Eliana is a model citizen of the island, a weaver in the prestigious House of Webs. She also harbors a dangerous secret—she can dream, an ability forbidden by the island’s elusive council of elders. No one talks about the dreamers, the undesirables ostracized from society.
But the web of protection Eliana has woven around herself begins to unravel when a young girl is found lying unconscious in a pool of blood on the stones outside the house. Robbed of speech by her attackers, the only clue to her identity is one word tattooed in invisible ink across her palm: Eliana. Why does this mysterious girl bear her name? What links her to the weaver—and could she hold Eliana’s fate in her hand?
As Eliana finds herself growing closer to this injured girl she is bound to in ways she doesn’t understand, the enchanting lies of the island begin to crumble, revealing a deep and ancient corruption. Joining a band of brave rebels determined to expose the island’s dark secrets, Eliana becomes a target of ruthless forces determined to destroy her. To save herself and those she loves, she must call on the power within her she thought was her greatest weakness: her dreams.
Emmi Itäranta, author of the critically acclaimed Memory of Water, returns with The Weaver—available November 1st from Harper Voyager.
I still dream of the island.
I sometimes approach it across water, but more often through air, like a bird, with a great wind under my wings. The shores rise rain-coloured on the horizon of sleep, and in their quiet circle the buildings: the houses grown along the canals, the workshops of inkmasters, the low-ceilinged taverns. The House of Words looks inward behind its high walls. Threads knotted into mazes run in all directions from the House of Webs, and air gondolas are suspended on their cables, dead weights above the streets.
At the centre of the island stands the Tower, smooth and blind. A sun of stone glows grey light at the pinnacle, spreading its sharp ray-fingers. Fires like fish-scales flicker in the windows. Sea is all around, and the air will carry me no longer. I head towards the Tower.
As I draw closer, the lights in the windows fade, and I understand they were never more than a reflection. The Tower is empty and uninhabited, the whole island a mere hull, ready to be crushed like a seashell driven to sand and carved hollow by time.
I also understand something else.
The air I am floating in is no air at all, but water, the landscape before me the seabed, deep as memory and long-buried things.
Yet I breathe, effortlessly. And I live.
Amber would sometimes wash ashore on the island; it was collected and shipped across the sea. As a child I once watched a jewel-smith polish it on the edge of the market square. It was like magic, one of the stories where ancient mages span yarn from mere mist or gave animals a human tongue. A sweet smell arose from the amber, the smith dipped the whetstone in water every once in a while, and in his hands the murky surface turned smooth and glass-clear. He handed the orange-yellow lump to me, and inside I saw an insect frozen in place, a mayfly smaller than the nail of my little finger. Its each limb, wing and antenna was so easy to imagine in movement that I believed it was still alive, ready to whirr and fly, when the hard shell would be broken.
Later I learned that creatures captured in amber cannot be freed. They are images of the past, fallen outside of time, and it is their only existence. When I turn the past before my eyes, I think of the mayfly. I think of the translucent brightness guarding it and distorting it. Its wings will not vibrate, it will never turn its antennae. Yet, when light pierces the stone from a new angle, the mayfly seems to morph into another. And in the posture stalled long ago is already written what will come later.
Likewise, this present already grows in my past that first night, when I see her.
She is lying on the smooth stones, face down, and it takes me a moment to understand she is not dead.
* * *
There is blood. Not everywhere, but a lot of it. She is still, like those who have stopped breathing are still. A red, glistening pool is spreading under her head; the ends of her hair are swimming in it. I see a rust-coloured streak on the hem of her dress and imagine the rest: a sticky trail running down the front of the garment, as warm as her mouth at first, before the air cools it down. The thought of the pain behind the blood twists my gut. I push it away, to where I am used to enclosing everything I cannot show.
