A coil of flames arced into the sky from the firebreather’s mouth, smashing through the frozen air and coating us all in a cloud of steam. Miss Gibson was most displeased, and she grabbed my wrist to haul me backward from the performance. I felt her cold, bony fingers digging hard against my flesh as I resisted, but a sickly boy of thirteen was no match for his ancient governess. Miss Gibson gave a tut that was so loud that the firebreather marked her disapproval, even over the roars of his other patrons.
The performer was a dark skinned man, a creed that Miss Gibson detested, but I was fascinated by the bright red paint on his coal-black skin. The firebreather’s darkness was mystical to me, and I wanted to ask him if there was a way to turn my skin that hue. Another yank of my wrist removed me from the scene for good; Miss Gibson was intent on us returning to the far recesses of the crowd.
“A carnival indeed!” she exclaimed the words with a loathing so intense that it made her bright eyes bulge between long, dark lashes.
She was an ageing woman, but her skin was preserved well from a total lack of smiling over the last fifty years. Miss Gibson’s flowered bonnet sat rigid upon her head, as if the very blooms upon it feared the repercussions if they should fall out of place, and her dress was long, black and buttoned right up to her thin, veiny neck.
“I don’t know what you did to convince your father that I should bring you here, Clarence!”
She had that look in her eyes as she accused me - the one that said there would be more of this shouting to come later - and I let my head droop low to show her I was sorry for her inconvenience. While in this display of deference, however, I snuck a sideways glance toward the rest of the fair. The stalls were gilded in blue and silver to mark the advent of winter upon our great city. People had come from far and wide to see the Frozen Carnival of 1897 and its many mysterious performers from every corner of the globe. There was a great deal of choice about what to do next, but I had only one destination in mind.
“Won’t you speak, Clarence?” Miss Gibson demanded. “Won’t you tell me what it is that fascinates you so about this place?”
I met the governess’s eyes at her words, and stepped forward to reach a light hand into her pocket. She slapped me away with a sudden ferocity, but she knew exactly what I was after. One gloved, dainty hand sank deep into the pocket, and a moment later, she produced a shining pocket watch on a silver chain. I cupped it in my frozen hands and fumbled to open the latch. A beautiful dial in black and white revolved in my grasp as I searched out the time.
Twenty minutes to go.
I had not yet seen the signage for the place I wanted to visit, but I knew now that I had only a short time left to find it. Returning the pocket watch to my protector, I reach for her arm to act as her guide. She huffed so loudly that two fine ladies in front of us turned their coiffured heads to observe the commotion. Taking my hand, Miss Gibson rolled her eyes.
“Best foot forward then,” she sighed, “but no more Negros. Your father wouldn’t like it if he knew you’d been so close to a Negro.”
For all her faults, Miss Gibson was rather good at her job. Being governess to a boy who’d been mute from birth, she had had every opportunity to break the rules in my presence. She could have smacked me, beaten me or screamed blue murder to my face, and I’d never have been able to tell a soul about it. But she had never disciplined me more than was proper, or frightened me without due cause for punishment. She may have been perfectly beastly, but all teachers were, and I felt I was rather lucky to have her by my side.
I don’t think she realized that, though. While my father, a notable doctor in residence at Saint Bart’s, believed I had been born with a rare infliction of the tongue, Miss Gibson insisted that my silence was all in the mind. She proclaimed that, if correctly transformed in personality, I would one day find my voice. It was therefore her mission to grow me into a fine young man, and I was certain that she would go to her grave trying to squeeze a sound from my useless tongue.
“Where on Earth are we going?” Miss Gibson asked. The heels of her shoes clicked faster with every second I spurred her onward. “You’ll run out of Carnival if you go any farther. The Thames is barely ten feet from here, boy!”
But the Thames was the exact place I sought. The closer I came to the great golden sign raised high about the clamoring masses, the more I could make out its shimmering proclamation. The word “Dragons” came to me first, in bold red script, which was finished with the flourish of a wild, rough brush. The promise of the sight of true mystical beasts burned in my veins as I struggled on toward the inviting banner.
