The Midnight Palace


By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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A dark mystery lurks in the heart of Calcutta in this young adult novel from bestselling author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from the original Spanish by acclaimed translator Lucia Graves.

Set in Calcutta in the 1930s, The Midnight Palace begins on a dark night when an English lieutenant fights to save newborn twins Ben and Sheere from an unthinkable threat. Despite monsoon-force rains and terrible danger lurking around every street corner, the young lieutenant manages to get them to safety, but not without losing his own life…

Years later, on the eve of Ben and Sheere's sixteenth birthday, the mysterious threat reenters their lives. This time, it may be impossible to escape. With the help of their brave friends, the twins must take a stand against the terror that watches them in the shadows of the night—and face the most frightening creature in the history of the City of Palaces.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of The Watcher in the Shadows

Copyright Page


Dear Reader,

The Midnight Palace is the second in a series of novels I wrote for young adults in the 1990s, back when even I was probably more young than adult myself! Writing for the young, or the young at heart, is a risky business, and I learned that teenagers are a notoriously demanding and honest audience. My intention when crafting these books was to create stories that would appeal to them; also that they would hopefully be enjoyed by more mature and experienced fellow travelers for whom they might rekindle memories of the first books they had read, those magical tales of mystery and adventure that every reader hoards in the treasure chest of his or her brain. So whether you are young or young at heart, I hope you will enjoy this ride into the twilight world of Calcutta in the 1930s, where the shadows of the night are thicker than blood. Never mind the number of candles on your birthday cake—for those in the know, it's what lies beneath them that matters! Enjoy.


I'LL NEVER FORGET the night it snowed over Calcutta. The calendar at St. Patrick's Orphanage was inching toward the final days of May 1932, leaving behind one of the hottest months ever recorded in the city of palaces.

With each passing day we felt sadder and more fearful of the approaching summer, when we would all turn sixteen, for this would mean our separation and the end of the Chowbar Society, the secret club of seven members that had been our refuge during our years at the orphanage. We had grown up there with no other family than ourselves, with no other memories than the stories we told in the small hours around an open fire in the courtyard of an abandoned mansion—a large, rambling ruin that stood on the corner of Cotton Street and Brabourne Road and which we'd christened the Midnight Palace. At the time, I didn't know I would never again see the streets of my childhood, the city whose spell has haunted me to this day.

I have never returned to Calcutta, but I have always been true to the promise we all made to ourselves on the banks of the Hooghly River: the promise never to forget what we had witnessed. Time has taught me to treasure the memory of those days and to preserve the letters I received from the accursed city, for they keep the flame of my memories alive. It was through those letters that I found out our palace had been demolished and an office building erected over its ashes; and that Mr. Thomas Carter, the head of St. Patrick's, had passed away after spending the last years of his life in darkness, following the fire that closed his eyes forever.

As the years went by, I heard about the gradual disappearance of all the sites that had formed the backdrop to our lives. The fury of a city that seemed to be devouring itself and the deceptive passage of time eventually erased all traces of the Chowbar Society and its members, at which point I began to fear that this story might be lost forever for want of a narrator.

The vagaries of fate have chosen me, the person least suited to the task, to tell the tale and unveil the secret that both bonded and separated us so many years ago in the old railway station of Jheeter's Gate. I would have preferred someone else to have been in charge of rescuing this story, but once again life has taught me that my role is to be a witness, not the leading actor.

All these years I've kept the few letters sent to me by Roshan, guarding them closely because they shed light on the fate of each member of our unique society; I've read them over and over again, aloud, in the solitude of my study. Perhaps because I somehow felt that I had unwittingly become the repository of everything that had happened to us. Perhaps because I understood that, among that group of seven young people, I was always the most reluctant to take risks, the least daring, and therefore the most likely to survive.

In that spirit, and trusting that my memory won't betray me, I will try to relive the mysterious and terrible events that took place during those four blazing days in May 1932.