There are not many of us yet. When the others move to make space for me, their glow-glass spheres tilt and hover in the dusk, and the pale light catches on the creases of their palms, on the coral amulets around their necks. Above the hands their faces are frightened or curious, I cannot tell which. Perhaps both. They are all younger than me, mostly first- and second-year weavers. I think of soft-bodied sea creatures, of how they slip away when something bigger comes too close.
‘Has anyone gone to find Alva?’ I ask.
No one says anything. I search among the faces, trying to find just one I can name, and fail. I kneel next to the girl on the ground and take her hand. It is soaked in blood, and so is mine, now. I do not mind; there will be time to wash it later. I see blood every month. Not only mine, but that of others, too. When hundreds of women live in the same house, someone is always bleeding. We do not get childbirths here, not often anyway, but we see enough of other varieties of bloodshed.
The girl’s skin feels cold, her arm limp and heavy. I know I should not touch her until the healer comes.
‘Go and find Alva,’ I say.
They shift, a restless cluster of silence. No one takes a step to go.
Unexpectedly the girl moves under my hand. She turns over, raises her face and spits blood and strange-shaped sounds from her mouth. Bright red drops fall across my jacket. They make a pattern, like blood coral ornaments on a rich man’s cloak.
‘Go,’ I order. ‘Now!’
A second-year weaver turns and runs towards the other side of the square confined by stone buildings. The moments are slow, the whispers a surging sea around us. The wrist within my fingers is sinewy and narrow. More pale-blue spheres of light float through the dark towards us from the direction of dormitories and cells, more hands and faces behind them. A few weavers stop to fill their glow-glasses from the algae pool in the middle of the square; its shimmering surface vibrates and grows smooth again. Everyone must be awake by now. Eventually I see a woman in white approach across the square. She is carrying a stretcher under her arm. A tall figure I recognize as Weaver is walking at her heels. Light spills on the stones, catches in the folds of nightdresses and hair and limbs. Alva and Weaver order everyone to give way. When there is enough space, they place the stretcher down.
‘I think you can let go of her hand,’ Alva says.
I do. I get to my feet, withdraw into the crowd standing around us and watch as Alva and Weaver lift the girl onto the stretcher and begin to carry her towards the sick bay.
Somewhere, the bells of the city begin to toll sea-rise.
Some flooded nights I watch the city below from the hill. I follow the waters that rise high and wild, swell across courtyards, push aside chairs and tables stacked up in a futile attempt to make frail, treacherous bridges. But the sea never reaches the House of Webs. Weavers turn over when the bells toll and do not grant it much thought.
This night is different. Sleep is thin in the house, because strange blood is drying on the stones of the square. Sand flows slow in hourglasses. Coughs, footsteps and words exchanged in secret fade away little by little. I see the girl before me every time I close my eyes. Although I know the attacker must be far away, every shadow on the walls is darker than usual.
I pull the last dormitory door of the night-watch round closed behind me. My brother tells me I should get more sleep, but being awake has its advantages. The corridors of the house are long, and someone must walk them all night, look into every dormitory, listen behind the door of each cell. Those are the Council’s orders, and therefore also Weaver’s. It is not a precaution against those coming from outside the House of Webs. We have all heard the drinking songs about wet weaver wenches circulating in the taverns and on the streets, but those are just words. In order to get into the house, you would have to climb the steepest hill on the island and find your way through the maze of wall-webs undetected, and you would risk serious sanctions in doing so. No: the night-watch is to keep an eye on those who already live within the walls.
The luminous ribbons of the glow-glass pipes throw cold sparks along the corridors, revealing the unevenness of the worn stone. The current in the canals is strong; it drives the swift movement in the pipes, and in fast water the algae wakes to shine bright. A draught blows past me, as if a door is opened somewhere, but I do not see anyone. I could return to my cell. I could sleep. Or stay awake in the fading shine of the glow-glass, wait for the morning.
