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When the Sea is Rising Red
By Cat Hellisen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2012 Cat Hellisen
All rights reserved.
She's not here.
I hunch deeper into the protection of a small copse of stunted blackbarks. Condensed mist drips down the dark leaves and soaks my shawl.
Come on, Ilven. As if I could force her to appear by the power of thought.
Across the close-cropped lawn, House Malker's gray stone face waits, a patient prison. In just a few days Ilven's family will ship her off upriver to some Samar wine farmer, and today is the last chance we have to be alone together.
Mother won't miss me for ages yet — I can risk waiting a few minutes more for Ilven to show. My stomach churns. I hope that no servants saw me leave and that my mother is still at her writing desk, engaged in scribbling long missives to her beloved son, Owen. So beloved, in fact, that he never bothers to leave his town house to see her.
Mother's schedule is narrow and predictable. Like all the women in the High Houses, her life is ruled by a list of acceptable and appropriate behaviors, all of them dictated to her by men. First her father, then her husband, and now her son. One day that will be my lot, I suppose, and it's this thought that made me convince Ilven to run off with me into town to be nothing more than free Lammers for a brief afternoon. Excitement swirls in me and my breathing goes tight.
The minutes stretch, and my hands are slick from the cold and the dampness of my clothes.
Ilven's not going to make it. Her mother, for all that she's tiny and delicate as a glass doll, is a frightful drake. If that cold witch caught even the slightest wind of Ilven's jaunt, then my friend is probably locked in her room.
The memory of our last meeting returns to me. It seems a lifetime ago, and yet only a bare few days have passed. Lady Malker's words are still fresh as I remember the hate I felt when she stared me down, my friend cowering behind her.
* * *
Ilven refuses to look at me. She twists the new silver band on her smallest finger around and around until the skin is red. I cannot draw my gaze away from this tiny detail that has changed everything between us.
"We have many preparations to make," says Lady Malker. There is something frosty about her, and when she talks I expect to feel her breath against my face like a winter sea-gale. Instead, her voice is calm and quiet, but hidden under it are snake-hisses and sneers. "Ilven will not be available for your games today, Felicita, dear." There is a subtle emphasis on games and dear. Nothing overt — I am, after all, from House Pelim — but enough for me to know that Malker are determined to claw their way up to their old level on the social scale. It's a warning of sorts.
I look past Lady Malker, ignoring her.
Ilven's shoulders are hunched. Her pale face is marked with tears, the shadows under her eyes bruised black and purple. Seeing her like this strikes at my very heart. If Lady Malker were not here I would fold Ilven in my arms and kiss her white-gold hair, tell her that everything will work out somehow. Instead, I clench my fists tighter and raise my head high. I cannot show weakness in this House. Rumors would spread, and my family would lose face.
"I thought you were going to come to university with me next year?" It's a stupid thing to say, but I have nothing else. I can hardly ask her about this marriage in front of her mother. I already know all they're going to tell me.
"Samar will have tutors," Ilven mumbles, staring at the polished white floor. Her pale hair is held back with a little metal pin decorated with the four-pointed emerald leaves of her family's crest. Those tiny green leaves are a lie — promising growth where there is none.
I want to scream. My friend doesn't mumble. She doesn't walk with her head down. She doesn't quietly accept that her education will be left in the hands of boys fresh from university.
"Ilven?" I want to remind her that she is a person who kicks off her shoes and stockings to run across the green fields behind our estates, that she once helped me play pranks on my idiot of a brother, that we are sister-friends, that we have kissed and sworn eternal friendship.
She looks up, and her eyes are pleading. She wants me to stay. She wants me to go.
"Perhaps we could arrange a little going-away party," Lady Malker says. "Something for the ladies." Her laugh is like the colored glass baubles the lower War-Singers make as frivolities.
A going-away party. We dress things up with pretty words. My friend is not going on a pleasure jaunt, or a holiday upriver to see the ruling city of MallenIve. They are selling her off to some nameless man with arable land. They are selling her for caskets of wine.
"It will be fun," she says. "I'll write you letters."
I hide a tight smile. Ilven's been locked up before, not allowed to see anyone for weeks on end, but we have a system. There are servants we can trust. I have Firell, and she, some poor sallow Hob girl, with one eye gone milky from a childhood illness. These two pass our letters between them, keeping our secrets. "And I'll write back," I say.
I bow my head to Lady Malker and take my leave.
There may be nothing I can do to stop Ilven's marriage, but I can try to make her last days here in Pelimburg ones she will remember.