There was a tent set to one side of the frozen river, large enough to house a herd of elephants. A little way along from that stood a grandstand, which was already teeming with eager people. When we were standing directly beneath the golden banner, we had to stop for Miss Gibson to pay a halfpenny each for our entrance, and I finally got a full and proper look at the signage.
“Master DeClarin and his Mystical Dragons,” Miss Gibson read aloud, with merely a percentile of the enthusiasm I felt within my chest. “Clarence, you do realize this will all be chicanery, don’t you? Just like the last time?”
My heart sank a little in remembrance of ‘the last time’. The time about which Miss Gibson spoke was some months ago, when a summer fete had settled in Saint James’s Park. In the brief span of days that it sat there awaiting my arrival, I had managed to push the newspaper advertisement into my father’s face enough times for him to persuade Miss Gibson to take me. This fete had promised dragons, though all I had witnessed were tropical lizards almost the size of adult hounds. I shook my head, banishing the memory as I absorbed the eager fascination of the people all around me. I was determined that this time, the promise of dragons would come true.
The grandstand was covered in a thin sheen of frost, which soaked into my britches from the moment I took my seat. Miss Gibson had thought to bunch the hem of her long dark clothes beneath her by way of creating some comfort, and I knew I would be told off later when she saw the damp patch all over the seat of my trousers. I had little time to worry about any of that, for it was only moments after we had crammed into the stands that the spectacle began. It commenced with music from the direction of the tent, and when all eyes had turned to face it, a man emerged from between the thick fabric flaps.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” the showman called through a funnel-like tube pressed to his lips. “I am the great and mystical Master DeClarin, and I bring you an opportunity like no other, this very bitter day in London town.”
His voice was both a shout and a whisper, a kind of rolling rasp that commanded utter silence as the crowd strained to hear his echoing call. Rough words reverberated from the south bank of the Thames as DeClarin approached the front of the grandstand, waving his free hand as a magician would before an incredible trick. He was dressed in a fine black tailcoat with whiskers, which matched its obsidian hue, and his wiry frame made him look like a skeleton that someone had felt inclined to hang their clothes upon. For all his haggard looks and withered voice, I could not tear my gaze from DeClarin as a shimmer of wicked joy crossed his deep, dark eyes.
“I will try your patience no longer with idle prattle, gentle patrons,” he crooned, “for my marvelous creatures are only believed when they are seen.”
At these final words, DeClarin slapped his hand hard against the center of his chest, and a colossal roar erupted from the location of the tent. I had heard lions and bears bellowing in London Zoo, but the sound striking my ears was more than twenty times that volume. For a boy who spent most of his life in silence, the ferocity and power of such a sound was almost too much to bear. I sucked in a breath, determined to withstand the noise for the sake of what the Master had promised in his show.
A hand gently rested on my shoulder, and I realized I was shaking slightly under Miss Gibson’s firm touch. My governess leaned close to my ear and, though I couldn’t not bear to take my eyes from their anticipation of what lay roaring in the tent, I did see her thin lips moving in the farthest corner of my vision.
“Don’t be frightened, you silly boy.” She soothed me with a sting, like ice upon a bruise. “It’s all an illusion, don’t forget.”
I gave Miss Gibson the briefest nod to show that I had heard her, and in that same moment, I blinked. That was all it took for the crowd to suddenly rise to their feet in awe, starting to gasp and shriek, some in panic and some in abject wonder. As my eyelids reopened, I saw a gigantic shape flash across the frozen sky. The creature was larger than the engine of a steam train and it moved ten times faster as it streaked through the air above the frosty river. Massive wings dipped their tips into the icy Thames, making lines and ripples as they skimmed the water’s surface.
“My God,” Miss Gibson whispered. “It cannot be so.”
My governess was not prone to blasphemy, but she was not the only one guilty of such exclamations in the crowd. When the great hurricane of a beast finally slowed, beating its wings to stay aloft above the water, it was clear to all that this wondrous creation could be no illusion. Spines of a silver hue trickled down a stone colored back, with muscles rippling and tensing under reptilian skin. From the top of its horn-covered head to the tip of its flitting, spiny tail, it was not to be argued that this was anything but a dragon.
