As an African tightrope dancer in Victorian London, Iris is used to being strange. She is certainly an unusual sight for leering British audiences always eager for the spectacle of colonial curiosity. But Iris also has a secret that even “strange” doesn’t capture...
She cannot die.
Haunted by her unnatural power and with no memories of her past, Iris is obsessed with discovering who she is. But that mission gets more complicated when she meets the dark and alluring Adam Temple, a member of a mysterious order called the Enlightenment Committee. Adam seems to know much more about her than he lets on, and he shares with her a terrifying revelation: the world is ending, and the Committee will decide who lives...and who doesn’t.
To help them choose a leader for the upcoming apocalypse, the Committee is holding the Tournament of Freaks, a macabre competition made up of vicious fighters with fantastical abilities. Adam wants Iris to be his champion, and in return he promises her the one thing she wants most: the truth about who she really is.
If Iris wants to learn about her shadowy past, she has no choice but to fight. But the further she gets in the grisly tournament, the more she begins to remember—and the more she wonders if the truth is something best left forgotten.
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Chapter 1 (FROM OUR CORRESPONDENTS)
London Evening Standard
12 October 1884
The thirtieth birthday of Mrs. Catherine Wells, wife of the President of the Brighthand Literary Association, abruptly ended in chaos. Held on the evening of the eleventh of October in Agricultural Hall, the forty ladies and gentlemen present at the occasion were rushed out of the venue just before dinner was served. According to eyewitnesses, a young man dressed in very meager clothing entered the hall uninvited and, with no apparent cause, promptly exploded in a burst of electricity. Somehow, the man kept his head. While the hall was in disarray, many bystanders reportedly caught sight of the strange man stealing chatelaine bags and metal coin purses from the waists and necks of several ladies as they ran. He then escaped in the pandemonium with these items in hand.
A rational man would dismiss these witness statements as the ramblings of drunkards; but while Mrs. Wells’s soiree indeed provided respectable amounts of alcohol along with tea, these stories hover too familiarly close to the unexplainable events occurring throughout the city and beyond. Despite this, the government remains rather quiet on such matters, particularly these days. Much more parliamentary attention is, as of late, being lavished upon Britain’s recent guests, the special envoys from Africa whose steamer docked at Plymouth two evenings ago. The delegates, said to be of royal blood, have come from the Oil Rivers region of the west coast to persuade the government to intervene in the National African Company’s mining projects in the lower Niger region. Though the government certainly has a duty to manage its colonial affairs overseas, there are growing concerns that the strange happenings at home have become entirely too frequent over the past decade to ignore for much longer...
October 23, 1884
“She’s going to fall!” a girl cried. “My God, she’s going to die! I can’t look!”
Iris picked the voice out from among the chaotic shouts in the alley twenty feet below her, though admittedly only because of its tone, a shriek so nasal that Iris thought she would slip off the tightrope from cringing. The rope itself was fixed from the third stories of two buildings—an old mill and a bakery. It took all her discipline not to drift along with the devilishly seductive, sweet scent of bread rising from the red-bricked chimney. The fresh aroma signaled that there were still bakers who hadn’t yet rushed out of the building to witness George Coolie’s carefully planned morning spectacle.
“Carefully planned,” yes. Meticulously planned. One wouldn’t typically find a gorgeous, dignified lady like herself balancing on a string between two very tall buildings without a satisfactory reason, at least not so early in the morning. The Coolie Company needed promotion for their first show since returning to England, and London in particular had no shortage of entertainment. From Piccadilly to Westminster, it was a strange town with an insatiable appetite for freakery—and Coolie, ever the businessman, did his utmost to use this fact to his monetary advantage.
Coolie... As if her mind was punishing her, that money-grubbing man had snuck back into her thoughts, particularly his red face shouting at her at daybreak in front of all the other performers at camp.
“You know very damn well how important this is, so I don’t want any mistakes. Not one. We need to get those bloody butts in the seats, you hear?”
