Feb 7 2012 3:00pm
When the Sea is Rising Red (Excerpt)
It’s time to check out a great excerpt from When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen, out on February 28:
After seventeen-year-old Felicita’s dearest friend Ilven kills herself to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own death and leaves her sheltered life as one of Pelimburg’s magical elite behind. Living in the slums, scrubbing dishes for a living, she falls for charismatic Dash while also becoming fascinated with vampire Jannik. Then something shocking washes up on the beach: Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous wild magic. Felicita must decide whether her loyalties lie with the family she abandoned . . . or with those who would twist this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.
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 seagale. 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 whaleboneribbed 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.
With every agonized breath I taste sweetness strange and heady. I need to get away from him and away from the lure of this unexpected magic. “Roisin never mentioned any brothers,” I say, trying to change the subject as the clatter of wheels and hooves draws closer.
Wrapped together, we pretend that we are making small talk at a dinner table. “Not completely unexpected,” he says. “I think our mother has made it quite plain to her that we are inconsequentials.” He laughs, a humorless snort. “Yes, Roisin has brothers. Three, in fact.”
Ah, the strange social system that the bats have—so different from ours—that puts the women in power. No one I know has ever seen the matriarch of House Sandwalker, although she’s rumored to be an imposing sort. For a bat.
The sound of hooves on stones is fading now. “Move the umbrella a little,” I tell him.
Jannik complies, and there goes the rear of the carriage, the gray bodywork fading into the mist and drizzle. With a touch of my hand, I motion for the bat to drop the umbrella and close it.
I’ve only so much free time left before my mother sends someone to find me, and I still want to get Ilven a gift. “I should leave—go back to the house.”
“What, after all that subterfuge?” Jannik steps back and looks at me from under his rain-damp hair. “Far be it from me to stop you, but all that hiding behind umbrellas and engaging in nefarious clinches is going to seem wasted.” He grins. He is not afraid to show me his teeth.
Heat rises, flushing my cheeks. Bats do not show their fangs, they pretend they are like us.
Jannik’s face goes closed, and he steps even farther away. He dips a brief bow in my direction. “My apologies.” He turns to leave.
Oh Gris. He’s mistaken my silence for contempt. Certainly, I’ve never had a bat attempt flirtation with me before, but there’s a first time for everything. And oh, how it would drive my brother insane. “Wait.” I catch his sleeve, the black MallenIve lace of his cuff falling over my hand. Again the magic needles my skin. Wait till I tell Ilven about this—she’ll be so annoyed that she couldn’t meet me.
The third eyelids are back, and he looks at me with white blank eyes, his face carefully schooled.
“Give my regards to your sister,” I say, fumbling for some reason to keep him near me.
“I will.” One corner of Jannik’s mouth quirks up. “May I have my arm back?”
“Oh.” I’m never going to live this down. I release my grip on his sleeve and bunch the offending hand into a fist. His magic slips away from me as he walks down the promenade.
I stare at his back, at the perfectly tailored flourish of his coat, the rain covering the charcoal material with a tracery of stars.
Jannik pauses to stare back at me, as if he’s felt my eyes on him. A gust of wind blows strands of his black hair across his face, and he looks like an ink sketch partly obliterated by the gray rain. With his chalk skin and the milkiness of his covered eyes, he is utterly alien. Compelling.
My throat goes tight, and I can barely suck the damp air into my chest. This feeling, I’ll call it revulsion. That’s what it must be, this churning inside me, this ache in my lungs.
He raises one hand and flashes those needle-fangs at me once again. The third eyelids flick up, and I catch a glimpse of fathomless dark before he turns away.
I wander down the beach road, my stomach somersaulting, my head giddy as I take the long route past the old part of the Claw’s promenade, a place I have only ever seen on the hand-drawn maps that cover my father’s study. Here in this quarter, the abandoned houses are crumbling together and littering the sidewalks with small stones and rounded clumps of brick. The rain is coming in hard from the ocean now, and I can just make out the dark sails of the returning fishing fleets as they scud across the frothing gray harbor toward the shelter of the docks. Usually the ships go out at night, but the look-fars’ storm horn has been blaring all morning, its mournful wail a counterpoint to the wind and gulls. Up on the hillsides the look-fars are in their towers, watching for returning ships, portents of bad tides, and storms.
This part of Pelimburg is slowly returning to the sea. The people who once lived here have long since moved inland, away from the decay, up the hillsides, or farther upriver. You’d have to be mad to stay here now. Most of the houses look as if a particularly powerful gust will blow them right down. Some of them are rotting into the gray mud, sliding inexorably seaward.
I step back just in time to miss being clobbered by a piece of rotted windowsill.
“Clear off!” A small dark head stares down at me from the uppermost window of a house with faded green paint mostly chipped down to bare stone and decaying plaster. The girl is as brown as a selkie, and I wonder if she’s a half-breed, if her mother was one of the beautiful seal women who sometimes marry Hobs. “Don’t bring none of your bad luck this way,” the girl says.
