Mother, Crone, Maiden
Knowing the future is not about knowing the future. It’s about knowing which path to take.
Ilven comes from a family of Saints—future-tellers—but she knows her father didn’t waste more than a few grains of the precious drug scriv to see her fate. Now she’s facing an arranged marriage to a man she’s never met. So, inhaling stolen scriv, she reads three possible futures for herself, searching for the path that will lead to her heart’s desire.
Presenting “Mother, Crone, Maiden,” a short-story prequel to Cat Hellisen’s young adult fantasy debut, When the Sea Is Rising Red, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 28th.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Beth Potter.
“Seeing into the future is not a straight line. You are given the choice of a hundred paths through a treacherous swamp. Some will lead you safely onwards, others drown you, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which,” my mother says.
I’m sitting at a polished wooden desk in our family library, surrounded by the dusty rustling of knowledge. My mother has been explaining these dry facts at me for the entire afternoon. I press the point of my quill into the wood, and watch the split climb up the shaft.
House Malker has always been noted for its excess of Saints, and our lives are dictated by omens and Visions. We are ruled by our reliance on the drug scriv, the gateway to our power. Scriv, more precious than any metal or jewel or life. Without it, we are nothing. There is never enough, and there is certainly never enough to waste more than a few grains on the future of a girl.
Were I a boy, my father would have overseen my education and had me tutored by the best of the university’s learned men. Instead, I am learning to tell the future from my mother.
She’s still talking, her voice as distant and meaningless as the screeching of the sea mews over the cliffs near our mansion. “For an important business or political decision, it has not been unheard of for a Saint to try for the same Vision ten or fifteen times. A Saint can also choose the manner in which they see.” She taps three pieces of colored glass on the desk, selects one. With the red glass in her hand she says, “Pay attention, Ilven.”
“I am.” This is not exactly true. Through the narrow windows I can see Felicita on the far edge of our property, waving at the house from our spinney. Our meeting place. Her House is greater than mine, and so Mother encourages this friendship, even as she catalogs all Felicita’s flaws.
“Perhaps if you looked in my direction instead?” My mother sidles toward a painting of a battle between the Lammers and our age-old enemies, the Mekekana, and holds up the red glass. “This is emotion,” she says, and the picture shows me only the brightest and most blazing things. The blood of the dead is washed away. She swaps the glass for the blue. “Political decisions.” The picture reveals now not the glory of the war, but the cold black blood that fueled it. The Mekekana’s vast beetle-ships become savage, their barbaric machines cold and iron-dark as they crawl on their immense wheels, crushing our bones beneath them.
Despite my desire to leave this room and its towers of oppressive books, I find myself interested. No one has ever explained the way Saints make decisions to me, as if somehow I was always too stupid and small to understand. They have merely taught me by rote, and expected that to be enough. “And the green?”
“We’ll call this personal power,” she says. Again the focus shifts; what appeared important before becomes subdued.
All futures are tinted by the way in which you choose to view them.
Here then is a truth only Saints understand: Knowing the future is not about knowing the future. It’s about which choice to make.
That is why you can never get a straight answer from a Saint, for they have none to give.
I am sixteen and to be married in a matter of weeks. I had no say in this future. My father chose him for me and I have never seen the man’s face nor will I until I am presented to him on my wedding day. He lives many miles upriver, on a wine estate. I’m told the wine he makes is very fine. I wonder how many paths my father bothered to look down before he made up his mind.
My mother was unhappy with the decision, measuring out scriv with a tiny silver spoon and trying for different ways to see her Vision. Eventually she gave up and tried with cards instead, and all Saints know that cards are useless for anything more than parlor games. Even this failed her, and so she has accepted my father’s choice.
I do not accept it. Not when I have something I want more.
My first kiss was at fourteen, in one of the many dark and drafty rooms of Felicita’s home. I don’t know why her brother did it, perhaps because he himself was off to be married and I seemed like a safe thing to use to still his own fears. Owen was already a man, and I think it was the only time he ever paid me the slightest attention. He was high on scriv and I could taste his futures on his tongue. I was in one of them, slight and faint.
After that he left and life carried on much the same. I see Owen only very occasionally, and always I am studiously ignored. I watch his wife for weaknesses, for ill health. She seems immune to my wishes.