It will not be easy, and I beg my readers to forgive my inadequate words as I attempt to salvage that dark Calcutta summer from the past. I have done my best to reconstruct the truth, to return to those troubled days that would inevitably shape our future. All that is left for me now is to take my leave and allow the facts to speak for themselves.

I'll never forget the fear on the faces of my friends the night it snowed in Calcutta. But, as Ben used to tell me, the best place to start a story is at the beginning.…



SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, a boat emerged out of the mist that rose like a fetid curse from the surface of the Hooghly River. The faint glow of a flickering lantern attached to the mast revealed the figure of a man wrapped in a cape, rowing with difficulty toward the distant shore. Farther to the east, under a blanket of leaden clouds, the outline of Fort William in the Maidan—a sort of Hyde Park carved out of tropical jungle—stood out against an endless expanse of streetlamps and bonfires that spread as far as the eye could see. Calcutta.

The man stopped for a few moments to recover his breath and look back at the silhouette of Jheeter's Gate Station, rising from the shadows on the opposite bank. The farther he went, the more the station made of glass and steel seemed to melt into the city—a jungle of marble mausoleums blackened by decades of neglect; naked walls once coated in ocher, blue, and gold, their colors peeled away by the fury of the monsoon, leaving them blurred and faded, like watercolors dissolving in a pond.

Only the certainty that he had just a few hours to live—perhaps only a few minutes—kept him going, leaving behind in that ill-fated place the woman he had sworn to protect. As Lieutenant Peake made his last journey to Calcutta, aboard an old rowboat, the rain that had arrived in the early hours of darkness was washing away every last second of his life.

While he struggled to row the boat toward the shore, the lieutenant could hear the crying of the two babies hidden inside the bilge. Peake turned his head and noticed the lights of the other boat twinkling only a hundred meters behind him. He pictured the smile of his pursuer, savoring the hunt for his prey. Relentless.

Ignoring the children's tears of hunger and cold, he applied his remaining strength to steering the boat toward the threshold that led into the ghostly labyrinth of streets. Two hundred years had been enough to transform the thick jungle growing around Kalighat into a city even God did not dare enter.

In a matter of minutes the storm looming over the city had unleashed its fury. By mid-April and well into the month of June, the city withered in the clutches of the so-called Indian summer, with temperatures reaching up to one hundred ten degrees and a level of humidity close to saturation. But with the arrival of violent electric storms that turned the sky into a battle scene, thermometers could plunge thirty degrees in a few moments.

The curtain of rain hid the unsteady jetties of rotten wood that dangled over the water's edge, but Peake didn't stop until he felt the hull hitting the planks of the fishermen's dock. Only then did he thrust the anchoring pole into the muddy riverbed and rush to extract the children, who lay wrapped in a blanket. As he took them in his arms, the crying of the babies permeated the night like a trail of blood calling out to the predator. Pressing the bundle against his chest, Peake jumped ashore.

As the rain pelted down, he saw the other boat approaching the riverbank, slowly, like a funeral barge. Gripped with fear, Peake ran toward the streets bordering the southern edge of the Maidan, a district known by its privileged residents—mostly British and Europeans—as the White Town.

He clung to one remaining hope of being able to save the children, but he was still far from the heart of North Calcutta and Aryami Bose's house. The old lady was the only person who could help him now. Peake stopped for a moment and scanned the gloomy expanse of the Maidan, searching for the distant glow of the streetlamps that flickered in the northern part of the city. The dark streets, cloaked by the storm, would be his safest hiding place. Holding the children tight, Lieutenant Peake set off again, heading east, hoping to find cover in the shadows cast by the palatial buildings of the city center.

Moments later, the black barge that had been pursuing him came to a halt by the dock. Three men jumped ashore and moored the vessel. The small cabin door slowly opened and a dark figure, wrapped in a black cloak, crossed the gangplank the men had laid from the jetty, ignoring the rain. Once ashore, the figure stretched out a black-gloved hand and, pointing to the place where Peake had disappeared, gave a sinister smile.