Bad luck? While it’s true that I stand out here in my blue silk dress, the storm will have turned my auburn hair into a mess of mud-brown tangles. Fortunately. The reddish tint would have been a giveaway that I’m from one of the High Houses.
My heart patters into a panicked beat. There’s no love lost between Hob and high-Lammer. The Hobs work our factories, sail our ships, wash our clothes. They are the beetle-back on which our city is built. And they do not have a gentle love for us.
I take a backward step.
If the half-breed finds out that I’m of House Pelim, things could go exceedingly badly. Idiots—don’t they understand that without our ships, our scriv-magic, the Hobs would still be living in hunting packs, just barely surviving on what little they could glean from the rock pools? The Hobs seem oblivious to the reality that were it not for our whalers and fishing boats there would be no city, no jobs, no trade.
A little chill of fear crystallizes in my veins. Best to leave before I’m caught and stripped and trussed—and more than likely covered in fish guts—and left as a message to my family and our closed warehouses. How are we to help it that the catches have been small, the fish tainted by magic, inedible? Of course, it suits the Hobs to blame us for such bad luck. It’s blame us or blame a sea-witch, and we make for a much closer and safer target.
“Go on then!” Another piece of rotted wood just misses me. I shrug and turn up the street.
“Keep your trash!” I yell. “I’m leaving.” If I had just a few grains of scriv on me, I could teach the Hob a lesson. Like my mother and brother, I am a War-Singer, highest of the three magic castes, higher than Saints and Readers, and able to make the very air do as I will. Unfortunately, I have no scriv. That makes me terrifyingly weak in the face of Hob violence, and I step farther back, my fear building.
“Keep walking,” says the dark little half-caste. “Or I’ll track you down and burn your house to the ground.”
It’s not the brightest thing to engage them. I really should just ignore her. Besides, what is there to fight over? She lives in a falling-down building that even the sharif couldn’t be bothered to condemn, and I live in a cliff-top mansion. Let her think she owns this little strip of land. There’s no one else who’d want it anyway. I turn my back on her.
It’s far to go before I’m home—I still have to walk past all of Old Town and cross the Levelling Bridge. Darkness is coming in fast as the sea-storm gathers. My sigh is swallowed by the wind.
It won’t be long before I get a chance to speak to Ilven again. There’ll be much to tell her, although I doubt she’ll believe the bat story. She’ll probably think I’m making it up just to entertain her—the way I used to make up hordes of imaginary brothers and sisters to people our childhood games.
I’ll stop at one of the vendors on the way back and buy her a gift. With this thought I skip up toward the center of Old Town to where the market square is in full rumble.
I twist and weave through a crush of people who stink of work and cheap perfumes. It’s so bad that I have to draw a kerchief from my pocket and walk with my nose and mouth covered, in case I breathe in some illness of theirs.
There are wooden tea wagons and wide tables set with fish of all kinds and vegetables and strings of sausages. Some people squat on the ground with their wares laid out on a cloth before them: herbs, seaweeds, carved ivory trinkets.
Not far from me, a gaggle of little Hoblings play skip rope with a piece of frayed and filthy cord. They chant fast and vicious, clapping and shrieking when someone gets caught out.
The sea is rising, one two three,
What will that get for Ivy and me?
Pelim House gave us bones.
Pelim House gave us stones.
When the sea is rising red,
All of Pelim will drop dead.
I rush past them, shaking my head. Little brats. Deeper into the market I go, exchanging the childish game for the clamor of the sellers. And what a racket they make. One shouts out his wares in a high breathless chant, and another calls to me, “Lammer, Lammer, Lammer,” waving at her collection of sea-vomited trash. Bands of ragged children run wild, pickpocketing or worse. Sharif dot the crowd, obvious as diamonds in their starched uniforms. They rake the milling people with narrowed eyes, always keeping watch, policing the city.
I find myself oddly wary around them, even though, strictly speaking, I have done nothing wrong and the idea that my mother has alerted them to my absence is laughable. I dart past one distracted by a mob of street children and leave the pale uniform behind.
Finally, I am drawn to a small painted trolley festooned with garlands of shells. The vendor has draped a fine silk cloth of Ives blue over the top, and on it are set out the delicate shells of the paper nautiluses that I love so. It’s these that first catch my eye, but then I spot the necklace.
It’s made from the inner coils of the big sea-snails: little polished chips of mother-of-pearl strung on twists of silk with a larger piece edged in silver wire to make a pendant. Certainly it’s the sort of cheap thing the Hobs would find charming, and I imagine Ilven’s face when I present her with such a worthless treasure. Something to remind her of the sea, of Pelimburg, of me. The thought makes me smile, and for a moment I forget that my mother will probably lock me in my room until next year when I’m allowed to enter Pelim University and there embrace my few years of sequestered freedom.
The man takes in my gloves and my fashionable dress and champs his mustache. “Two brass bits.”
