an Epilogue

by Cat Hellisen

Sea Rose: Endurance.
The ink drips from the end of my brush and endurance is lost under a splat of squid-ink brown. I huff. Calligraphy was never my strong point, but I decided today to fill in the names on this botanical I'd stopped working on ages ago. I was trying to collect the secret meanings of flowers, the way Riona taught me. Something for her memory, I suppose. And already I've ruined it.
I set my brush aside and try to blot as much of the spill away as I can. I painted this picture from memory. It has been almost five years since I last saw a sea rose, so deep a red that it is almost black, like a rotten heart.
It looks wrong.
I turn the page, not wanting to be reminded of my lost home. My mother still writes, and Allegria still lives, despite all expectations. She will be leaving her chubbiness behind now, turning into a slim little creature, growing wild on the hills above Pelim's Leap. This time there will be no Owen to ruin her, no man's hand to teach her that her place is only to do what she is told and marry the right husband.
In the letters, my mother hints that Allegria is some kind of child-miracle, that she is wise beyond her years. Perceptive. That she looks like my brother, around the eyes, a little. I don't know if she says these things to hurt me, or if they are just little pieces of trivia, the dotings of a grandmother.
I wonder what they tell her about me. If her mother whispers nightmare tales, uses me as a threat: If you don't eat your asparagus then Felicita will come down from MallenIve and feed you to the sea witch.
The pages flick soft under my fingers, the heavy paper quiet as folded sheets. I pause at the watercolour sketch of a little sprig of dogleaf, and a smile catches one corner of my mouth, and my stomach heats.
There's a space next to the dogleaf where I still need to fill in the meaning. My hand hovers over my brush, wondering if I should pick it up, set my truth down for anyone to read if they wish.
“What's that you're working on?”
I start, and knock the water-glass holding my brush, spilling water across the painting. It sits on the surface, magnifying a yellow petal and a hint of feathery grey stem. “Nothing,” I say as I blot this mistake up too. I sigh. Perhaps today was not the best day for starting. I am clumsy, tired. Still recovering, even though it's been two months.
His hand settles on my shoulder, warm as blood, and I can't help but tilt my head so that my cheek rests against the back of his hand. I reach round to hold his wrist and he makes no move to pull himself away. Instead he shifts closer, and I can feel him peering over, see the tips of his hair falling before my face like a funeral veil.
“Dogleaf,” he says, and I can hear the smile.
“It's a weed,” I tell him. “I'm telling Bermond to pull up the lot before spring.”
“You are not.”
“We could replace them all.” I lift my head, but don't let go of his wrist. “Plant beds and beds of sea roses.” I don't know what makes me say that. Sometimes tiredness makes me cruel. Sometimes bitterness makes me cruel.
He is quiet for a while. “We could.” He leans over my shoulder to turn some more pages. “I haven't seen you working on this one for a while.”
I want to cry, or scream, or perhaps throw a party. Mostly I do not want to talk about this stupid book of pitiful pictures. “Leave it.” I stand too fast, and my stomach cramps as though someone had just scored it from the inside with a strand of rusted iron. I breathe in sharply through my nose, but resist the urge to press my hand against my belly.
“Are you still feeling...” Jannik doesn't know what to say to me, and he trails off, embarrassed. In five years I have built my house of secrets, my glass house inside my mind, and I have folded everything close to my heart in flower-brights. I have twisted their meanings into petals and leaves.
Jannik's own house of sand is closed to me.
We have become too good at this. I close the botanical. No more words. I will not give him the key to my house. “What was it you wanted?”
“I came to tell you that Harun and Isidro are planning to go to a play tonight, and they wanted to know if we'd join them.”
“Are they mad?” I turn to look at him in astonishment. We are not welcome. Not now. Not ever. And since when have the two of them left their cave to enter society?
“It's a small performance,” Jannik says, “We're not exactly going to the MallenIve Grand. And besides, you must have been living in a fog-” He snaps his mouth shut and has the grace to look guilty. He suffers too, I'm sure, but his pain is nothing compared to mine, and I can find no way to explain this to him. And it's not as though I am unaware that it is my own foolishness driving me here. I want something I cannot have.