I have never told Felicita about this kiss. Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep, I let myself remember the way he came to me, the way he tipped my head back. The same memory over and over in rhythm with the waves. The ocean becomes the salt taste of his mouth, and I wish that there were a future where my House and House Pelim tied themselves together and I had Owen. Perhaps it is not too late for me.
Who knows what course I could still take to bring about the future of my desire? I do not expect much—one man. It will not change the world, not to ask for something so small.
It is a week until my wedding. The gold silk has been fitted, the feasts have been planned, and we will travel upriver in a matter of days. My parents and brother will be the only ones returning. Mother has become waspish as the day draws closer. She has discovered herself burdened with an autumn pregnancy, a prospect I find humiliating, although my father is pleased. He expects another son.
It’s this good humor of his and the bustle of the household that allow me the opportunity to steal a thimbleful of scriv from his guarded stores. Even if he discovers my theft, my wedding is too soon for him to want to spoil my skin with bruises.
I lock my room, set out my scriv silver, and divide the dust into three fat lines. Next to it on the desk is a letter from Felicita, passed to me by my most trusted servant. Felicita wants us to run to Old Town tomorrow, for just one day, and pretend we are not tied to the rules of our Houses. We could spend the hours clinging to our illusion of freedom, and buy trinkets from market stalls run by Hobs, visit the low tea shops where the poets and artists gather. Perhaps even see one of the street operas that I have heard the servants talk of. It’s appealing—the idea of this last little burst of free will. I need to send her an answer soon.
First, and more important, I would see myself a new future. The smell of bitter citrus coils up from the scriv as I lower my little glass tube and inhale sharply. The burst of orange behind my eyes is followed by a faint acrid taste at the back of my throat. I swallow, close my eyes, and wait for my Vision to take hold.
The blackness swirls. After a few moments it grays, and I am pitched into a new body. Or rather, a familiar body weighted by time and children. It is Longest Day, our slow and lazy celebration of midsummer. My husband has brought us down to Pelimburg for the festivities, and we are at a garden party hosted by House Canroth. Felicita stands opposite me, her thick auburn hair pulled back and tamed, her hands locked over the small swell of her stomach. She is still in that stage where pregnancy is not yet a trial of endurance.
“They’re very handsome,” she says, and smiles at my two sons. “They grow so fast, every time I see them I can’t quite believe how tall they are.”
My daughter, mouse-like and clingy, hides in my skirts, unwilling to approach this woman she last met as a babe-in-arms. “And yours.” Although this is not quite true. The oldest at least has some of her features, but the moon-faced younger boy is not quite as fortunate.
“Oh, come here.” Felicita steps forward to grab at my hands. “Must you be so formal? I’ve missed you.” She kisses both my cheeks and curls her fingers in mine. We cling together like this, our hands hidden in the folds of our dresses. “I miss you, Ilven,” she says again, soft as the brush of rabbit-tail grass against my skin. Guilt and misery taste like bile. I want so much to miss her as much as she does me. And I almost do. There is one I miss more, the man I dream of when I am with my red-faced husband, the one my sons should have looked like.
Even as I hold Felicita, I look over her shoulder for his face. As the head of House Pelim, he might have been too busy to accept the invitation.
No. There he is: Pelim Owen, pale-skinned with his dark auburn hair. He seems to stand taller than anyone else here, and magic and power swirl around him so thickly, a cloak of air and fire. I am the only one who can see him as he truly is. He is dressed in riding black and already bored by the frivolity around him. His meek and pretty wife and daughters are nowhere to be seen, and a moment of giddy happiness rises in me. Then he turns and smiles, and holds out his hand, and his wife steps from the crowd, takes it, and smiles back.
“We should visit more often,” I say to Felicita.
“I’d like that.” We squeeze each other’s fingers tighter.
I pull back out of the Vision. This is my safe and open path, perhaps even the one my father saw for me when he decided my marriage. I am prosperous, healthy, I have produced children, and have held on to my ties of friendship with House Pelim. It is all that has ever been expected of me.
Outside my window a bird is singing liquidly. One of the blue-faced mynahs has come down from the high forests above our property. If it stays too long near the cliffs, the sea mews will mob it; peck it to death unless it escapes. A sign, if I wish to take it. The mynahs can be tamed and taught to say a few words if you are patient enough. This is what I will be, a tamed and talking bird, out of my element.