The winding road that cut across the Maidan, rounding the fortress, had turned into a swamp under the pounding rain. Peake vaguely remembered having crossed that part of the city in the days when he was serving under Colonel Llewelyn. But that had been in broad daylight, on horseback, and surrounded by an armed cavalry regiment. Ironically, fate now took him along the same stretch of open fields that had been leveled by Lord Clive in 1758 so that the cannons of Fort William could enjoy a clear line of fire in all directions. Only this time he was the target.

Lieutenant Peake ran toward a cluster of trees, sensing the furtive gaze of those hidden in the dark, the nocturnal inhabitants of the Maidan. He knew that nobody here would try to waylay him and snatch his cape or take the children who were crying in his arms. The invisible presences could smell death clinging to his heels, and not a soul would dare come between him and his pursuer.

Peake jumped over the railing separating the Maidan from Chowringhee Road and entered the main artery of Calcutta. The majestic avenue had been built on top of the old path that, only three hundred years earlier, had crossed the Bengali jungle southward, leading to the temple of Kali, the Kalighat, which gave the city its name.

Because of the rain, the swarm of people who usually prowled the area at night had retreated and the city looked like a large, empty bazaar. Peake knew that the veil of rain that blurred his vision, but also shrouded him, could vanish as instantly as it had appeared. The storms that entered the Ganges Delta from the ocean quickly traveled north or west after discharging their deluge on the Bengali Peninsula, leaving behind a trail of mist and flooded streets where children played in filthy puddles and carts ran aground in the mud like drifting ships.

The lieutenant ran along Chowringhee Road until he felt the muscles of his legs giving way and he was barely able to support the weight of the babies. He could see the lights of the northern district, but he knew he would not be able to keep up this pace much longer, and Aryami Bose's house was still a good distance away. He had to make a stop.

He paused to get his breath back under the staircase of an old textile warehouse, the walls of which were covered in official notices announcing its imminent demolition. He vaguely recalled having inspected the place years earlier, after some rich merchant had reported that it concealed a notorious opium den.

Now, dirty water poured down the crumbling stairs like dark blood gushing from a wound. The place seemed deserted. Lieutenant Peake lifted the children close to his face and looked into their eyes; the two babies were no longer crying, but they were trembling from the cold, and the blanket that covered them was almost completely soaked. Peake held their tiny hands in his, hoping to give them some warmth as he peeped through the cracks in the staircase, keeping an eye on the streets leading off the Maidan. He couldn't remember how many assassins his pursuer had recruited, but he knew that there were only two bullets left in his revolver, two bullets he would have to use with all the cunning he could muster—he had fired the rest of his ammunition in the tunnels of the railway station. Peake wrapped the children in the drier part of the blanket and left them lying on a bit of dry floor he spied in a hollow in the warehouse wall.

He pulled out his revolver, slowly peering around the side of the stairs. He strained his eyes and recognized the line of distant lights on the other side of the Hooghly River. The sound of hurried footsteps startled him, and he moved back into the shadows.

Three men emerged from the darkness of the Maidan, the blades of their knives shining in the gloom. Peake rushed to gather the children in his arms once again and took a deep breath, aware that if he were to flee at that moment, the men would fall on him like a pack of wolves.

The lieutenant stood motionless against the wall, watching his pursuers as they stopped to search for his trail. The assassins exchanged a few mumbled words, and then one signaled to the other two that they should separate. Peake shuddered as he realized that the one who had given the order was now approaching the staircase; for a split second he thought that the smell of his fear alone would lead the killer to his hiding place.

Desperately, he scanned the wall below the staircase in search of some gap through which he could escape. He kneeled down by the hollow where he had left the babies a few seconds earlier and tried to dislodge the planks, which were loose and softened by the dampness. The rotten wood yielded easily, and Peake felt a breath of noxious air escaping from the dilapidated building. He turned his head and saw the murderer standing only twenty meters away, at the foot of the staircase, brandishing his knife.