“Oh, shut up,” I say wearily. “Yes, I have, I have missed everything. Tell me what the dandies have been up to. I find it impossible to believe they've decided to manage anything resembling a normal existence.”
“Surprisingly....” He grins, and the tips of his fangs catch the dim light.
“That must cause a stir.”
I straighten my spine, and push the constant dull ache away. I am not an invalid. I am not someone to be pitied. I may never be a mother, but I'm still someone's aunt. “I want to take a wherry to Pelimburg,” I say.
We are still miles from the sea when the air changes. Over the river water reek, I can smell the sharp cleanness of ocean water, and my heart rises, fills. Before it was a deflated water sack, the leather cracked and dry, but now it seems that my heart is too full, the seams splitting, water spilling from it like tears. I find myself gulping for air, drowning.
Jannik is standing alongside me, his knuckles white next to mine. “We can still catch a return wherry,” he says. “As soon as we dock, we hardly need do more than move our luggage from one boat to another.” We barely need to set foot on Pelimburg soil, he does not say.
“My mother will have my letter by now.” I did not ask her permission to come visit my own home. I sent a letter three days before we left, so she wouldn't have time to reply, to fob me off with some flimsy excuse.
Is she reading it even now, with her only daughter a span of miles away, closer than she has wanted me in years? Do her hands shake? Does she see where the paper is crinkled? I had Cornelia get a maid to iron it out carefully, so that none of my tear-marks could be seen, before I folded it into an envelope and sent it off with one of the nilly-messengers to the docks. I wanted the letter far from my hands before I had the chance to talk myself out of this visit, and I'll be Gris-damned if I let Jannik do to me now what I managed to avoid doing to myself. My hands tighten on the low railing, and the wind ruffles my hair back, bites through my thin wool coat. Winter in MallenIve is sharp as glass razors, but Pelimburg's winter comes in drifts and fogs, seeping through the cracks in the days. The wind is damp, and tiny drops gather on my lapels. “We will be home soon,” I tell him.
Jannik does not argue. I know he wrote no letter to his own mother. It is doubtful she would have had the time to see him. His sister Roisin is now the official head-in-training, and already picked some Ur-born wray to be her mate. We were neither of us invited to their wedding, and it is proof enough that the Sandwalkers are washing their hands of Jannik.
A pity. They are still powerful in Pelimburg, even if their name means nothing in MallenIve.
There is a coach waiting for us at the docks, and my heart leaps in sudden fear or relief. I can’t quite tell the difference. The Pelim dolphins shine silver-bright, like the moon on waves, their eyes giddy and malevolent in equal measure. The coachman – no one I recognise – steps down from his seat and bows at us. He helps me into the coach, and I sit in the dim interior, listening as he loads our kists in a series of thumps that shake the carriage, soothes the unicorns, clicks his tongue and flicks his whip across their backs in a leather-sharp kiss.
“I suppose this means we are welcome,” Jannik says. He is sitting across from me. Apart. How did we get like this? After our deaths, it seemed to me that we were closer than ever, that we had bound ourselves fast in a way that could never be broken. And though we broke our blood-bond, we also started it again. We were married, after all. It seemed a natural thing to do.
The space between us grew with each slip, each kitten-small death. Strange how a child no bigger than the palm of a hand can cause so much damage.
“I suppose.” I want to reach out to him, to tell him to come sit close to me, to hold my hand. I am scared of what I will find when I see my mother again. Instead I turn my face so that I can look out the cold-misted window onto the city I ran from. Faint as the prick of needle through felted wool, I feel his hurt.
Pelimburg is grey with drizzle, it falls in spider-web drifts, and though I can't hear the crashing waves over the sound of hooves on stone, I open a small window and breathe in the salt-sweet air, the scent of sea roses and hillside brush. We are heading away from the split heart of Pelimburg, and up to the cliff top where my mother's manor house waits for me, old cold stone, and the ghosts of people who have trod the wood black, worn the carpets down the middle.