I turn in the other direction and step outside. I like the air gondola port because you cannot see the Tower from there: its tall, dark figure is concealed behind the wall and the buildings of the House of Webs. Here I can imagine for a moment that I am beyond the reach of the Council’s gaze. I like the port best at this hour, when the cables have not yet started creaking. The vessels are still, their weight hanging mid-air, or resting at the dock, or floating in the water of the canals. The gate cracks open without a sound. The wrought iron is cold against my skin, and the humidity gathered on its surface clings to my palms. The cable of the air route dives into the precipice, which begins at the rock landing of the port, and the city opens below. I walk along the landing close to the brink. It is steep as a broken bridge. Far below, the sharp edges of Halfway Canal cut through the guts of the island, outlining waters that always run dark, even in brightest summer light.
The sky has begun to fade into the colours of smoke and roses. The first light already clings to the rooftops and windows, to the glint of the Glass Grove a distance away. The flood has finally ceased to rise, and down in the city the water rests on streets and squares. Its surface is smooth and unbroken in the calm closeness of dawn: a strange mirror, like a dark sheet of glass enclosing a shadow double of the city.
My eyes are heavy and stung. I could catch an hour of sleep before the morning gong if I returned to my cell now. It is a short enough time. It would be safe enough.
I stay where I am.
The gate creaks behind me. I turn to look.
‘The gate should be locked,’ Weaver says.
‘It was open when I came.’
‘I was not reprimanding you,’ she says. ‘What happened there?’
She points towards the strip of sea on the horizon, north of the Glass Grove. I had not realized, because it is something you do not notice.
‘The air highway,’ I say.
The north side of the island is dominated by air gondola routes: light vessels travelling an intricate network in all directions and on many levels, cables crisscrossing between the trading harbours in the west and the inkmasters’ workshops in the northwest. But the skyline of the city above the rooftops has changed.
‘The largest cables are down,’ Weaver says. ‘There must have been an accident.’
The floods do not usually damage the air routes. But if one of the supporting poles has fallen, it could affect the whole network.
‘I expect we will get word when the watergraph starts working again,’ Weaver says. She turns her face towards me. It is the colour of dark wood. ‘But that is not why I was looking for you.’ She pauses. ‘Alva would like to see us both.’
‘Alva?’ The request surprises me. ‘Did she say why?’
‘She believes we should go and meet the patient together. She has something to show us.’
The thought of seeing the girl again is a cold stone within me.
‘I had hoped to get some sleep before breakfast,’ I say.
Weaver’s gaze is deep in the growing daylight, full of thoughts.
‘Come,’ she says.
When the house-elder says so in the House of Webs, you obey.
* * *
The first thing I sense is the surge of heat through the door. Then, a cluster of scents. In the House of Webs, the sick bay is the only place apart from the kitchen where live fire is allowed. Even laundry is washed in cold water most of the time. Alva stands by the stove, feeding wood into the spark-spitting metal maw. A steaming pot of water sits on the stove, and next to it another one with an inch of dark-brown liquid in it. I inhale, recognize liquorice and lavender, hops and passionflower. The rest blurs into a blend of unfamiliar scents. On the table, next to scales, mortars and bags of herbs, I notice a neatly laid-out row of needles cooling down on a polished metal tray.
Alva closes the hatch of the stove and wipes her hands carefully with a steaming towel.
‘We’ll need a gondola,’ she says. ‘We cannot keep her here.’
‘I will send for a gondola to take her to the Hospital Quarters as soon as I can,’ Weaver says. ‘The watergraph pipes are too badly flooded.’
‘Again?’ Alva picks up a glass jar from the tall shelf that fills the space behind the table. I see dozens of teardrop-shaped wings stirring, hair-thin legs moving, and something round and black and bright. Eyes stare directly at me.
‘There is nothing we can do but wait,’ Weaver responds.
Alva turns towards us with the jar in her hand.
‘She’s awake,’ she says. ‘But she can’t talk.’
‘Why not?’ I ask.
‘It’s best if you see her now,’ Alva says. ‘She’ll need a new singing medusa in any case.’