He’d seemed more agitated than usual, his square balding head dripping sweat, his gut jiggling with each swear. Coolie kept his appearance as tidy as he kept his manners.
She shivered as a chilly breeze brushed past her bare shoulders and arms. Coolie had her in one of her performance costumes: a bright peppermint-green dress that hugged her chest and fanned out in layers of tulle, leaving everything past her knees bare. Skillfully sewn, courtesy of Granny Marlow, but not her attire of choice for such a cold morning, to be sure. Not in the least a proper dress for a lady either, but the circus tended to have looser rules of attire than regular civil society.
Besides, Iris was sure there was not a single soul in the gawking crowd below her that truly thought of her as a “lady” according to their traditional standards.
“That colored circus girl is going to die for sure!” she heard a young man yell. “I’ll bet you money, she’s going to fall and crack her head open right here on the road.”
Just the usual.
Iris sighed. The wind fluttered the boa feathers weaved into her black hair, which, despite its length and coarse texture, had somehow been pressed down and rolled up into an ordered bun at the base of her neck—once again courtesy of the hours Granny Marlow spent lovingly doting on her.
Iris was a spectacle, to be sure: George Coolie’s own professed “African rope-dancer,” a girl who, according to him, he’d plucked straight out of the Congo jungles, where she’d grown up among the lions and jackals—and after rescuing her single-handedly from the “heart of darkness,” he’d trained her to become the greatest stunts woman England had ever seen.
A lie. And of course people believed it. Well, according to Coolie, “Stupid people believe anything, my dear.” Cruel, but accurate.
The truth was, she’d found him in his office ten years ago after he’d put on a rather disappointing show in Blackburn. He was very drunk, and to get to his desk, she’d had to quite carefully maneuver around half-broken bottles of bourbon and strewn-about paperwork, some of which documented his never-ending gambling debts.
Despite the mess, she’d asked for a job.
Coolie had quickly realized the gift he’d been given after witnessing proof of her abilities—her uncanny senses, her hunter-like nimbleness. And though this particular audience of gawking Londoners hardly deserved it, what with the unflattering names they shouted up at her, Iris completed her task as the job commanded and gave them the same wondrous sight she gave every crowd, every performance. To the gasps and screams of many, she tumbled upon the tightrope, her small bare feet gripping the rope with ease, staying in perfect balance.
Coolie had once remarked that her instincts were otherworldly. Well, of course; rope-dancing was a dangerous art that required the utmost precision and, paradoxically, a certain sense of reckless abandon, a devil-may-care attitude that allowed the dancer to at least pretend that she didn’t care one way or the other whether she lived or died.
Most dancers did care, even if they feigned otherwise. Iris did not. And she didn’t have to pretend either.
Since she couldn’t die.
“Oh my, there goes the other one!”
The sound of an excited woman down below signaled the arrival of Iris’s partner. Her foot had touched down at the end of the rope. She turned just in time to see the young man leap into the air from the ledge of the bakery rooftop, so high children were screaming. Surely he’d miss his mark, they must have thought frightfully. Surely the sheer force of the wind would blow him off course as he twisted his body like a gymnast in the air. Just a fraction to the right or to the left and he’d be reduced to a fleshy smear upon the pavement.
But this was a trick the young man dubbed “Jinn” had performed many times before. Over his white body-length tights was a pair of beige billowing pants that cinched in at his knees; an orange vest hugged tight against his slender chest. His white tights made it more difficult to grasp the rope, but his toes gripped it nonetheless, his feet steady.
Iris’s eyes rolled quickly with just a flicker of annoyance as she heard swooning down below, likely due to her partner’s striking physical features. Very few of them could resist the sight of his sandy skin glowing under the sun or his chestnut-brown hair fluttering with the breeze. It happened after every show, like clockwork. The moment the curtains closed, a good handful of audience members, women and men alike, would discreetly find their way backstage to catch a glimpse of the bedazzling young man, a boy of nineteen, to gaze upon his sharp jawline up close, his long fluttering lashes, his slender build and angular nose. And each time they saw him, his dark, catlike eyes would stare back at them with a chilling, almost hateful expression that either chased them away or enticed them further.
