In the quiet streets of Prague all manner of mysterious creatures lurk in the shadows…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Nicole Jarvis’ debut novel The Lights of Prague—arriving from Titan Books on May 25th.
In the quiet streets of Prague all manner of mysterious creatures lurk in the shadows. Unbeknownst to its citizens, their only hope against the tide of predators are the dauntless lamplighters—secret elite of monster hunters whose light staves off the darkness each night. Domek Myska leads a life teeming with fraught encounters with the worst kind of evil: pijavice, bloodthirsty and soulless vampiric creatures. Despite this, Domek finds solace in his moments spent in the company of his friend, the clever and beautiful Lady Ora Fischerová—a widow with secrets of her own.
When Domek finds himself stalked by the spirit of the White Lady—a ghost who haunts the baroque halls of Prague castle—he stumbles across the sentient essence of a will-o’-the-wisp captured in a mysterious container. Now, as its bearer, Domek wields its power, but the wisp, known for leading travellers to their deaths, will not be so easily controlled.
After discovering a conspiracy amongst the pijavice that could see them unleash terror on the daylight world, Domek finds himself in a race against those who aim to twist alchemical science for their own dangerous gain.
There was a dark ocean in Ora’s chest. It teemed with sharp teeth and gaping maws and spiked tentacles. Most days, she floated on top in a small rowboat, parasol on her shoulder, refusing to look into the abyss. If she fell in, she was quite sure she would drown.
Despite her inner turmoil, it was a lovely spring day, and the sun was casting its deadly rays over the city unimpeded by clouds. Draped in a hooded velvet cloak, wearing gloves that reached her elbows under her dress, she stepped down from her carriage and was guided to the museum’s entrance by Lina. She had lost her ability to sweat when she had lost her tears and blood, but the heat was still uncomfortable.
“Was this really worth the risk of coming before sundown?” Lina asked as she led her through the halls. Unfortunately, most of the museum was populated by broad windows, and Ora could only watch the tile beneath her slippers.
“You did request that I not lock myself in forever,” Ora pointed out. “This exhibit is supposed to be lovely.”
“I’m sure you could find a way to have the doors unlocked for you if we came back tonight,” Lina said. “This seesaw between sloth and recklessness is going to give me gray hairs. If you are going to risk your life, I would prefer if you didn’t bring me along.”
“I’ve been doing this for more than two hundred years.” Carefully, she followed Lina’s shoes up the steps. “I know how to avoid the sun.”
Lina hushed her, though the stairwell was so crowded with museumgoers that none would have been able to hear her. “Discretion would be advised, my lady.”
“By whom?” Ora asked. “Come, Lina. You know boredom is far worse a danger to me.”
“This was not what I meant earlier and you are well aware. I’m just saying, my lady, it wouldn’t kill you to slow down.”
“Slowing down is dangerous, my dear. I’m incapable of slowing without freezing.”
“Except in Mělník,” Lina said.
Quietly, Ora said, “You’re overstepping.”
“Apologies, my lady,” Lina said, though she didn’t sound apologetic in the slightest. She had never been afraid of offending Ora. They walked through a curtain, and the ambient sunlight was replaced by a dull orange glow. “You can remove your hood, but please be careful.”
Ora looked up to find the promised exhibit spread before her. The space had been transformed since her last visit, during which she had mingled with the city’s artistic patrons with an empty wine goblet in hand. Ornate tapestries from India had made the long boat journey to Prague and had been strung along the walls. The windows in this exhibit were curtained and the halls lit with candlelight to protect the line of ancient fabric from the harsh glare of the sun.
The tapestries were a riot of color, the blues and reds and yellows bright even in the candlelight. Ora stopped before the first tapestry of a man and woman in a carriage drawn by four horses. In only mustard yellow, dark red, cream, and black, the artist conveyed the lush chaos of the scene. Ora took a deep breath, searching for some hint of the spice, marigold, and jasmine scents that had characterized her time in India. It had been many decades ago, just after she had fled Lord Czernin’s estate in the countryside. Her memories of the beautiful country were marred by the shadow of terror that had filled her, the way she had skittered across the sub-continent like a rat in a storeroom, body tense for the fall of the farmer’s ax.
The museum smelled only of dust and the combined sweat of a hundred humans.
“Even you have to appreciate the detail of this,” a man was saying to his companion, a calloused finger tracing the air just over a pattern of threads in one circular tapestry.
Ora turned, drawn to that familiar, deep voice like a drunkard to a pub. “If it isn’t Mister Myska,” she declared, a smile unfurling as she strolled over to interrupt the conversation.
Domek Myska turned, curiosity and surprise brightening his dark eyes. Those eyes, his square jaw shadowed with a closely trimmed beard, and curly, untamed brown hair may have had some influence in her interest in him. He was tall and broad as an oak tree. She sometimes forgot how raw and delectable he looked. His name—which meant mouse—could not have been less apt. “It’s nice to see you again, Lady Fischerová.” He nodded to her maid as well. “I hope you’re doing well, Lina.”
“I am,” Lina said, abruptly.
Lina may not have liked Domek because of his callouses, but Ora appreciated that he always made the effort to acknowledge her maid. Lina’s Romani heritage meant she was scorned or ignored by many of the people Ora had flirted with over the years, and was therefore a sure test of who was worth spending time on. There were few things she found less appetizing in a person than rudeness to her friends.