He wrapped the babies in his own cape for protection and crawled through the hole and into the warehouse. A sharp pain, just above his knee, suddenly paralyzed his right leg. Peake patted the leg with trembling hands and found a rusty nail sunk into his flesh. Stifling a scream, he grabbed the tip of the cold metal and pulled hard. He felt the skin tearing, and warm blood trickled through his fingers. A wave of nausea and pain clouded his vision. Gasping, he gathered the babies and struggled to his feet. An eerie passageway with hundreds of empty shelves spread before him. Without a moment's hesitation, Peake ran toward the other end of the warehouse, the wounded structure creaking in the storm.

When Peake reemerged into the night after running hundreds of meters through the bowels of the ruined building, he discovered he was only a stone's throw from the Tiretta Bazar, one of the commercial centers of North Calcutta. He thanked his lucky stars and set off toward the jumble of narrow streets, heading straight for the house of Aryami Bose.

It took him ten minutes to reach the home of the last woman in the Bose family line. Aryami lived alone in a sprawling house built in the Bengali style that rose amid the thick, wild vegetation that had invaded the courtyard over the years, making the place look abandoned. Yet no inhabitant of North Calcutta—an area also known as the Black Town—would have dared go beyond that courtyard and enter the estate of Aryami Bose. Those who knew her loved and respected her as much as they feared her. And there wasn't a soul in the streets of North Calcutta who hadn't heard of Aryami Bose and her ancestry. For the people of the area she was like a spirit: an invisible and powerful presence.

Peake ran to the spear-headed gates, through the overgrown courtyard, and up the cracked marble staircase that led to the front door. Holding both babies under one arm, he banged repeatedly with his fist, hoping he would be heard through the storm.

The lieutenant continued to pound on the door for a good five minutes, his eyes fixed on the deserted streets behind him, fearing he would catch sight of his pursuers at any moment. When the door finally yielded, Peake turned around and was blinded by the light of a candle. A voice he hadn't heard in five years whispered his name. He shaded his eyes with one hand and recognized the inscrutable face of Aryami Bose.

The woman read his expression and gazed down at the children, a shadow of pain passing over her face.

"She's dead, Aryami," murmured Peake. "She was already dead when I found her."

Aryami closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Peake saw that the news cut deep into the lady's heart, confirming her worst suspicions.

"Come in," she said at last, letting him pass and closing the door behind him.

Peake hurried over to a table, where he laid down the babies and removed their wet clothes. Without saying a word, Aryami fetched some dry strips of cloth and wrapped the children in them while Peake stoked the fire.

"I'm being followed, Aryami," said Peake. "I can't stay here."

"You're wounded," said the woman, pointing to the gash from the nail.

"Just a scratch," Peake lied. "It doesn't hurt."

Aryami moved closer to him and stretched out her hand to stroke his face.

"You always loved her.…"

Peake turned his head away and didn't reply.

"They could have been your children," said Aryami. "They might have had better luck."

"I must go, Aryami," the lieutenant insisted. "If I stay here they'll find me. They won't give up."

They exchanged a defeated look, both aware of the fate that awaited Peake as soon as he returned to the streets. Aryami took his hands in hers and pressed them tightly.

"I was never good to you," she said. "I feared for my daughter, for the life she might have had with a British officer. But I was wrong. I suppose you'll never forgive me."

"It doesn't matter anymore," replied Peake. "I must go. Right now."

He took one last look at the babies, who had settled quietly by the fire. They looked at him, their eyes bright. At last they were safe. The lieutenant walked to the door and took a deep breath. Exhaustion and the throbbing pain in his leg overwhelmed him after the few moments of rest. He had used the last reserves of his strength to bring the infants to this place, and now he wondered how he was going to face the inevitable. Outside, the rain was still lashing down, but there was no sign of his pursuer or his henchmen.

"Michael…" said Aryami behind him.

The young man stopped but didn't turn around.

"She knew," Aryami lied. "She knew from the start and I'm sure that, in some way, she felt the same for you. It was my fault. Don't hold it against her."

Peake replied with a nod and closed the door behind him. For a few seconds he stood there, in the rain, finally at peace with himself; then he set off to meet his pursuers. After retracing his steps back to the abandoned warehouse, he entered the dark building once more in search of a hiding place.