Master DeClarin had four dragons in total. When the crowd had overcome their initial hysteria, the Dragon Master was able to assure them that the beasts were fully under his control, and we were introduced to the rest of the brood. Arabella, the stone colored dragon I had witnessed first, was the largest of the collection, but Kwame was the most colorful, with bright red and brown scales, which turned orange on the inside of his wings. A set of twins completed the quartet, whose names were Milo and Mila, and I watched their emerald forms fly in perfect unison through the heavens. The four dragons performed a beautiful aerial display, at which the waiting crowds gasped and gaped, Miss Gibson and myself included, but there was one small thing bothered me even through my elation.
Master DeClarin held his palm firmly over his chest the whole time the display took place. He issued no verbal command to the creatures, but he clutched at his torso so firmly that his bony hand was whiter than frost. How could he be so certain that the beasts were under his control? Was there something to the way he held his heart that helped him master the dragons somehow? DeClarin’s strange behavior stole my gaze a dozen times during the display, which lasted a full fifteen minutes, until the crowds were sufficiently frozen as to be persuaded to vacate the grandstand.
No sooner than all of the dragons had swept themselves back into the tent, which now seemed scarcely large enough to house them, the crowd started to move. I heard Miss Gibson shriek as our bench was upended by the mass of people, and we were pushed and jostled along in the wave of shuffling feet. I tried to glance back toward the tent, catching the barest glimpse of DeClarin as he vanished into the canvas, but the tall, hustling figures all around me were blocking my view. When I turned my head back to face the path ahead, I was alarmed to find that Miss Gibson was gone.
I was not, by nature, a mischievous boy, but I was tremendously persistent. I had begged endlessly in my own silent way for the chance to witness real dragons but, now that my wish had been granted, I found my curiosity was still not satisfied. The image of the Dragon Master and his heart-holding hand would not leave my mind, and I fancied that it would take me a long, arduous time to relocate Miss Gibson in the massive crowd. That meant I had a window of time where I was unsupervised, and essentially free to do as I pleased. I could hear an echo of Miss Gibson’s stern voice in my head, warning me against the vice of curiosity, even as I turned on my heel and dove against the tide of the crowd.
For the first time in my life, I was grateful to be small for my age. The grandstand was blocked off on the far side to ensure that the crowd all vacated in an eastward swarm to redistribute themselves among the Carnival, but I was scrawny enough to climb through a gap in the frost-laden wood. I padded along the threadbare grass of the river bank, my eyes trained on the solitary tent, which now lay still and silent about twenty feet from where I walked. I marveled at its stillness, wondering if DeClarin could even control when the dragons roared and when they were forced to close their massive jaws.
There was only one way into the tent, and that was through the heavy flaps where DeClarin and his beasts had traversed. It took all my strength to even lift one rough swathe of the canvas, but I managed to get it high enough to slip underneath. The canvas smacked me hard in the small of my back at it landed, and I gave a tiny gasp as I was plunged into near-total darkness. There was a meager source of light, glowing yellow like a gas-lamp, but I could not make out its source while my eyes were adjusting to the atmosphere. Strange shapes formed and shifted in my vision as I ambled forward gingerly, not wanting to mistakenly tread on the tail of any beasts I might encounter.
It wasn’t a concern I needed to harbor, the more my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the tent, the more I realized that it was empty. At first I reasoned that perhaps some sort of tunnel had been dug out under the tent for DeClarin to transport his beasts, but when I had walked several feet toward the tent’s center, I realized that I would have already fallen into a hole designed to fit the huge form of Arabella. The tent looked smaller from the inside, and my memory of Arabella’s dimensions told me that the canvas would just about house her on her own, but not with three companions too. The impossibility of the dimensions of the tent was something I couldn’t fathom, and all I could do to search for answers was to keep walking in the darkness.
A sound gave me pause after a few footsteps more. As I stood stock-still in the darkness, my eyes were drawn to a brighter spot along the tent’s right hand wall, where the unmistakable shape of cage bars came into view. The cages were hardly big enough for humans, let alone dragons, and in each one, there was a small, dark heap curled on the floor. There were five cages in total, and four were occupied by the lumps, which occasionally heaved as though they were breathing. Frozen by sheer fright, I stood only a few feet from the nearest cage, and I realized with horror that its occupant was the one making the sound I had heard.