“It’s always a delight to run into you, Mister Myska,” Ora said.
“Ah, the famous Lady Fischerová,” said the other man. Ora had been uncertain if they were visiting the gallery together, as Domek did not seem the type to associate with a man in tailcoats and a top hat. “I am Lord Cord Bauer, since my friend seems to have forgotten his manners.” He brushed a kiss above her gloved knuckles. Bauer. That was the name of one of the men in Parliament, head of one of the wealthiest families in the city.
“How do you know my mechanic?” Ora asked.
“It was all very dashing and heroic, but it’s a story for another time,” Bauer said. “I’m much more curious to hear how you came to know our dear Domek.”
“He’s a genius with his hands,” Ora said. She could smell the blush rushing to Domek’s face, though the color was hidden by the candlelight and his beard. His scent was of sweet honey and the tang of metal, both of which seemed to have seeped into his lifeblood. “My pocket watch broke last year, and I feared it was beyond repair. Mister Myska and his uncle took care of it. Since then, our paths simply seem meant to cross.”
“We’ve seen each other at a handful of events in the city,” Domek said, angling his body between them as though to shoulder his friend from the conversation. Was he so eager to speak with her, or only embarrassed of what his companion would think of their long flirtation? Ora knew her charms, but Domek had never pushed their coy conversations further. She hoped it was simple shyness, but there were men uninterested in any charms offered by a widow. Sometimes, he seemed like the sun: powerful, pure… and beyond her reach. “There was an outdoor concert last winter by the Old Town Hall we found one another at.”
“Mister Myska tracked down some mulled wine for us to drink.” She had stealthily poured it on the cobblestones when he had been distracted, trusting the general mess of the streets to cover it up. She had felt a tad guilty, as she doubted he had the money to waste, but mortal fare twisted her stomach horribly. “It was very kind of him.”
“It was a cold night,” Domek demurred. “Are you enjoying the exhibit?”
“It’s very impressive. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. I’m a member of the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts, of course, but am more of an uninvolved supporter. When I learned about this exhibit, I knew I must come. I spent some time in India in my youth.”
“Did you?” Domek said. Finally, he seemed to forget the amused, watchful eyes of Lord Bauer. “What was it like?”
“Warm. Ornate. Beautiful. You must go when you can.”
“I’m not sure I’m fit for travel.” He flushed again, but this time it had the unpleasant stink of shame. “I’ve never even left Prague.”
“Everyone is fit for travel,” Ora insisted. “Some of us are simply layabouts who can afford the time to swan off across the ocean. That’s the benefit of exhibits like this, for hardworking men such as yourself.” Beside her, Lina made a pained face.
“A fellow layabout,” Bauer said. “I assume I’ve met a kindred spirit who gets a perverse pleasure from Domek’s disapproval. There’s something invigorating about spending time with an honest man, isn’t there? We were going to eat lunch nearby after this. You should join us.”
“Oh, I wish I could,” Ora said, and the truth of it surprised her. After her morning, she had not expected to want any companionship. Around Domek, she felt alive and grounded in a way her melancholy morning and spontaneous decision to risk the sunlight had lacked. She wished she could go to lunch and dissect these men’s unusual friendship, to sit in the sunlight by the Vltava and drink a glass of wine. To experience the life she had never had, even before her baptism in blood. She searched for a lie, and hated the ease with which it fell from her tongue. Domek Myska deserved better than her. “I promised the curator I would meet with him after I finished looking through the exhibit about another project. Next time I’ll take you up on the offer.”
“Another time, then,” Bauer said.
“Enjoy the rest of the exhibit,” Domek said. He cleared his throat. “I hope I’ll see you again soon.”
“I’m sure you will,” Ora said. She thrust her hand to him, leaving him no choice but to kiss it. She could feel a pulse of heat from his lips as they grazed her glove. The hair of his beard pricked the silk, dragging slightly.
She kept her eyes on Domek through Lord Bauer’s farewell, and watched the unlikely pair until they reached the end of the hall.
“Was that your version of flirting? Come on, man.” A human would not have heard Lord Bauer’s hissed comment as the men walked through the curtain, but Ora’s supernatural hearing had the occasional benefits.
“You like him,” Lina said.
Ora lost the thud of Domek’s heartbeat in the crowd and turned to her maid. “What was that look for earlier?”
Lina sighed, walking beside Ora as they took in the next tapestry. “He’s a mechanic. He’s a good, solid Czech worker. You won’t impress a man like that by reminding him about how indolently wealthy you are.”
“I’m clearly not the only useless noble he spends time with,” Ora pointed out.
Lina shook her head. “His friend would be more appropriate for you, anyway.”
“His friend is not my type. Besides, I’m not looking to get married again, Lina. Just having a bit of fun.” Ora moved on to the next tapestry, examining the ornate but anatomically atrocious tiger in one corner. She could feel Lina still watching her.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you light up like that talking to someone,” she said carefully. “I did not think I’d see you act that way after this morning.”
“He smells nice and he’s kind,” Ora said. “Why should it be anything more than that?”
Excerpted from The Lights of Prague, copyright © 2021 by Nicole Jarvis.