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Home > Her Dark Curiosity (The Madman's Daughter #2)

Her Dark Curiosity (The Madman's Daughter #2)
Author: Megan Shepherd

ONE

THE AIR IN MY crumbling attic chamber smelled of roses and formaldehyde.

Beyond the frosted windowpanes, the rooftops of Shoreditch stretched toward the east in sharp angles still marked with yesterday’s snow, as chimney stacks pumped smoke into an already foggy sky. On nights like these, I never knew what dangers might lurk in the streets. Yesterday morning a flower girl around my age was found frozen on the corner below. I hadn’t known her aside from glimpses in the street, one girl on her own nodding to another, but now her dark, pretty eyes would never again meet mine in the lamplight. The newspapers said nothing of her death—just one of dozens on such a cold night. I’d learned of it in slips and whispers when I made my usual rounds to the market’s flower stalls and butcher stands. They told me she’d tried to stuff flowers between the layers of her meager clothing for warmth. The flowers had frozen too.

I pulled my patchwork quilt tighter around my shoulders. A threadbare scrap of fabric wasn’t much more than crumpled flowers.

Winter in London could be a deadly time.

And yet, as I studied the street below where children trailed a chestnut roaster hoping for fallen nuts, I couldn’t help but feel there was something about the narrow streets that whispered of a certain familiarity, a sense of safety despite the rough neighborhood. The tavern owner across the street came out to hang a sparse holly wreath on her paint-flecked door, getting ready for Christmas. My thoughts drifted backward to memories of mincemeat pies and presents under a fir tree, but my smile soon faded, along with the fond remembrances. What good would presents do me now, when death was just around the corner?

I returned to my worktable. My attic was small, a narrow bed and a cabinet missing a drawer arranged around an ancient woodstove that groaned into the night. My shabby worktable was divided in two; the right-hand side contained half a dozen twisted rosebushes in various states of being grafted. A flower shop in Covent Garden paid me to alter these bushes so that the same plant would produce both red and white flowers. The meager profit I made helped pay for the rent and the medical supplies on the left side of the table: a syringe from my previous day’s treatment, empty glass vials, a package wrapped in butcher paper, and scrawled notes about the healing properties of hibiscus flowers.

I took my seat, letting the patchwork quilt pool onto the floorboards, and reached for one of the glass vials. Father had developed this serum for me when I’d been a baby, and until recently it had kept the worst of my symptoms at bay. Over the past few months, however, all that had begun to change, and I was growing more ill by the day: muscle spasms, followed by a deep-seated ache in my joints, and a vertigo that left my vision dulled. The instant I touched the vial, my hand clenched with a sharp tremor, and the small container slid from my fingers and shattered on the floor.

“Blast!” I said, hugging my quaking hand to my chest, lifting my bare feet so I wouldn’t cut them on the glass. This was how the fits always began.

As flickering shadows from my lamp threw beastlike shapes on the roof, I cleaned the broken glass and then unwrapped the butcher’s package and smoothed down the edges. The smell of meat filled the air, ironlike, only just starting to rot. My head started to spin from the odor. I lifted one of the pancreases. The organ was the size of my fist, a light fleshy color, shriveled into deep wrinkles. The cow must have been killed yesterday, maybe the day before.

I’d been born with a spinal deformity that would have led to a quick death, if my father hadn’t been London’s most gifted surgeon. He’d been able to correct my spine, though the operation resulted in a scar down the length of my back and several missing organs—organs he was able to substitute in his desperation with those of a fawn. My body had never quite accepted the foreign tissue, resulting in the tremors and dizziness and need for daily injections.

As I opened the desk drawer and selected a scalpel, I thought about how it was through using the fawn to save me that Father first understood the possibilities of animal vivisection. In the years since, he’d perfected his vivisection procedures—and later turned to a revolutionary chemical transmutation—to transform animals into humanlike creatures, some with tusks and tails, others so perfect in the human form that not even I knew the difference.

Not until it had been too late.

I wasn’t certain why the serum was failing now. Perhaps I was growing immune, or the raw ingredients had altered, or perhaps now that I was growing from child to woman, my body’s composition was changing, too. I’d outgrown his serum just as I had my childish respect for him. His serum had only ever been temporary anyway, lasting a day or two at most. Now I was determined to create something even better: a permanent cure.

The pancreas’s puckered flesh yielded under the sharpened blade, separating like butter. It required but three simple incisions. One down the length. One to expose the glycogen sac. Another to slice the sac free and extract it.

I slid over the tray clinking with glass vials, along with the crushed herbs I’d already mixed with powders from the chemists’. This work had a way of absorbing me, and I scarcely realized how the afternoon was passing, nor how cold the air seeping through the window was growing. At last I finished this latest batch of serum and waited patiently to see if the various ingredients would hold. In order to be effective, the disparate parts would need to maintain cohesion for at least a full minute. I waited, and waited, and yet after only ten seconds the serum split apart like a bloated eel left too long in the sun.

Blast.

It had failed, just like all the times before.

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