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Authors: Karina Cooper

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Transmuted

BOOK: Transmuted
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Transmuted:
Book Six of The St.
Croix Chronicles
By Karina Cooper

In this final installment of Cherry St. Croix's adventures, only one thing could compel the disgraced countess to return to Society—the threat of immortality.

All is not peaceful in the wake of the Midnight Menagerie's ruin. Although the Karakash Veil has been forced to flee its stronghold, the mysterious head of the criminal organization is not content to fade away.

All is not well in London low. Caught in a war between gangs, men are torn limb from limb, and I am called on to ascertain how. The immoral Karakash Veil is no doubt involved, and Micajah Hawke, a prisoner in his own Menagerie, cannot soften the danger this time.

Above the foggy drift, a priceless diamond vanishes. In the dangerous Underground, a murderous rampage demands retribution. The hunt for the mastermind behind these misdeeds sends me back to Society—and into the unforgiving embrace of the world I'd left behind.

Nothing is what it seems. Enemies, allies—and a man who struggles with a nature even devotion cannot tame. Torn between the scars of the past and fragile new beginnings, I must create balance in the world I have chosen—and with the people I have come to love. The game has changed; should the Veil achieve the immortality it craves, I will have nowhere left to run.

Book six of the St.
Croix Chronicles

106,000 words

Dedication

For Mallory, and the team at Carina Press: thanks for believing in Cherry until the very end.

 

And to my readers: without you, there would be no misadventures to enjoy.

Chapter One

There comes a time in every young lady’s life when she must examine what is expected of her, scrutinize her station and breeding, and choose of those matters the intentions she would pursue. For many of my contemporaries, this path would lead to wedlock, motherhood and the inevitable pursuit of matronly pastimes.

I had already, if rather calamitously, trod upon the concept of marriage. I had no lingering inclinations for motherhood, nor had I the patience for a matron’s recreations.

What I had was a thin blade held to the gut of a thief who’d stolen into my bedchamber in the dead of night.

And a pistol tucked against my temple.

The paths laid out before me did not appear to be of forgiving design.

My name, as I prefer to give it, is Cherry St. Croix—and though I’d been part of that dangerous profession colloquially termed
collecting
for near six years, I had never woken to a would-be assailant in my boudoir until this moment.

The fault was, in part, my own. It was I who had made the choice to remain ensconced in the home of Frances Fortescue, once my chaperone and as near enough to a mother as I cared to examine the role. The widow, always stern in my memory, had taught me much that my parents had failed to impress upon their abandoned daughter; what with their gallivanting about, pursuing the alchemical secrets to immortality whilst giving the impression of being deceased.

Fanny had no patience for the esoteric matters that obsessed my mother and father up until their eventual—and final—deaths. The subjects
she
taught me involved the finer matters of good breeding. To wit, literacy, dancing, torturous hours at the piano and pianoforte, charming discourse, fashion, and enough education to whet my genetically predisposed thirst for matters of science. The latter very much to her chagrin.

That she had worked patiently to undo a childhood of criminal activity, thanks entirely to the aforementioned irresponsibility of my parents and the training delivered at the cruel hands of the ringmaster of a traveling circus, spoke to a soul made of iron and a heart of gold.

It was not Fanny’s fault that I came to rely so heavily on laudanum and, later, opium direct. Yet, at the worst of my compulsion for the stuff,’twas memory of her unswerving devotion combined with the unceasing commitment of my guardian, Mr. Oliver Ashmore, that helped me learn the nature of sobriety once more.

Though stripped of our well-heeled home above the roiling fog that choked much of London’s lower class, the staff I had come to love remained more or less intact. With Ashmore in constant attendance, no longer a guardian but my tutor in all things alchemical, I felt very much like I was home again.

I should have known better. Places of sanctuary had become few and far between for the likes of me.

The figure caught with my blade to belly remained unmoving—a lean-shouldered silhouette in the vaguest thread of light. Surfacing as readily as I had from my sleep left me with keen sight in the darkness, but though I scrutinized the sneakthief, I saw no clues as to his identity. If he was, as I suspected, a collector out for my bounty, he did not bear any signs of the often unique armaments collectors tended to display.

After all, I was intimately familiar with the habits of the collecting kind. I had once worn an armored leather corset, a respirator that helped conceal my identity and fog-protectives to see in the miasma I hunted in. Thanks to the poor choices I had made during the worst of my intoxication with the Turkish tar, I no longer claimed ownership of these collecting tools. They had been taken from me at a time when I had not been aware of myself. Who had them now, I did not know.