Alva walks across the room to the medusa tank. It sits on robust legs of stone, as wide as the wall: a smooth, oblong pool of glass rounded on the edges, covered by a lid with a slim opening at one end. The singing medusas float through the water without hurry, their translucent swimming bells pale green and blue, weightless in their water-space. Alva unscrews the lid of the jar and holds the jar upside down over the opening. Wings and limbs and eyes move, first behind the glass and then briefly in the air, as she shakes the jar.
The medusas reach their thin tentacles towards the insects raining into the water, close their round, murky bells around the black-green gleam of the beetles and flies. Alva lets the last sticky-limbed insect fall into the tank. Then she dips the glass jar in, collecting some water into it. She picks up a small hoop net from a hook on the wall and pushes it into the tank. The bloom of medusas opens and pulls away, their tentacles wavering like broken threads in a breeze, but Alva has already caught one. It is small and slippery and blue-green, and it seems to shrivel, to lose its colour and grace as soon as it is out of water.
Alva slips the medusa into the glass jar, where it opens again like a flower, but now constrained, without joy. As we watch, it begins to open and close, open and close, and in an echo of its movements, the bloom in the tank begins to do the same. A low, faint humming vibrates in the water, refracts from the glass walls, grows towards the ceiling until it seems to ring through our bones.
Alva hangs the hoop net back on the wall hook. The water dripping from it draws a dark trail on the wall towards the floor. She parts the curtains covering a wide doorway into the back room and steps through. Weaver and I follow. Slowly the singing recedes behind us and fades into a silence as dense as mourning, or farewells left unspoken. There are only six beds in the room, and despite the faint lighting I can see that five of them are empty. In the furthermost bed by the back wall lays a narrow, motionless figure. She is covered by a rough blanket, but I can discern her form under it: long limbs, softness sheltering angular bones. The warmth from the iron stove spreads across the skin of my neck.
Our shadows fall deep and shapeless, interlacing where the fragile halos of the glow-glasses overlap, hemming in the bed we are approaching. There is no light on the back wall. Thick curtains cover the window.
Dimmed glow-glass globes hang on the walls. Weaver picks one, shakes it and places it on the girl’s bedside table. A blue-tinted light wakes up within the sphere. Slowly it expands and falls on the girl’s face. I notice there is also an empty cup on the table.
The girl is approximately my age, between twenty and twenty-five. There are still dry, rust-brown tangles in her red hair, but the garment she is wearing is clean. Or so I think at first, until I notice the burst of tiny speckles on the front. As if someone had tried to paint an impression of faraway stars on it, the sparkling Web of Worlds that holds the skies together.
She struggles to sit up on the mattress. Her eyes are grey and full of shadows in the glow-glass light, and her skin is very pale. Her lips are squeezed together so tightly it makes her face look older, shrivelled upon itself. I realize Alva has made her drink a calming herbal brew. Yet behind its artificial languor the girl is tense and all edge, like a dagger drowned in murky water, ready to cut the first skin that will brush it.
‘In order to help you,’ Weaver says, ‘we need to know who you are.’
The girl nods slowly.
‘She is not island-born,’ Alva says.
The lines on Weaver’s face seem to sharpen. She looks at Alva.
‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’
‘I wanted to show you,’ Alva says. ‘May I?’
The girl’s eyes close and open again. The question seems to sink in letter by letter. Eventually, she moves her head slowly up and down. I do not know if this is because nodding hurts, or because she is too dazed to make faster movements.
Alva directs the girl to rotate her upper body slightly, face turned away from us. She gathers the girl’s hair gently in her hand and lifts it. The skin of the neck is bare: there is no trace of ink where the sun-shaped tattoo marking everyone born on the island should be. I glance at Weaver, catch a glimpse of the shadows on her brow. There are not many people on the island who were born elsewhere. Seamen and merchants come and go, but most islanders avoid mingling with them.
‘May I see your arms?’ Weaver asks.