I laugh in response, but I don’t care that he’s bluffing. What are two brass bits to me? While my brother, Owen, would probably have haggled him down until the poor man practically gave the necklace away, I dig through my purse for some change and toss the coins down on his silk.
The necklace shimmers, the colors changing as he hands it to me, and I think of Ilven—so pretty, so polished and changeable. It is the perfect gift.
With my dress plastered to my back by the rain and the wind whipping my hair loose and free so that it blows constantly into my face, I set off back home, away from the stench of congealed fish and seaweed.
It is not my mother’s worried face that greets me when I return. A servant ushers me through to the formal lounge, acting as if I am an inconvenient guest in my own home. Only when I see who is waiting for me among the polished furniture and glass statues do I understand why.
Owen scowls, his pale cheeks mottled. His eyes are storm black. Not the best of signs. My dearest brother is ten years older than me, and he has always regarded me as an unfortunate accident. I shiver and tuck my hand into my pocket, curling my fingers around the necklace. It seems to me that if I can keep clinging to it, I’ll somehow weather this. I look to my mother for reassurance, but she is pointedly watching the floor, as if she will find some message or hieroglyph in the carpet.
“Where have you been?” Owen’s tone is soft and calm, almost cajoling. It’s the way he talks to the dragon-dogs when he wants to coax them from their kennels. He might as well be waving a cut of nilly-flesh at me.
“Out,” I say. “Walking.”
When he says nothing, I find myself trying to fill in the emptiness, even though I know this is what he wants me to do. I can’t seem to stop myself, and inside I’m cringing at my own stupidity. “Up in the fields toward the woods.” Under his cold stare, I’m babbling, pulling lies out of nowhere, compounding them. “I was supposed to meet Ilven, we were going to see if the sea-drakes were back—they’re supposed to be heading into the bay, but she didn’t meet me so I headed toward the woods.” Short of clamping my hand over my own mouth, I don’t seem to be able to stop. He didn’t see me with the bat, I’m certain of it. If he had, he would have stopped the coach there and then and hauled me back home like a runaway dog.
“Are there many bats up in the woods these days?” he interjects, and I stutter into silence.
The magic hits me before I can think of a response. It sucks me forward, pulling all the air from my lungs. The citrus tang of scriv is in the air, and I realize with a vague unfocused horror that my brother is truly angry.
Angrier than I’ve seen him in a long time.
Like me, my brother is a War-Singer, able to control the air. Unlike me, he’s been to university for the full seven years, has trained to control his talent, to augment it with scriv. All my control comes from the little bit of tutoring I’ve been allowed. Perhaps if we were threatened with war, like in the past, I would have been better armed.
More than that, Owen has control of our household scriv. He hoards it, hands out thimblefuls as rewards, withholds it as punishment. And even though my natural talent for magic is greater than his, right now I can barely do more than raise the smallest breeze. Without scriv, I have no way of accessing my full power.
It’s better not to fight, I know, so I let my body slump. The magical wind is cold, sharp as glass splinters, and it pricks into my skin, tearing at my clothes and hair. My eyes burn as I fight to shut them against the needles of air.
No good. He’s keeping my eyelids pried open. The air forces me to face him, but my vision is blurring red and my chest is slowly being crushed.
I want so badly to kick, to lash out, but I know from a bitter childhood full of my brother’s games that doing so will only make him play longer.
He’s not entirely cruel. He gives me back my air before I pass out.
“I dislike leaving my wife,” he says, and flicks at his fingernails before buffing them against his sleeve. He’s not even looking at me anymore, but I know that this too is merely part of his act. I know this because he’s let his magic lift me up so that my head is level with his, and he’s made sure that I can do nothing but stare at his face. “I especially do not like it when the reason I have to come back up here”—and now he looks up from his manicure and around at the dark interior of the family home—“is because yapping Houses run to tell me they have spotted my sister in the city dallying with a bat.”
My mother, who until now has been keeping white and quiet behind her precious son, finally takes the time to look up at me. “Felicita,” she says, “there’s been a terrible accident—”
“That can wait, Mother.” Owen cuts her off.
She frowns and changes tack as easily as the little fishing boats that litter the bay. “It’s not true, is it?” she says to me. “I told him it couldn’t have been you, that it’s just someone trying to make our House look bad.”
It’s all she cares about. I feel defeated and irritated at the same time. “Of course it was me,” I snap.
Cold threads of my brother’s power tighten around my throat. Finally, I think, I’ve pushed him too far. This time he’ll do more than lock me up in a cupboard for a day or leave me merely with bruises that will fade.
He drops me. I collapse against the black slate floor, my ankle twisting painfully under the sudden weight of my body. I gasp, trying to make up for the lack of air, or to somehow store it up in my body for another attack.
“Malker Ilven is dead,” my brother says.
For a moment I think he’s attacked me again. My throat is filled with grains of glass.
Then Owen walks past me, his boot heels thudding against the slate floor, and he is gone.
I can breathe. I just don’t want to.
When the Red Sea is Rising © Cat Hellisen 2012