As he crouched in the shadows, weariness and pain fused slowly into a drunken sense of calm, and his lips betrayed a faint smile. He no longer had any reason, or hope, to go on living.

The long tapered fingers in the black glove stroked the bloodstained tip of the nail poking through the broken wooden plank near the entrance to the warehouse. Slowly, while the assassins waited in silence behind him, the slender figure, whose face was hidden under a black hood, raised the tip of one forefinger to his lips and licked the dark, thick blood as if it were a drop of honey. A moment later, the hooded figure turned toward the men he had hired a few hours earlier for a handful of coins and the promise of further pay when they'd finished the job. He pointed inside the building. The three henchmen scurried through the opening made by Lieutenant Peake a short while earlier. The hooded man smirked in the darkness.

"You've chosen a sad place to die, Peake," he whispered to himself.

Hiding behind a column of empty crates in the depths of the warehouse, Peake watched the silhouettes of the three men as they entered the building. Although Peake couldn't see him from where he stood, he was certain that their master was waiting on the other side of the wall; he could sense his presence. Peake pulled out his revolver and rotated the cylinder until one of the two bullets was aligned with the barrel, muffling the sound under his tunic. He was no longer running away from death, but he was determined not to travel this road alone.

The adrenaline coursing through his veins had eased the pain in his knee until it was just a dull, distant throb. Surprised at how calm he felt, Peake smiled again and remained motionless in his hiding place. He watched the slow advance of the three men through the passage until his executioners came to a halt about ten meters away. One of the men lifted a hand to stop the others and pointed at some stains on the ground. Peake raised his weapon to his chest, cocked the hammer, and took aim.

At a new signal, the three men separated. Two of them went sideways while the third made straight for the pile of crates—and Peake. The lieutenant counted to five, then suddenly pushed the column of boxes forward. The crates crashed down on top of his attacker while Peake ran for the opening through which they had entered the warehouse.

One of the killers surprised him at a junction in the corridor, slashing his knife close to the lieutenant's face. But before the thug could even blink, the barrel of Peake's revolver was thrust under his chin.

"Drop the knife," spat the lieutenant.

Seeing the ice in the lieutenant's eyes, the man did as he was told. Peake grabbed him by his hair and, without moving his weapon, turned to the assassin's allies, shielding his body with that of his hostage. The other two thugs moved menacingly toward Peake.

"Lieutenant, spare us the drama and hand over what we're looking for," a familiar voice murmured from behind him. "These are honest men. With families."

Peake turned to see the hooded man leering at him in the dark, just a few meters from where he stood.

"I'm going to blow this man's head off, Jawahal," Peake said, snarling.

His hostage closed his eyes, trembling.

The hooded man crossed his arms patiently and gave a small sigh of annoyance.

"Do so if it pleases you, lieutenant. But that won't get you out of here."

"I'm serious," Peake replied, pushing the end of the barrel under the man's chin.

"Of course, lieutenant," said Jawahal in a conciliatory tone. "Shoot if you have the courage required to kill a man in cold blood and without His Majesty's permission. Otherwise, drop the weapon, and we'll be able to reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both parties."

The two armed henchmen were standing nearby, ready to jump on Peake at the first signal from the hooded man.

"Very well," Peake said at last. "What do you think of this agreement?"

He pushed his hostage onto the floor and, raising his revolver, turned toward the hooded man. The first shot echoed through the warehouse. Jawahal's gloved hand emerged from the cloud of gunpowder, his palm outstretched. Peake thought he could see the crushed bullet shining in the dark, then melting slowly into a thread of liquid metal that slid through Jawahal's fingers like a fistful of sand.

"Bad shot, lieutenant. Try again—only this time, come closer."

Without giving Peake time to move, the hooded man leaned forward and took the hand with which the lieutenant was holding his weapon. He then pulled the end of the gun toward his own face until it rested between his eyes.

"Didn't they teach you to do it like this at the academy?" he whispered.

"There was a time when we were friends," said Peake.