Taking this much scriv is not something I’ve done before. I sip at a cup of cold tea to pace myself. There are tales passed down by Saints about the damage we can do to our bodies. My maternal grandfather went to his grave early, spitting up pieces of his lungs on his way. I have no memory of this—he died before I was born—but I have heard my mother recount the tale and my stomach clenches. Is this fear? Or perhaps I am already doing some irreversible harm? I banish these worries. They are unimportant when I have so great a goal in mind. With my tea finished, I lean forward to try for a second Vision.
I slip into this one faster, a headlong tumble. I am now, or so close to now it hardly matters. I am running through Pelimburg at night, dressed in simple clothes, with a small hiking bag over my shoulders. I have covered my hair and rubbed dirt into my skin. Even so I am too blond and pale for this city. Monstrous people watch me as I run past. I am lost in the alleyways and warrens of Old Town. If I go back, I will be worse than one of the magicless children that some Houses breed. The men of my family will not take well to my disobedience. My fingers cling tight to the straps of my hiking bag. We do not talk of the women who have dishonored their families. People do not say their names.
But what worse fate waits for me—did I think to run to Owen’s apartments and throw myself at his feet? He will laugh at me, turn me over to my parents, and never look at me again.
I will cease to exist.
“Kss, kss,” hisses a man’s voice, calling my attention. I glance back. One of the lower-caste Hobs is watching me with sly interest. He pushes himself away from the wall he’s leaning on and ambles toward me. My heart slams faster, and I push my way through the crowded streets. He seems to always be just behind me, hunting me through Pelimburg’s narrow arteries. My feet slip on the cobbles and I trip, smashing my cheek against the edge of the stone sidewalk, bruising my hands and knees. He is almost upon me. I scrabble up, and look this way and that, searching for a place to slip away. I duck into a black-mouthed alley thick with stacked crates and piles of rotting litter.
For a moment, I am safe, and then I hear the smack of bare feet on the wet cobbles. I duck behind a perilous tower of rain-swollen crates, and wait, holding my breath until my chest burns.
“It went in here.” A high-pitched voice. Not my pursuer then. I sigh in relief, and stand. A circle of dark-skinned Hoblings pens me in the alleyway, their skip ropes slapping against the cobbles. They have folded them over like nooses.
“Get away,” I say to them, trying to keep my calm. They are, after all, just children.
The closest one grins and lashes out with the end of her rope. A small boy behind her shrieks in laughter. I press my back against the stone walls and dig my fingernails into crumbling moss. If I scream, will the sharif come running to my rescue?
I do not want to face the Hobs, I want to be saved from my own stupidity. What girl runs from her wedding and dares to bring such humiliation down on her family name? I do not know what idiocy made me slip off the wherry taking us to Samar and trudge back along the riverbanks.
“Here,” says a sharif in a white uniform, and the Hoblings scatter like cats. “Little bastards,” he yells at them, before he turns to me. “And what’s this then? You’ve fallen from your glass tower?” He snorts.
“I’m—visiting family,” I say. “I got lost.” And now I wish I had thought of some cover story before I had a run-in with the sharif. No House daughter would walk in Pelimburg’s streets without an escort at the very least.
“Are you now—then you’d best follow me.”
I do not move.
“Come on, then. Little lost thing.” He laughs. “I daresay someone will be along to collect their missing property soon enough.” The sharif folds his hand over my wrist and drags me from the alleyway. My bones contract and grow brittle, my body folds in on itself, withered and wrinkled. The sharif has pulled me many decades into the future, to a Longest Night celebration.
It is bitter, this cold, it works its way into my bones and freezes my joints stiff. I don’t often go out of my youngest brother’s house but his children insisted, and they still have a laughing interest in this old-maid aunt of theirs. They are shrieking in their excitement, dashing between the legs in the crowd. In my day, behavior like this would never have been tolerated; my brother has been lax with the nannies. I would speak to him about it but I already know he will not listen to a thing I say.
We’re all gathering at the center square that usually hosts the market. Under the vast tree that once used to shade the slave pens where the bats were kept, the Longest Night drummer is waiting to bring in the new year. This is supposed to be the night of change where for one starlit moment everyone in every city and village is equal, princes and beggars alike.