Iris gazed into them now, but only—as she inwardly insisted—to watch for her cue. Their routine was a complicated one.
Simultaneously, the dancers lifted their arms and waved to the crowd neither of them particularly liked. “The Nubian Princess and the Turkish Prince,” Coolie dubbed the pair, because it was easy for Londoners to remember and exciting enough to bring in those with an appetite for the so-called exotic. Coolie had given Jinn his stage name for that exact reason as well.
“You have a wild look in your eyes, boy,” Coolie had once said in his growling tone while balancing a cigar on thin lips. “Like a tiger in a cage. The jinn are like devils to you people, aren’t they? The name will be a perfect fit. It’ll make you look even more dangerous. The audience will love it! I’ll bet they don’t see too many Ottomans in the circus.”
Coolie didn’t much care for sensitivity or accuracy. Jinn had silently accepted the name anyway, never protesting, never sharing his real name no matter how many times Iris pestered him for it, and never speaking of the parents who’d given it to him. It wasn’t as if anyone would care, Coolie had told them. Least of all the audience.
For Iris, it wasn’t so fun to be inspected and dissected by the gaze of people who saw her as nothing more than a curious oddity. But she’d been given a task today, and the work she completed for the Coolie Company had so far rewarded her with food, funds, and a temporary home. That was enough for now.
She nodded to Jinn, who nodded back. Together, to gasps and applause, they wheeled their bodies sideways, their hands touching down first, their feet catching the rope at the same time. The distance and timing had to be calculated to the letter: Jinn’s strong, slender legs were quite longer than hers as a man that stood above five foot ten. The top of her head brushed the bottom of his neck, and so they carefully measured out the length of their strides.
A squeeze of her hand, a strong upward toss, and Iris was in the air, flipping. She had to admit, there was something a little thrilling about the sheer terror her feats inspired in spectators who mistakenly believed she followed the same rules of life and death as they did. There was a collective sigh of relief as her toes expertly touched down upon the rope behind her partner. Their aerial routines were her favorite. Kissing the air, touching the face of the heavens even just for one moment gave her the feeling of freedom she longed for. Freedom was hard to come by for someone in hiding.
Where better to hide a freak than in a circus?
“Oi.” Behind her, Iris could hear Jinn hissing amid the chatter below. “You’re doing too many rotations in the air. I’ve told you before: if you overdo it, you won’t be able to spot your landing. Or maybe you really do want to fall and crack that thick skull of yours?”
Iris narrowed her eyes, but it was a stretched-out, forced grin he saw when she swiveled around to face him. It never ceased to amaze her how someone who seemed so quietly feral could in reality have such a nagging disposition. A cantankerous old geezer trapped in a handsome, youthful body. And he’d been as much ever since they began working together.
“My rotations were fine. I found the rope, didn’t I?” Iris insisted through a gritted smile.
Jinn smirked. “Luckily for you.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it. Not when you’re as good as I am.” Lifting her arms above her head she twirled on one foot, adjusting for the sudden force of the wind. Beautiful and elegant like a ballerina on a stage not nearly so high. “You should be aware by now, Jinn, but I’m in perfect control of my body.”
But her breath hitched in her throat and her heart gave a flutter as Jinn’s hands suddenly clasped her waist, catching her off guard. The little smirk on his face told her he’d noticed her tremble. Drat.
“Perfect control.” He stifled a laugh before lifting her high in the air, much to the audience’s delight.
“Ladies and gentlemen—doesn’t this sight thrill you? Doesn’t it make you just quiver in the utmost ecstasy of excitement?”