Jawahal smiled with contempt. "That time, lieutenant, has passed."

"May God forgive me," Peake muttered, pulling the trigger again.

In an instant that seemed endless, Peake watched as the bullet pierced Jawahal's skull, tearing the hood off his head. For a few seconds light passed through the wound, but gradually the smoking hole closed in on itself. Peake felt the revolver slipping from his fingers.

The blazing eyes of his opponent fixed themselves on his, and a long black tongue flicked across the man's lips.

"You still don't understand, do you, lieutenant? Where are the babies?"

It was not a question. It was an order.

Dumb with terror, Peake shook his head.

"As you wish."

Jawahal clutched Peake's hand. The lieutenant felt the bones in his fingers being crushed under his flesh. The spasm of pain made him fall to his knees, unable to breathe.

"Where are the babies?" Jawahal hissed.

Peake tried to say something, but the agony spreading from the bloody stump that had been his hand paralyzed his speech.

"Are you trying to say something, lieutenant?" Jawahal whispered, kneeling beside him.

Peake nodded.

"Good, good." His enemy smiled. "Frankly, I don't find your suffering amusing. So help me put an end to it."

"The children are dead," Peake groaned.

An expression of distaste crept over Jawahal's face. "You were doing so well, lieutenant. Don't ruin it now."

"They're dead," Peake repeated.

Jawahal shrugged and slowly nodded his head. "All right," he conceded. "You leave me no choice. But before you go, let me remind you that, when Kylian's life was in your hands, you were incapable of saving her. She died because of men like you. But those men have gone. You are the last one. The future is mine."

Peake raised his eyes to Jawahal, and as he did so he noticed the man's pupils narrowing into thin slits, his golden irises blazing. With painstaking elegance, Jawahal started to remove the glove on his right hand.

"Unfortunately you won't live to see it," Jawahal added. "Don't think for a second that your heroic act has served any purpose. You're an idiot, Lieutenant Peake. You always gave me that impression, and now all you have done is confirm it. I hope there is a hell reserved especially for idiots, Peake, because that's where I'm sending you."

Peake closed his eyes and listened to the hiss of fire just inches from his face. Then, after a moment that seemed eternal, he felt burning fingers closing around his throat, cutting off his very last breath. In the distance, he could hear the sound of that accursed train and the ghostly voices of hundreds of children howling from the flames. After that, only darkness.

Aryami Bose blew out the candles that lit up her sanctuary one by one, until only the hesitant glow of the fire remained, projecting fleeting halos of light against the naked walls. The children were asleep, and the silence was broken only by the rain pattering against the closed shutters and the occasional crackling of the fire. Silent tears slid down Aryami's face as she took the photograph of her daughter, Kylian, from the small brass and ivory box where she kept her most prized possessions.

A traveling photographer from Bombay had taken the photo some time before the wedding, and hadn't accepted any payment for it. It showed Kylian just as Aryami remembered her, with that uncanny luminosity that seemed to emanate from her. Kylian's radiance had mesmerized all who knew her, just as it had captivated the expert eye of the photographer, who had given her the nickname by which she was still remembered: the Princess of Light.

Naturally, Kylian never became a true princess, and had no kingdom other than the streets she grew up on. The day she left the Bose home to live with her husband, the people of Machuabazar had said farewell with tears in their eyes as they watched the white carriage carry away their Black Town princess forever. She was scarcely more than a child at the time.


  • Praise for The Prince of Mist:
    * "Zafón is a master storyteller...This book can be read and enjoyed by every level of reader, and teachers who are looking for a good read-aloud will keep the audience on the edge of their seats with this tale."—VOYA, starred review
  • Praise for The Prince of Mist:
    * "A melancholy horror tale."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • Praise for The Prince of Mist:
    * "Awesome."—School Library Journal, starred review

On Sale
Apr 10, 2012
Page Count
320 pages

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

About the Author

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of seven novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Prince of Mist and the international phenomena The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. His work has been published in more than fifty countries and honored with numerous awards. He divides his time between Barcelona, and Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author