She's waiting for me when the carriage draws over the gravel drive. The house servants are slightly apart in a neat line. Next to my mother stands Owen's widow Lenora, straight and stiff. Lenora clutches Allegria's little fist in hers, and the girl is so slight and pale she looks like a boggert. I shiver.
Jannik reaches across to take my hand, and I wonder if he has seen some flicker of what I am thinking. I shore up my mental house, darkening the glass, closing the flower heads tight, but he does not let go of my hand, and it for a moment it seems we share a circulatory system, that our hearts pump the same blood between us, palm to palm.
He doesn't say anything, but I hear the soft hiss of sand, feel the feather brush of wings and I am filled with courage. I can do this. We can.
We leave the carriage and stand side by side, and my mother smiles nervously at us before stepping forward, one hand out. In the six years – near seven – since I have last seen seen her, age has bitten into her face, chewed wrinkles around her eyes, left her skin sagged and empty. Age has trodden marks on the back of her hands. It scares me to feel her skin, soft and weathered as an old Courant.
“Welcome home,” she says, and she kisses my cheeks, and I can feel the wetness of her eyelashes.
We have planned to be here for two weeks. I have not told my mother the reason for my sudden visit, though I wonder if there is some unspoken language that only mothers and daughters share, because she is careful with me as though I were a precious sculpture, fragile and thin as a leaf.
Today we are sitting in a parlour, watching the rain fall soft across the meadows that spread out away from the house and to the cliff. There are white nillies grazing, despite the rain, and a boy to watch them. He's huddled under a cloak and hood and I wonder at how cold he is. The rain here may be gentle, but it never seems to end, and it is that kind of gentle insistence that finally overwhelms you, drowns you slow.
Jannik has made himself scarce – hardly surprising when the Pelim house reeks of scriv down to the very wooden bones. I don't even know where he's gone. I open my house a little, trying to seek him out. Faintly, a flicker of feathers, a thought that is gone in a flurry of wings.
I don't know what to do and then it is gone. My stomach feels hollow. I want to tell him I don't know either. We have locked each other out, and it seems so immense a task to undo all the bars.
Instead I turn my attention to my brittle little niece. Lenora is sitting poised on the floor, teaching Allegria from an old captain's map that I know once belonged to my brother. He would never have allowed such informality, even in the family parlour. It's like he's watching me from every corner of the house, and I curse myself for coming here. Their voices are soft as whispers, barely disturbing the air. I watch Allegria, aware that my mother in her turn is watching me over her tea. She is reading, a book perched open on the arm of her chair, but she has not turned a page in a while.
I shift my body so that I am facing her. My mother takes off the narrow reading glass spectacles she has taken to wearing almost continuously.
“What happened?” she says.
There. It is that easy to open a door. I start to tell her, and by the time I am done, I realise that Lenora and Allegria are no longer talking of Oreyn and rivers and seas and cities. They are both watching me, curled up like blonde cats.
“I was very sick,” Allegria tells me solemnly.
I nod. “I know. Grandmother sent me letters. We were very glad to hear you were getting better.”
“Everyone thought I was going to die.” She says with a certain satisfied relish.
I look to her mother, who seems amused. “But you did not,” she tells her little glass and snow daughter.
And Allegria looks at me. There is a fierceness to her, a controlled danger, like a kitten's claws kept tucked neatly away. “You will change the world,” she says to me. “But I will rebuild this city after its bones are picked over by the vultures.”
“Hush, Ally,” Lenora says, tugging at her daughter's dress.
But the child carries on regardless, her bright gaze never wavering. “I will be a queen and I will do what you cannot.”
Saints. I stand, my head reeling. I wan to lie down, to get away from the prophesies of fatherless children. Her father's death is my own guilt to bear, and I don't want to know what futures that act will still bring me.
I don't want to change any world, least of all this one.
I will be a queen. My head aches, and I rush upstairs to the room my mother has set aside for us. I lie fully clothed on the bed. Oreyn has never had queens; that is something from the tales of children, from our time before Oreyn, our lost and shadowy past.
I curl tight, clutching my stomach. We should never have come back, back to this misted city, with its fish bright spires and cold sea winds. I am no longer at home here.