Coolie was always a bit of a ham when advertising. Iris couldn’t see him among the crowd below as her gaze was focused on Jinn’s for the sake of her concentration, but she recognized the circus proprietor’s voice well enough after hearing it for the past ten years.
“If you want to see more, you’re in luck. George Coolie’s company is putting on a show beginning tonight at Astley’s Amphitheatre. Jugglers and clowns, acrobats and animals—there’ll be no shortage of the wonders you’ll witness!”
On cue, Jinn tossed her up as they’d practiced.
“Ah,” she sighed. She could feel him. Jinn. There, in the sky, she could feel his warmth, his kindness, his presence. His essence. More strongly than a regular human should. This wasn’t about some crush. This was that otherworldliness Coolie often spoke of when referring to her abilities. Her instincts. Her uncanny senses. Though she couldn’t see him, she could feel Coolie too if she concentrated hard enough. How and why was the endless mystery that defined her life.
Jinn caught her again, keeping his hands strong and steady around her waist. She trusted him. Trusted him with her life. And though she wasn’t particularly concerned about preserving it, she relished it nonetheless. Theirs was a bond not so easily broken, an assurance borne from two years of camaraderie.
No matter how far she flew, his hands would find her every time.
And so she closed her eyes, letting him throw her up into the air again.
Iris breathed in the air. Spotting of a pair of butterflies, she watched them happily, their large wings, bright orange and pink, glinting in the light of the sun. A peace always washed over her when she was high in the sky. Up there with the birds, she could feel her blood pumping through her veins, sense the gentleness of the nature around her. She could hear her own heart beating and wondered to herself, in that silent moment, how long it had actually been beating for.
The day she arrived at Coolie’s doorstep was the first day of her life that she remembered. Everything that may have happened in the weeks and months and years before was under lock and key somewhere deep in her mind. An unsettling condition, one temporarily eased only when she was flying free in the sky.
When she first began working for Coolie’s company, most of the other workers at the circus had believed her to be around seventeen or eighteen years old. And slowly as the decade passed, many of them began to wonder why her youthful face had not aged a day. She’d wondered the same thing. She still wondered, though she tried not to.
It hurt to ask questions with not even a hint as to the answer. Sometimes, during those lonely nights, it hurt more than death. And she knew death.
“It’s the way a lot of them are, those Africans,” she’d heard a juggler say one day as they were cleaning out the buckets for the caged tigers. “They don’t age quickly, I swear it. I’ve heard Granny Marlow’s hair didn’t start to gray until she crossed sixty.”
It was a good enough explanation for now, though another decade or so and it’d be rather difficult to hide her un-aging body, even in a place known to revel in oddities. Iris knew her time was running out. The anxiety of when it would end often prickled her skin.
“Hmm... you’ve gotten rather heavy,” Jinn casually noted as he held his position underneath her.
Iris pried her eyes open for the glare she aimed at him. “How dare you,” she snipped.
“Really, though. This is harder than it should be.”
“Quiet, you crank.” Though the corner of her lips turned upward.
With a push, he bent back and let her drop to the rope behind her. The crowd erupted. An expert routine from only the best.
“Hmph. Still speaking as arrogantly as a real royal,” Jinn said as they both waved to their adoring spectators.
“And who says I’m not one?” she returned with a little smile.
A short-lived smile, for her eyes had just caught a curious sight down below. A young man stood apart from the rest of the crowd, watching. His black tweed sack coat was open just enough for her to see his vest and gray shirt. Well-cut trousers and pristine shoes. Outwardly, he looked like any other wide-eyed, handsome young English gentleman, worthy of the attention he drew from the women walking past him. Clean and proper—except for his hair, a black, bloody war zone upon his head. Perhaps that was what those ladies had been staring at.
But something within Iris stirred as it always did when things did not feel quite right. A kind of buzzing underneath her skin, like her nerves were on fire, like they’d been plucked and cut too many times. The hazy image of a face shrouded in darkness arose in her mind’s eye.