Whatever the lump was, it was crying.
My tongue made a useless flap in my mouth. I wanted so desperately to ask the creature in the cage what was wrong. All I could manage was to open my lips and let out a guttural sound. It came out as a sort of growl, rumbling from the vibrations in the roof of my mouth; an animalistic sound which Miss Gibson would have knocked me sideways for making. A fleeting pain slashed my guilty gut as my governess passed through my mind. I should never have come to this strange, dark place. I should have gone to find her instead.
“Yes,” a voice echoed, “I suspect you should have, Clarence.”
Light flooded the tent, the yellow gas lamp glow increasing to form a golden burst of energy. I leapt backwards in shock, my vision still fixed on the crying lump in the nearest cage, which I now saw for what it truly was. A woman, with silver hair, which was greasy and dull like the shine of wet stone, lay curled in a childlike ball on the floor of her cage. Beside her cage was another, containing a man whose dark brown skin told me that he was from a land very far from London, and in the two prisons on the very edge of the golden light, I saw a young man and woman with the very same set of green, sparkling eyes. Those emerald gazes glistened with tears as they looked up at me, and I found it painful to try to return their looks.
I was so shocked by the sight of the caged people that I had quite forgotten about the voice that had startled me. It was only after my own stunted breathing had relaxed that I heard the whirring and clicking of a contraption close behind me. The hairs on my neck stood to attention, and I knew it was unwise to keep my back to whoever was behind me. I had a feeling I knew exactly who that throaty whisper belonged to, the one that had answered my thoughts without them even crossing my lips to break a sound.
Master DeClarin sat behind a desk. If I had gone three steps farther into the tent, I’d have walked straight into it, but luck – good or bad – had compelled me to stop in exactly the right place. When I revolved to see the Dragon Master sat in office, I was close enough to make out every feature of his withered frame in the gaslight. Those frost-white hands of his tapped away at a curious bronze instrument, which looked something like my father’s typewriter. It had gears and cogs that turned on their own, as though DeClarin was merely responding to the machine’s own sentience. Concentration showed on his be-whiskered face, and I saw now that his curly moustache was flecked with grey in close quarters. His eyes shone with the same dark matter which had enthralled me out on the Thames, and I was motionless as my gaze finally settled on his chest.
His tailcoat and shirt were both open, and he wore no undergarment that would hide the flesh of his torso. At least, what was left of the skin. DeClarin’s chest was cleaved open by a strange set of clawing ribs, made of the same material as the little bronze machine on the desk. They formed a wide gash that left me a stifling view of his crimson innards, most noticeably the iron casket that seemed to encase his heart. I realized with horror that the bronze ribs attached to his chest were also attached to the machine at which he worked, and when DeClarin typed into the contraption, his iron heart gave a lively squeeze.
“There’d be little point in running, Clarence,” DeClarin rasped, never looking up from his work. “I came here looking for you. This was always meant to happen.”
As he spoke those terrifying words, my eyes roved over the remainder of the desk. Beneath the bronze machine, a scatter of maps illuminated various locations circled in red ink. Three such places had been crossed off, one in the Far East, one in Africa and one in Holland. I saw how DeClarin must have scrawled a wide circle around London, his next target, and I looked back over my shoulder to the silent prisoners in the cages. Arabella had slotted eyes, which pinned her as oriental, Kwame was from the Dark Continent, without a doubt, and Milo and Mila could certainly have hailed from Holland.
These were DeClarin’s dragons.
“Yes,” the Master answered with a corner-mouthed grin. “You may have noticed that they do not speak? Just like you, my boy. Your true voice belongs in quite a different body to the one you’ve been given.”
I didn’t understand how DeClarin seemed to know exactly what was in my mind, but I knew that my feet were too rooted to the ground for me to run away. As I tried my hardest to move them, I found myself looking at the Dragon Master’s heart once more, and every thump of the iron casing gave me flashes of how DeClarin had held his chest during the dragons’ performance. We were connected to him, perhaps irrevocably so, and I knew with damning certainty what fate was to befall me. A single question floated to the forefront of my mind:
DeClarin looked up. He seemed impressed with me; his dark eyes glittering proudly as he carefully detached the metal ribs from the skin around his open chest. He left the gash wide, his iron heart pulsing as he rose to his feet and began to round the table.