* * *
Those last days have crept by all too quickly, and instead of running with Ilven through the town as we planned, I am crouched in a spinney, getting progressively more rain-damp, while Ilven is trapped in her rooms, imprisoned by her mother. I shift position to ease cramps in my legs and stare across the misted lawns. Nothing.
There is a scrawled note in my pocket, and I take it out for the thousandth time. The oils of my fingers and the humid air have turned the ink blurry, the paper grubby and thin, covered with Ilven's small neat hand that, like her, tries not to draw attention to itself.
I read it again. No, this is the date she set — the only time when she would have the chance to leave the house unnoticed. My heart sinks. I feel like I've failed her, that somehow I should have just had the courage to walk out of my house and into hers, take her hand, and, without asking, without showing fear, lead her down to the town. There I would have bought her a gift, held her close, and kissed her goodbye.
However, I'm not willing to tuck tail and go back home yet. If Ilven can't be with me, she would be happy just to hear whatever stories I can bring back to her. The city is calling, full of promises. Ilven would want me to go.
A rational voice is telling me to forget about it — I'll have plenty of time to see Pelimburg properly soon enough, when I go to further my magic studies at Pelimburg's university. Then again, I've never been overly fond of rational thoughts.
Perhaps I could still buy Ilven a gift in town — something for her to look at and remember me by. So with my heart giddy-thumping like a lost uni-foal, I race through the gray drizzle and down the hillside to New Town. My mother's claustrophobic fears slip from me as I hurtle downhill. The cold leaves me exhilarated, shivering.
Pelimburg is a city of rain and mist and spray. It's supposed to be my home, but a lifetime lived in my mother's cage of a mansion means that I barely know it. I've only ever seen the city from the confines of a carriage; now I breathe deep, tasting how different the air is, how sweet the drops feel on my tongue. Up on the hillside, the rain seems bitter and darker.
The umbrella twirls in my hands, dancing. Goodbye, Ilven. I close my eyes for a moment, pushing away my sadness and letting my face go blank as the chalk cliff, before setting off again.
"Watch it," someone grumbles as I pass by, and water spins from my silk umbrella. Not a person here knows or cares that I am from the highest House in the whole city or that my family once owned every cobblestone of every street that webs Pelimburg, as my mother is wont to point out. Of course, that was before the scriven here ran out and half the Houses packed up to follow Mallen Gris to found the city-state of MallenIve. Now our House is a relic, a thing of former glory.
I take in the strangeness of a city that knows my name but not my face. There's a portrait of me in the University Gallery, as there is of every Pelim since my ancestor decided to raise the building, and I suppose were I to go to the center of New Town, where the oligarchy of the three remaining Great Houses — Pelim, Malker, and Eline — meet and make their plans, perhaps someone would recognize me. And if none of them did, there are a host of lower High Houses like Skellig and Evanist scrabbling for a place in the gaping holes of the Great House ranks; one of their members would sell me out, blacken my honor in order to play their power games. After all, we are the pinnacle and the very city is named for us.
Dogs, I think. All of them. Showing their bellies when they want something, snarling in packs when that doesn't work.
I want to be far away from that, from people who hate me because I was born into the Pelim name. And what is a Great House? As Ilven points out, we're merely the kings of the midden. The ranks of Houses below us do not understand that there is safety in powerlessness. No one is waiting for them to fall.
Instead of heading toward New Town, I take Spindle Way and cross the Levelling Bridge, plunging between its high dark houses, under the laundry lines that drip overhead, and over to that strange forbidden quarter where the aboriginal Hobs and the low-Lammers without magic mingle: Old Town.
Just past the end of the bridge, Spindle Way feeds into a broad road that runs along the curve of the Claw. Next to it is a slick promenade. The houses here are old-fashioned, and it is strange to think that once my family may have lived in one of these crow-stepped pastel buildings, back when Pelimburg was little more than a main street and a tiny harbor, when our magic was as strong as our fishing fleets, when of all the Great Houses, only Mallen stood higher than us. I run my fingers along the old walls, committing the gritty feel of the crumbling plaster to memory. Perhaps next time I'll try to find out which one was ours.
The houses overlook the wide mouth of the Casabi, where the river and the ocean meet and tangle, and I imagine some ancestor of mine looking down at the view from her white wooden window frame.
I close my umbrella and lean against the salt-bitten wall, paint flaking on my back. The chips fall to the ground, faded and pink. Hazy figures run along the promenade, through the veil of sea-rain, their hands over their heads or their whalebone-ribbed umbrellas snapped open against the deluge.
Beyond them the sea roars, gray and green. The white cliffs are invisible, shrouded by the rain and the raging ocean. My family house hides in the mist. And in that house, right now, my mother will be fretting, wringing her hands as she stalks the corridors, calling my name.