Longest Night has always been given over to secret meetings, where men and women, Lammers and Hobs, lie with whomever they like. It is a moment without consequences. Perhaps now that he is over the mourning period of his wife’s death, Owen will be here along with all the other Great Houses. I lose myself in the throng of merrymakers, stepping aside to let the puppeteers and fire-spinners rush past me, always, always looking for his face.
He is old now. Grim, his eyes heavy, but he still has the Pelim good looks, the handsome sneer and the sharp cheekbones. Even the gray at his temples is distinguished.
“Owen,” I say. It is allowed, this informality. The taste of his name is warmed honey, spiced with lemon and cloves.
He stops and squints at me. I can see from his frown that he does not really know who I am. I push my silver hair back and raise my face to him, pretend that I am a girl caught in a dark room, still beautiful and willow-thin. “Ilven,” I say. “It’s Ilven.” He cannot have forgotten that moment, the way he held my waist and tilted my mouth to his. He merely needs reminding.
“Ah.” He looks around at the crowd. “The spinster.” His hard mouth twists.
Sour nausea rises in my throat. I had thought that the years would have smothered the shame of running from my wedding. I falter for something to say to keep him with me. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.” The words are too desperate and too inane at the same time. We have nothing to say to each other. I barely know him, and he knows me not at all.
Fireworks burst distantly over the faraway cliff houses. His face is thrown into blue and green and red, and I see him as through shards of colored glass. His hands are hidden from me, tucked deep into the pockets of his winter coat. “Likewise,” he says, but he is still not looking at me, just through me, past me, over me.
“I was sorry to hear of your loss.”
This snaps his attention to my face, and his dark eyes clear. “You’re here alone?”
“With my brother’s family.” I step closer to him, so that the heat from his body can warm my cold heart. He is free for me to have now, a widower and an old man. Surely it is in my power to finally win him?
“They will be looking for you,” he says, and turns. “Perhaps you should go back to them.” And he walks away and I lose him in the fires and screams.
Gris! I force myself out of the Vision. The sound of my panting breaths echoes in my room, filling it up with my distress.
Not this one, not this one. A path like this will bring me nothing I want. I do not need the auguries of birds to confirm it. There has to be a better path I can walk down. Shivers rattle me, and perspiration gathers at the nape of my neck. It could be shock or the start of a scriv fever. I do not care. The final line of scriv is still waiting and I want it—want it to show me something different. My tea is finished. My fingers crawl to the thin glass pipe, tap at it. Too soon.
Instead, I drag my hand away and pluck a strand of hair from my head. The slight sting helps me focus. I wrap the strand around one index finger, digging it into the flesh so that the tip of my finger purples and begins to ache. I wait until it is numb and white before unwinding the strand again. Pins and needles spark down my finger, a delicious pain that keeps me from thinking of my final Vision.
The fine hair has left small ridges in my finger. It is with a morbid fascination I watch my flesh slowly return to its proper shape. If only we could do that with our hearts, deform them to our whims and pleasure, secure in the knowledge that they will always return to a perfect state, as if they had never been hurt at all.
The shivers are growing worse now and the silk of my dress has glued itself to my back. My mother will not be amused if I fall ill so soon before we leave. She will take it as a personal insult. The room tilts and I cling to the desk, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
The clock sounds loud in the silence, tiny hammers tapping against my temple with mechanical precision. Enough time has passed. I snort my final line of scriv and let it pull me underwater.
I rise gasping, ocean water streaming down my hair. I wipe the salt sting from my eyes and look around me. The sand is strange under my feet, as if I’m barely touching it.
“Took you long enough,” says the boy standing before me. He is brown and short, no older really than I am now. His hair is dark and curling, his slanted eyes gray and green. A Hob. And why would I come at the summons of a Hob, of all things? No servant would presume such a thing of me.
“Where am I?” The beach is an unfamiliar one, rocky and wild, and the black-backed gulls are screaming at us. I have always hated that sound and my heart is stuttering. The seawater feels sticky, like the sweat of a fever.
He shrugs. “Lambs’ Island.”