“I don’t know how, exactly,” he said, “but it seems that human beings with our particular brand of mutism have a hidden ability for transformation. My research suggests that it’s all in the blood, that we are related to the Old Ones, or the Dragonkind.”
Our mutism. He spoke as though he was the same as me, yet I watched his lips move and make the sounds I had never been able to. DeClarin gave a nod, and the briefest flicker of compassion crossed his features as he glanced down at his open chest. My stomach gave a lurch as he tapped at his iron heart, which gave an echoing clang in return.
“I was once like you, little Clarence,” the Master explained, “and I became a scientist in order to cure my own ailment. This was my great solution, a filter in the blood which combines my human form with the abilities that my dragon half possesses.”
Even as he spoke, I watched the long, spindling length of a reptilian tail growing behind him. It expanded with a graceful arc of motion, sweeping out toward me and suddenly wrapping my feet together before I could so much as jump. DeClarin’s tail held me steady as the scientist walked forward, one frost-white hand reaching for the topmost part of the iron casing in his chest. He gave it a wrench and grimaced with a brief hiss of pain, and I stared with awestruck horror at the innards of a kind of container, which now teemed with blood.
Was this what the bronze machine, DeClarin’s great invention, had done? Had it forced his heart to produce an excess of blood that the grim Master was now scooping up in one cupped hand? That hand came closer to me and though I pulled my head away to resist it, the dragon tail shifted my whole body nearer to my foul and inevitable fate. As DeClarin’s handful of tainted blood reached my lips, I looked into his eyes and saw not greed or malice, but pain and desperation. This was his cure, and his victims were a side effect that he did not take lightly, even as he stole their spirits to feed his own.
“Clarence is a fine name for a dragon,” he told me.
For all the fear that brimmed inside me, my heart grew calm, as though it agreed with him.
It was a most uncouth sight to see a woman screeching in the middle of a carnival, but Miss Gibson had lost all sense of propriety as the panic in her breast grew wild. She streaked from place to place among the busy stalls, turning every boy and indeed every figure less than five feet tall, studying their features before the inevitable visage of the crestfallen consumed her pinched face once more. Miss Gibson had never gained lines from smiling, but now she feared that worry would finally mark her smooth skin. Her eyes strained wide as she scanned the crowds around her, who were parting to give the mad governess a wide berth.
“Clarence!” she cried out with every breath that her lungs would give her. “My Clarence! Please, someone must help me find Clarence!”
Noone came to her aid. The throng of people went on thronging, their footsteps and conversation surrounding the desperate governess with a deafening din. Miss Gibson threw her hands to the sides of her head, unable to cope with the senseless panic that drove her to distraction in the very core of her being. This could not be happening. Clarence was a good boy, and he would never have strayed from her side for this long. Miss Gibson screamed in utter agony at the thought that her negligence had cost her the boy, and as her cries died out, an answer came from high in the heavens.
It was the sound of a dragon’s roar.
Six of the great beasts were crossing the London sky, flying high toward the clouds as though they were vacating the city. Miss Gibson had seen four of the very same creatures earlier, but she did not recognize the great black beast that led them in formation now. His front was streaked with red scales like the breast of a robin, massive wings pushed back as if to encase the pack of followers he had amassed. At the rear of the familiar party, there was a pale, sandy-colored creature only half the size of the others. The smallest dragon flapped his wings as though he barely knew how to use them, and his head was turned to view the fair, which lay far below where he flew.
He bellowed with a deep and deafening cry that made the onlookers below gasp and flee. Miss Gibson was rooted by fear as she gazed up at that little dragon, and though she knew not why, his roar made tears burst from her stoic face. It would be madness to admit it to anyone else, but Miss Gibson was almost certain that the noisy little creature was calling to her, and her alone. The governess, who never expressed a hint of outward emotion, now stood weeping in the wake of the dragons, and all thoughts of Clarence and his fondness for the beasts seemed to slip right out of her head. It was as if her memories were being carried away with the flap of scaly wings.