The man's voice makes me start. I turn so that my furled umbrella stands between us.
"You're far from home," he says, nodding to where the cliffs should be. "What brings you down here?"
He's black haired, skinny, with a nose too big and pointed to suit his thin face. Not Lammer, for certain — not with that pasty white skin. And the only bats in Pelimburg who would dare talk to me as an equal are limited to the families of the three freed-vampire Houses. He's no errand boy, then, for all their peculiar laws.
I have never spoken to one of the males before — the wray, they're called — and my understanding is that their House hierarchy puts them on the level of indentured servants. What do I say? I have no idea what the protocol is when speaking to a wray.
"You've met my sister," he says at my continued silence. His faint smile drops away, and he watches me with clouded eyes. Uncertainty has made him flick his opaque third eyelids into place.
"Roisin?" She's the only bat I know even the slightest bit. A Sandwalker — her House's star rises even as my own falls. A good acquaintance to encourage, I suppose, although the girl herself is a bore. House Sandwalker specializes in the rare art of perfumery, and Roisin is lucky to have nose and skill, for she possesses little in the way of brains. If it hadn't been for how our House suffered after the last Red Death wiped out so much of our fishing profit, I wouldn't even have bothered to know her name.
The bat leans against the wall next to me, and there is a shimmery displacement of air that feels almost like being tickled by a goose feather. "Jannik," he says, and holds out one hand, as if I were a House son.
He wants me to touch him. We do not touch them — we have pretended some status to the few in Pelimburg, but only because of money. In MallenIve, my brother says, the bats know their place. I know little of MallenIve except what Owen has told me. They still have the pass laws there. Owen approves, and I suppose I should too.
I make it a point to never be like my brother.
With this in mind, I gingerly brush my fingers against Jannik's. His hand is warm and dry from being in his pocket. A shiver of magic dances between us, then disappears as I let go. It leaves my skin numb and cold like at the start of the flu and I turn my head from him, uncertain of what to say. It's like no magic I've ever felt before and the hairs on my arms rise, tingling. I should say something. The silence between us is strained and awkward, and for a moment I'm certain he's laughing at me on the inside. A mocking glint is in his indigo eyes.
Normally I'm the first person to bristle at any insult, implied or otherwise. I take my pride too seriously, my mother says. But this time I feel lost, like a ketch in a storm. Something about Jannik has thrown me. It must be because I've never had any man talk to me as if I were his equal. Always the men treat us like we're simpletons to be herded through life, to be humored for our fancies, to be disciplined when we stray. And it's something I never really thought about till this moment.
For a dizzying instant, my whole world turns about, and an infinite set of new windows opens. I am looking out through someone else's eyes, and I hear myself gasp. Then the faintness falls away and the ground is once again solid.
I stare at Jannik. His mouth twitches. "I'm beginning to feel like I should be skinned and put on display," he says.
His words break through my disorientation and I shake my head. "I'm sorry. I never —" Something catches my eye.
In the distance, a familiar silver-gray carriage rounds the street corner. Four surf-white unicorns pull it forward. There is no hiding my family's ostentatiousness.
It's my brother's coach, and if he sees me out here in the dirty streets filled with magicless low-Lammers and Hobs, he'll find some way to punish me. Were he to see the bat standing this close to me, his fury would be painful at best. I open my umbrella with a snap, spraying Jannik with silver droplets and startling him into jerking away from the wall. "Here," I say as I thrust the umbrella into Jannik's hand. "Hide me."
Amusement flickers across his face as he props the black umbrella over one shoulder and pulls me close. From the road, we will look like nothing so much as two lovers on the street. "Someone you don't want to see?" he says against my ear. His breath is warm, stirring the tight curls at the nape of my neck. Again, that strange magic flutters against me, in time with his breathing. I have never been this close to a man. He is close enough to kiss. I push the thought away, concentrate on my brother instead.
"Someone I don't want to see me."
Jannik smells clean, without a hint of the telltale sweet-and-spice of scriven dust, so I've no idea where that prickle of magic comes from. I'd expect him to smell meaty, like fresh blood, and not of soap and musk, of amber and perfumes. Perhaps the vampires scrub their skin after they feed. The thought makes me ill.
"My brother," I explain, trying not to shiver as magic crab-walks down my spine. From the corner of my eye, I can see the rough skin of his cheeks, freshly scraped with a razor. His heart is beating against mine. Despite the tales told, I know that bats are living, are far from immortal, but this is the first time I have been close to one, and it is this patter of his heart that makes it real. He is too warm when I expected coldness.
Excerpted from When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen. Copyright © 2012 Cat Hellisen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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