That made me no less dangerous. Sobriety had, after a period of adjustment, tempered me into sterner stuff.

My heart thumped in slow, steady time as the cold metal of my assailant’s pistol nudged my cheek. “Now, then,” murmured a voice of pleasing tenor. “Shall we refrain from hasty decisions, my lady?” There was nothing poorly bred about the dialect. Were it not for the fact that I remained in my nightdress and he a stranger in my boudoir, I might have mistaken him for a gentleman.

That he titled me a lady meant he knew more of me than I of him.

And also that he did not know me at all.

I despised the title I had been forced to keep after the death of my lord husband. In October of the last year, Lord Cornelius Kerrigan Compton, Earl Compton, and heir apparent to the Marquess of Northampton, had, despite his family’s dismay, asked my hand in marriage. For a multitude of reasons, primarily that of freedoms he offered under protection of his name, I had accepted.

The earl, a man I admired and had thought eventually to love, lost his life when a rival collector murdered him. With one blade in the foggy dark, I had been stripped not only of the protection of his name and caring, but of the ownership of my own fortunes, the care of my staff—near enough to family so as to make no difference—and my freedom.

I had not returned to Society since that fateful day. Not when my late husband’s lady mother, the marchioness, who had never made secret of her distaste for me, intended to pack me off to a country estate until I was all but forgotten.

The second son of the line, now the heir apparent, knew I still haunted London—and also that I had achieved revenge against his brother’s murderer. Lord Piers Everard Compton, now the Earl Compton, had formed something of a fragile friendship with me, one often fraught with shared regret.

All things considered, I couldn’t imagine he would have informed his lady mother of my doings. Lord Piers would gain nothing from fueling the marchioness’s ire.

Yet if this lout did not come from the marchioness, and he was not the sort of low-brow collector I had come to know, then who in London’s well-heeled Society would know or care enough about me to go through the trouble?

And if this was a collector out for bounty, then that made of him the type I detested most.

Although there were collectors aplenty in London low, I was the only female among them. As I never furnished a name, my sex had been all that was needed to mark my low-street infamy. I had become quite well-known for my successes—especially in regards to the Midnight Menagerie, once London’s most exotic pleasure gardens.

That I was also the only female collector among those
above
the drift went entirely unremarked. It was, after all, a secret.

I bore no love for the gentlemen who dabbled at the collecting role. I called them Society collectors—lordlings who thought it fashionable to meander about with the superficial dangers of the profession. They tended to favor collections that targeted those wealthier tradesmen and matters of gentlemanly debt. Certainly no task as perilous as mucking about the peasouper clinging to the filthy streets below.

The keenest dangers those high-class sops encountered were likely nothing more terrible than catching a well-hemmed sleeve on an errant nail.

As I frowned up at the silhouette who’d barged so ignobly into my sleeping quarters, I wondered if I might be facing one of the three Society collectors I’d known. I could not place the voice; I had not cared enough to befriend the gentlemen I’d scorned as pretenders and dabblers.

The purse for my capture was hefty enough. I’d certainly give it a go, were it not my own hide on the line.

Of course, the only collection I’d seen scribed had named the Menagerie as the keeper of the purse offered. Despite that the pleasure gardens no longer existed, scorched and closed off after the mutiny its staff had brought about, we never did capture the Karakash Veil that had headed it.

Those secretive and anonymous Chinese members that wore the moniker remained on the lam, which was something of an ongoing concern for me and mine. After all, the powerful Veil had made abundantly clear that it would stop at nothing to wreak its vengeance upon me.

A rather harsh relationship, for all I’d only ever conversed with a spokesman from behind a screen. I could not even say for certain that it was the same spokesman each time—and I had some theories as to that matter.

This made all strangers suspect. Even the polite ones.

My eyes narrowed. “Who sent you, if you please?”

“I do not,” replied my assailant, and the weapon eased from my cheek. “Quick as you may be with a blade, my lady, my finger is already on this trigger. I’d prefer you did not force the issue.”

I preferred differently. However, as with most gentlemen of my acquaintance, my wishes did not seem to hold any interest for him. I lifted my chin. “I am not dressed.”

“I am aware,” he replied, mild tones of utter disinterest.

I had just enough pride in such things to be indignant. “Fetch my wrapper, and I—”

“You may fetch your own wrapper,” he cut in. “The sooner you prepare yourself, Lady Compton, the quicker we will free your staff.”

That gave me pause.