Before the day she met Coolie, Iris didn’t have any. None. Even now, she didn’t know why. But what she did have was a sense. A sense that she needed hide herself from something—from the world, perhaps. And also a sense that there was a task she needed to complete. A task so important, it was burned into the marrow of her bones.
There was a reason she existed. She just couldn’t remember what it was.
Those two opposing instincts were each as strong as the other. They’d get tangled up and muddled when she tried to examine them too closely. She may have settled on hiding for now, but that didn’t quiet the powerful pull nagging at her from deep within. That task she had to achieve no matter what, lost along with her memories.
An acute pang suddenly swelled up inside her. Panicking a little, she tried to calm herself, but her gaze turned back again to the young man, who wouldn’t take his eyes off of her.
His eyes. A pair of powerful, shocking, glinting sapphires. On her. Only on her.
And his knowing grin.
A flash of pain rocketed through her skull. She winced, and when she opened her eyes again, she looked upon a room filled with Egyptian artifacts.
The exhibit..., a voice deep within her whispered. South Kensington...
Muscle latching onto bone. Flesh layering over muscle. Nerves humming. A memory of agony powerful enough for her to feel the pain, just for a moment, physically in her own body.
Madame, tell me... are you... a goddess? The words of a quizzical child filled with awe.
Iris’s entire body chilled. A new memory?
It rushed through her so quickly, so suddenly that when she spun around at Jinn’s prodding to wave to the other side of the crowd, her feet slipped...
And she fell.
Iris’s heart stopped, her breath snuffed out as the crowd began shouting. Jinn leaped off the tightrope in a panic, yelling her name, catching the rope with one hand and extending his other in an effort to save her. Their fingers touched, but hers slipped quickly past. It was too late.
Iris hoped the gawking men and women below would have had enough sense to catch her, but that was, apparently, the problem. As her body hit a wave of arms, her head turned too quickly. The last sensation she felt before everything turned dark was her own neck snapping from the sheer force of the fall.
Alas, she had died.
And when she came to again and snapped her neck back into place, she found herself crumpled in a large, hairy, rather shocked gentleman’s arms. Raising a hand, she wiped the drool dribbling down the left side of her lips.
That shocking hallucination she’d seen before falling... It couldn’t have been... But was it really a memory? She looked around, unable to find the man who’d caused this mess, but by now he was the least of her problems. Not too much time had passed, which made sense, since the injury itself wasn’t too... involved. It wasn’t as if she had to regrow a limb or two. However, she was still in the middle of a confused and terrified crowd. Children were crying. Well, Iris felt like crying too.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Coolie gaping at her. The few times she had died in the past due to an accident or some other unfortunate circumstance, she’d always had the good fortune to do so out of his sight.
This was very bad.
She had to come up with a plan and fast. She was supposed to be a circus performer. She was supposed to be a freak only within the boundaries of human imagination.
Imagination. Yes. Like Coolie had once said, people were willing to believe anything...
Gathering up renewed strength, she leaped out of the gentleman’s arms, landed perfectly upon the ground, lifted her arms above her head, and took a very gracious bow.
“Did I surprise you?” she asked, using her light, melodic voice to address them for the very first time, though according to Coolie’s rules, she was never supposed to. “Acting is another skill of a clown, or did you forget?” And she winked. “The drama and danger you’ve witnessed today is just one of the many treats awaiting you at George Coolie’s circus. Come one, come all!”
She waved her hands at them in triumph.
A pregnant pause.
Then, scattered clapping.
Soon, Iris found herself once more surrounded by hoots and hollers, though she caught a nervous laugh and a twitchy hand here and there.
At first Coolie could only stare. But the man was a professional, and business was business. He puffed out his chest once more and, trying very obviously hard not to expose the aftereffects of his shock, let his booming voice reign over the din.
“Th-there you have it! The Nubian Princess and the Turkish Prince, ladies and gentlemen!”
For now at least, the crowd continued to cheer.