A tightrope walker gets embroiled in a secret society’s deadly gladiatorial tournament…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sarah Raughley’s The Bones of Ruin, a historical fantasy set in 1880s London—publishing September 7th with Margaret K. McElderry Books.
As an African tightrope dancer in Victorian London, Iris is used to being strange. She is certainly a strange 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.
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 balanced on the tightrope 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.
Excerpted from The Bones of Ruin, copyright © 2021 by Sarah Raughley.