The waves rush around my feet, dragging insistently at the sand under my heels, trying to pull me back. Lambs’ Island is a forbidden place, full of ghosts and old Mekekana iron. I am hollow inside, hungry. I have no memory of how I got here. Did I drown or was I rescued by this Hob with his insolent face and his parody of House fashion? The question then: Do I owe him anything?
“You have something I want,” he says and holds out his hand.
“A gift, for Pelim Owen.”
In the old stories, the ones I read as a child and would now never confess to knowing, lovers pass trinkets to one another—little things they hand over to show their secret passions. Is this what I have done here? Started an affair with my beautiful Owen, passing gifts between us via this Hob? I look down and realize I am naked. I have nothing to give. I can see the sand through my feet, just faintly.
“The hairpin will do,” he says.
I touch my hair with one hand, find the silver and jeweled stick still tangled there with little strands of red seaweed. A crab as small as a pea is nestled against one of the silver-green leaves. I flick it off and hand my hairpin over. It is a good choice, a symbol of my House. I am handing myself to Owen, marking him.
The Hob reaches out to take it and as he does a terrible hunger rises through the core of my body. I can almost smell the blood and meat of him over the salt and dune brush. I shake my head, and focus on a memory of flying. Of falling, arms outstretched.
The Hob slips my hairpin into his waistcoat pocket. “Here.” He holds out an empty palm, waiting for me.
“Payment, freely given.”
I do not understand what it is that compels me to touch the cup of his hand. The Hob’s pulse thrums under my fingers. His life force flows through me, warming the sluggish blood in my veins.
He snatches his hand back with a rueful grin. “Not everything, not now. I still have things to do.” He looks at the small silver mark I have left on his skin. “You can have the rest later, boggert. Give me a few days yet.”
“The pin—you’ll take it to Owen?” Why can I not remember anything of earlier meetings with this lover of mine, surely his ocean kisses would have stained my skin? The word boggert swims lazily in my mind, rippling eel-like. Am I dead, then? Is this how I will make Owen mine?
“Oh if there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s that.”
“Has he sent me any message?” I cling to the moment that will come, of lovers meeting. To life, even as this Hob uses me. I have never been a fool. This thing I have done is sure to bring death out of the sea. What does it matter now if I play this Hob’s game? We will both have the man we want. Our reasons are different, but the ending will be the same. I find I don’t care.
“A message, no, I—” He frowns, then slips into a smile. “You want me to take him one?”
“Will you tell him . . . ” Already I am imagining Owen’s body against me, our arms and legs tangled ribbons of kelp. I see a world where the ocean is turned red and the fires burn Pelimburg to the ground and the smoke hangs over the city in funerary black. I see a world where Pelim Owen is brought to me by storms unimaginable, and it is my hand he reaches out for. So this is how I win my lover’s heart—through death and treachery. “Will you tell him I miss him?”
“I can do that.”
The water is tugging me back, but it does not matter. Owen is mine. Soon, so soon we will be together. The waters close cold over my head and my earlier sorrows are washed away.
I rise gasping, the taste of scriv burning my sinuses and throat. I choke, and rub streaming salt tears from my eyes. This one. All it will take from me is one small sacrifice. It will have to be carefully arranged. I pull a sheet of paper from my stationery drawer and send Felicita an answer to her earlier message, setting a time to meet at our spinney.
When I go to sleep, I am more contented than I have been in months, or even in years. The calm of my decision lulls me, brushes ill dreams from my brow.
In the morning I watch Felicita from my window. The drizzle adds to her impatience and after a few stretched minutes, she turns and walks away, taking the rocky path down to the road. In a half hour I will be safe, assured that she is well on her way to Old Town and the Levelling Bridge.
No one stops me from leaving the house and crossing the goat-cropped lawns toward Pelim’s Leap. It is as if I have become a ghost already. Only when I go right to the very edge of the cliffs do I hear them shouting from far away. The wind and stinging rain buffets me to the last crumbling stones and pulls my hair free. The white-blond strands dance and tangle in front of my face, but the little hairpin is still secure. It feels overly heavy, bending my head down and pushing me toward the seething gray waters far below.
Here is the last truth of Saints: We will always choose the path which brings us the most power.
I spread my arms, and let the wind tip me.
“Mother, Crone, Maiden” copyright © 2011 Cat Hellisen
Art copyright © 2011 Goni Montes