Sleep still has me half-clutched to its bosom when Jannik strokes his fingers through my hair. I lie still, my breathing even, pretending. His hand moves over my head, and with deft fingers, he plucks the little hair pins free. They clink against the table, each one as it is dropped, but I don't stir.
He frees my hair curl by curl, pin by pin.
“You're awake,” he says, close to my ear. “I'm not totally stupid.”
I twist, quick as a dog in a fight, and grab his shoulders. “Where have you been?”
“Gathering sea roses.”
I sit up to push him away. “You have not.”
Jannik stares at me, the one corner of his mouth twitching upwards just the slightest. “No.” He drops a small grey plant on my pillow. The leaves are dry and crinkled, and there are no buds, but I know dogleaf in all its seasons. “I went to visit my sister. We talked of perfumes and stock, though I think she barely saw me. She did say she wanted more dogleaf from us. Apparently the MallenIve type is better to work with.”
“A fixative,” I say, and my fingers twist the little sprig, crushing the leaves and releasing the faint musky smell. The crumbled leaves drift onto the pillow case.
“Yes.” He takes my fingers in his, and raises each to his mouth in turn, kissing them. I know if I press, I will feel the splinter-sharp fangs. Instead I think of how far apart we are, and how we did this to ourselves. I take the key my mother gave me. “What happened?” I say.
Jannik pauses. “What do you mean?”
“What happened between us. Why did we -” I pull my hand free, rest it on the bedspread.
“You did that,” he said. “You stopped talking to me.”
Because he wouldn't have understood. Because he doesn't know what Harun saw, what he told me in that vision of his. They all die.
I keep that memory locked up so close that Jannik will never see it. Ever. Even if I flung open every window in my house, and set all the flowers to bloom, if every secret were as easy to see as sea roses against the bone-white sand, he would still never see that.
The knowledge of it is a canker.
Instead I take his hand again, and trace tiny whorls on it, light as a moth settling. I lift my head to kiss him, pulling him closer even as I bury my secret deeper, pressing it so deep into the soil that it will never flourish, never flower.
He undresses me. I undress him, and though both our houses stay shut, we are closer than we have been in months. We talk without talking, little slips of conversation between us.
Like this?
It is spring in MallenIve, and the city is raucous with new life. The pied crows caw from the green-filmed trees, and the house martins are arriving from the north in clouds as thick as midges. Everything is alive, and the first rains are gathering on the edge of the sky.
I am done with my botanical, the last words have dried. A thin leather bookmark keeps a place, and I run my fingers along the tassled edge before finally raising the book and holding it to my chest.
The house is softly quiet, so light and breezy compared to my mother's stone tomb, and I know where I will find my husband. I follow the sound of his humming. He works with Isidro sometimes – they have some new project they are sharing thoughts on, and Jannik is in his study, poring over a sheaf of sketches that Isidro has made. I catch a glimpse of them before Jannik neatens them away. Isidro is not a bad artist, though his lines are unsure and brittle, a bit like the man himself. “Here,” I say. The book is still tight against my chest, as though I could use it to smother the thumping of my heart. “I've brought you something.”
He looks at me curiously, waiting.
“Jannik,” I say, and I open my arms, let him take the book from me.
“Your botanical?”
I shake my head. “Look.”
He opens the book at the leather book mark, and the pages fall wide, revealing the little dogleaf and its blossoms. Next to it I have written in neat and careful calligraphy. Dogleaf: Keen Interest And A Fixative.
“I can't,” I tell him. A deep breath. “I can’t tell you things. I'm not that kind of person. But I can give you this.” It is a book filled with flowers, and what they mean. I hope he understands this.
He traces the dogleaf lightly, not looking at me any more, flicks the pages until he finds the sea rose with its badly blotted spill. Endurance. He taps it. “They grow well together.” He glances up at me. “Each makes the other stronger. Companion plants.”
He knows, and we will endure.

BOOKS OF OREYNby Cat HellisenNow available in paperback!WHEN THE SEA IS RISING REDBuy on AmazonHOUSE OF SAND AND SECRETSBuy on Amazon