Of all the things to hold over my head, the safety of my family was key. I had already lost more friends than I could ever truly atone for, and such threats found easy purchase in my fears. My stomach sank. The unique calm with which I faced my opponent fractured to a grim fear, a thread of anger that simmered inside the ache of my chest.

I was no martyr by nature; I simply had no more room in me for grief.

Without further comment, I reversed the knife I held, a deft flick of my fingers that presented the hilt to the gentleman.

He took it. “Well done,” he said, as though I were a terrier to be patted. “Now see to your wrapper. There is a closed coach, my lady. Fear no eyes upon you.”

This was, with all due respect for the consideration, the least of my worries.

Very slowly, ensuring I made no sudden moves, I eased from my narrow bed. I walked as silently as I could, bare feet padding softly across the floorboards. It was chilly, whatever hour it was. While the untenable heat of summer had not yet reached London’s cooler climes, early May had already begun to warm by day.

At night, it still felt too crisp for spring.

I wondered if he’d let me pull on my tromping boots instead of slippers. And how far we would be traveling.

“Quiet, now,” my would-be captor ordered. “Make no fuss.”

He irritated me. I made no fuss for the obvious reason that my silence allowed me to strain my ears, hoping to hear any sounds of movement in the house below. My room, one of several above stairs, occupied the space just over the parlor that had become something of a gathering room for us. While a few creaks and groans spoke to settling, I heard no voices.

If this bloke
had
men, as he claimed, they were deucedly quiet.

I drew my wrapper on, tied it tightly at the waist, and for extra care, draped a cloak over my arm. The frothy material that gave my nightclothes fullness was pretty enough, in a useless fashion, but would not make for any degree of subtlety. Nor easy movement.

The man who trained his pistol upon me did not seem inclined to offer me that opportunity, anyway.

“Out,” he ordered quietly. “Be silent.”

Did his entire strategy hinge on my silence?

Well-planned. Even were I to scream, it would be for nothing. Ashmore had left the premises earlier that evening to assist the Brick Street Bakers, one of London low’s plethora of gangs. I was closely tied to them by way of friendship with their leader, Ishmael Communion, who had sent word by bantling runner of help required. There had been beastman sightings near Wapping.

We called them such, for they were exactly that—man and beast, alchemically twisted into monstrous form. Once, they had been members of the Black Fish Ferrymen, a nasty gang with a reputation for the basest of meanness. The Karakash Veil had entered into an unholy pact with them, and this was their reward.

One such creature, given undue strength and ferocity, could give five strong men more than a bit of trouble. Many a Baker life had been made forfeit already.

Thanks in part to Ashmore’s alchemical knowhow, we had the means to hunt the creatures and put them down.

They were sorrowful creatures, beyond sanity.

Beyond even humanity.

For a month and fortnight, those of us skilled in such affairs had made it a matter of determination to hunt down the remainder of the Veil’s perverse soldiers. Between us all, we’d found half a dozen. We did not know how many more there were.

We dared not halt our search until we were sure.

Of those intent on the utter destruction of these things, none were so focused as Micajah Hawke, once ringmaster of the Menagerie. The formula the Veil concocted used his blood as a base; Hawke’s heritage, shrouded in mystery, lent a certain strength to his position as sorcerer for his Chinese masters.

I had always known him as a powerful man, one that I had often likened to the Devil in an earthly Garden of Eden. Until recently, I’d thought him merely a skilled opportunist whose well-crafted reputation hinged on rumors of the mysterious.

He may have lost his role—that authority ceded him in the pleasure gardens he had once ruled—but I had come to learn that Hawke was far more than a man of reputation alone.

Ashmore might have literal centuries of alchemical knowledge to draw upon, but Hawke had the force of will and sorcerous know-how to match. They were as night and day in temperament and ability, but each was strong in his own right.

I did not worry about either when they hunted.

Neither could say the same of me. Trouble had made something of a hobby of following me around. Right to my own door, no less.

I took the stairs carefully, walking with my slippers in hand.

When I reached for the front door’s latch, a tap at my shoulder warned me from it. “Not that way,” my captor whispered.

I tipped my head down the hall. A flicker of embers from the parlor lit the shadows stretched across the floor to a dull orange. So he meant to exit via the kitchen, did he? The kitchen door led to a narrow lane and, no doubt, a waiting carriage on the other end.

My only thought, poorly planned though it might seem, was to give all appearance of cooperation until he pulled his men away from my staff. Were they in each bedroom we passed? Looming over Fanny, over Booth and his wife?

BOOK: Transmuted
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