Alva lets go of the girl’s hair and the girl turns her face back towards us, her movements still underwater-slow. She nods again.
‘I already checked,’ Alva said. ‘She must have moved to the island when she was very young.’
Weaver pulls up the sleeves of the girl’s garment. One of the arms is bare. Not from the Houses of Crafts, then. The other has a row of short, black lines on it, like wounds on the pale skin. Weaver counts them.
‘Twenty-one,’ she says. That is two less than I have.
Weaver lets go of the girl’s arms. The girl leans back into her pillows in a half-sitting posture.
‘Were you born on the continent?’ Weaver asks her.
The girl nods.
‘Are your parents from the island?’
Now she hesitates. Weaver sighs. A mixed marriage, perhaps. They are rare, but not impossible. Or perhaps she does not know her parents. But foundlings have their own mark in place of the birth tattoo, and she does not have one.
‘Never mind,’ Weaver says. ‘We can talk about that later. I brought pen and paper.’ She pulls a slim notebook from her pocket. The covers are well-worn, stained leather, and the pages are yellowed on the edges. She places the book on the girl’s lap and a pen on top of it. ‘If you know how to read,’ Weaver says, ‘please, write down your name.’
The girl stares at the blank page. We wait. After a long moment, she shakes her head, slowly and painfully.
None of us is surprised. Word-skill is only taught in the House of Words, and women are not allowed there. Most women on the island are illiterate.
‘Whereabouts in the city are you from?’ Weaver tries. ‘Can you draw that for us?’
The girl’s face changes slowly like shadows on a wall. Eventually she draws an elongated lump that bears a vague resemblance to a fish.
‘The island?’ Weaver asks.
The girl nods. Her hand shakes a little, as if the pen is too heavy between her fingers. She marks a cross in the northwest corner of the lump.
‘The Ink Quarters?’ Weaver says. I have only been there a couple of times. I remember narrow streets thick with pungent smells, canals where water ran strange-coloured, and tall, vast buildings with darkened windows you could not see through. Gondolas carrying blood coral in large cages to be ground in the ink factories, and red-dye transported from the factories to the harbours in big glass bottles.
The girl nods again.
‘Are you able to tell us anything about the person who attacked you?’ Weaver asks.
The girl lifts two fingers.
‘Do you mean there were two of them?’
The girl begins to nod, but pain cuts across her face and stops the movement short.
Weaver looks like she is about to say something else, but a few red drops fall onto the page from between the girl’s lips. A narrow trickle of blood follows. Alva’s face is taut. She pushes Weaver and me to the side. The glass jar in her hand is still holding the medusa, which lies motionless, like a plucked petal.
‘Open,’ Alva orders.
I only realize now why the girl cannot talk. I only catch a brief glance at her mouth, but that is enough. Where the tongue should be, there is only a dark, marred mass of muscle, still a bleeding, open wound. I have to turn away for a moment. Alva holds a towel under the girl’s chin, fishes the medusa out from the glass jar and slides it into the girl’s mouth. Relief spreads on the girl’s face.
‘She is in a lot of pain,’ Alva says. ‘She must rest. But there is one more thing.’
She places the jar on the night table and picks up the glow-glass. She turns to look at me.
‘Are you certain you don’t know her?’
The question makes no sense. I look at the girl again, just to be certain, although I do not need to. She has closed her eyes and her breathing is turning even. Her muscles twitch slightly. She does not open her eyes.
‘Of course I’m certain,’ I say.
Weaver stares at Alva, then at me, then at Alva again.
‘Why do you ask such a thing?’ she says.
Alva steps right next to the girl. She does not react when Alva takes her hand and gently coaxes open the fingers closed in a loose fist.
‘Because of this,’ Alva says and turns the palm upwards. The light from the glow-glass falls on it. Bright marks begin to glow on the skin, the letters forming a word I recognize immediately.
Excerpted from The Weaver © Emmi Itäranta, 2016