When the Sea Is Rising Red (Books of Oreyn #1)

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.

Do you think I don’t care what happens to her?”

He shakes his head. “No. I just think that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a friend instead of an agenda.”

“Fuck off then,” Dash says. His anger is back, controlled, focused. “I hope you find her, but if you don’t, I won’t mourn either of you.”

“I never expected it.” Verrel’s mouth twists in an awful parody of a smile. “I hope your scheme works, Dash, and that you get whatever it is you want.

He sits down on the edge of the bed. “I wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t food or family.” There’s no humor in his thin smile. “I wanted to talk to someone who had enough courage to take what she wanted.

He’s twisting everything. He’s killing himself, killing innocents so that he can have his Gris-damned revenge on my brother.

“This isn’t about saving the Hobs,” I hiss at him. “And it never was.”

“No,” he says, and he grins. His eyes are frightened, giving the lie to his cheer. “But I did always love a good spectacle.

If all I can feel is the very fraying edge of their grief, then I do not want to think how dark the center must be.

If her death wakes something in the deep, then she will bring more shame down on her House with that one act than she could have accomplished in a lifetime of disobedience. They will hate her for it. I wonder if Lady Malker has already struck her daughter’s name from the family tree.

If there’s one thing my mother taught me, it is how to wear the perfect mask. Never show them what you’re really feeling because that’s how they hurt you.

I grit my teeth and wonder if it would matter if I strangled Dash in his sleep. Or poisoned his tea. I wonder what his neck would feel like under my fingers.

In the end, we make our choices on our own. And no matter how stupid they are, we have to live—or die—with what we’ve done. Sometimes choosing our moment of death is the only freedom we have left.

I think I want to sleep,” I say. And I do, really, I do. The last thing I want is to be awake and to think about how Ilven escaped from the life she didn’t want. And why she never spoke to me, told me, warned me. Perhaps I could have changed her mind. It occurs to me that she never meant to meet me under the trees—that she knew me well enough to predict that I would wait only so long before I left—because then she could take the Leap without any chance of me witnessing her from my tower. My heart goes small, and every limb feels too heavy to lift.

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.

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.

I will never let myself be caught like that—any marriage I make will be my own. A choice. A free one.

Just because you are family doesn’t guarantee you’ll be friends.

Maybe I could have saved you once. Twice, even.” I want to reach up and brush back a lock of pale hair that has fallen over her face, but I hold my arms still. “In the end, we make our choices on our own. And no matter how stupid they are, we have to live—or die—with what we’ve done. Sometimes choosing our moment of death is the only freedom we have left.

No matter what the results, it is my choices that define me. And I will fight for them, even when it seems that failure is inevitable. Perhaps most especially then.

None of them will believe me. I drop any attempt to explain myself and just gracefully accept that people are going to make assumptions and that the more I argue, the more it’ll look like I’m trying to hide something.

No one I know has ever seen the matriarch of House Sandwalker, although she’s rumored to be an imposing sort. For a bat.

No. You’ve talked about it. I just had to sit and listen. The only person I can talk to is Ilven. We grew up together, shared the same flight space. And now, if my brother is to be believed, she’s gone.

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.

She is somewhat”—I search for an appropriate response—“imposing.”

“I think you mean terrifying.”

“That too.

Someone here died, I realize. Someone these people loved and cared for. I’m not the only person in the world tangled up in grief.

That’s all Mother needs to say. Our estate and House Malker’s are built on the high cliffs along Pelim’s Tooth. The Tooth, like its mirror the Claw, is a pincer of land that juts around the mouth of the Casabi river, making a protected bay.

But the cliff isn’t called the Tooth all the time. In fact, most people call it Pelim’s Leap.

Not to our faces, of course.

They don’t like to remind us that our House has brought the Red Death to Pelimburg’s shores before, that we have a history of suicides and ill luck.

Then again, I’ve never been overly fond of rational thoughts.

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.

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.

There will be whys—people gossiping and speculating as to what Meke-damned trial drove her to it. Whatever thoughts spurred her on, Ilven’s not going to spill them now. And any ill luck that comes to Pelimburg now will be blamed on Ilven’s dive, on the alchemy of falling girls and broken-glass sea.

We’re going to watch the sun set,” he says. “I’m not sitting here any longer. Too much misery in this room. I need out.”

Lils sneers. “And you want us to all traipse off to the garden and watch the sun set because you hate dealing with reality?”

“I can deal with reality perfectly well,” he says back, grinning. “I just don’t see why I should.

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.

You are not one of the heroes in your fucking street operas,” Dash shouts, his voice strangled. “You’re not.”

Verrel pauses and looks back. “And neither are you.”

“I never bloody claimed to be.