow track leading up from the beach and followed it over the ridge. A village, little more than a hamlet, lay in a sheltered hollow of the hills, surrounded by the chestnut trees for which the island was famous. No smoke rose from its chimneys, no cry of children or bark of dogs disturbed the morning air. Coby glanced at Mal but said nothing. He drew his rapier and continued down the track, eyes scanning the buildings for any sign of life.
As they came closer they realised the houses were falling into ruin, their silvery thatch half gone, interiors standing open to the sky. Doors hung askew on their hinges or lay on the threshold in splinters.
“Corsairs?” Coby whispered.
“Long gone, by the looks of it.” Mal sheathed his sword. “We should search the houses. If there are survivors of the wreck, they could have taken shelter here.”
It did not take long to search the entire hamlet, but they found no sign of the skraylings, only half a human skeleton well-gnawed by dogs. An old man or woman, judging by the shrunken, toothless jaw. Mal pointed out the blade-marks on the ribs.
“They take the able-bodied villagers for slaves,” he said, “and kill everyone else.”
Coby stared at the pathetic remains, hand on her throat where, Mal knew, a small wooden cross hung on a cord. He wondered if she was remembering other deaths, of those far closer to her than this unknown Corsican. After a moment she looked up and him and nodded, her eyes bright with tears.
They followed the track out of the other side of the village until they came to a fork. One branch wound southwards through a chestnut wood carpeted in golden leaves, the other led back northeast, towards the coast.
“Where now, sir?” Coby asked.
Mal searched the ground for a short way along each road, though he was not hopeful. The earth was too dry and hard to take prints. He was about to give up when a dull gleam caught his eye: a bead about the size of a pea, made of dark grey metal. Hardly daring to trust his luck, he drew his dagger and touched it to the bead. When he lifted the blade away, the little sphere clung to it like a burr.
“Lodestone,” he said with a smile. “The skraylings came this way, and left us a clue.”
He gathered up all the beads he could find, and they set off down the coastal path. The skraylings had come this way, or been brought, though whether alive or dead he could not tell.
They followed the coast south for about a mile, then turned east along the edge of the low cliffs. A chill northerly breeze, no more than a faint memory of the mistral, tugged at their cloaks and ruffled their hair. They had still not seen a living creature apart from the ever-present gulls.
“Youssef told me the citadel of Calvi lies not far from here,” Mal said. “If the skraylings were taken by the islanders, my money is on Calvi. The Genoese would pay handsomely for intelligence of the New World.”
“You think Youssef will wait for us?”
“Until noon tomorrow, at least. So he swore.” He looked at her sidelong. “You do not trust him?”
“No more than I trust any man in our line of work.”
Mal grinned. “Very wise. But he has not failed us so far. I think he has earned such trust as we can spare.”
His hand closed around the beads in his pocket. They were already starting to take on some warmth from his flesh, and there was something comfortingly familiar about the way they clung together as he rolled them over one another. Perhaps it was only an echo of a memory, of playing with his mother’s rosary as a child. Though her beads were of amber, not cold steel.
“There,” he said a few moments later. “The citadel of Calvi.”
The broad promontory stretched northeastwards away from them, covered in more of the bare-branched chestnut trees. At its farthest point it rose to a hill encased in walls of pale stone, rising sheer and impregnable from the cliffs. Within, tall red-roofed buildings clustered about a domed church. It made the Tower of London look like a child’s toy.
“If they are in there,” Coby said, “how in the name of all that’s holy do we get them out?”