Wow, so this is ... a moment. Thank you, thank you, thank you all for reading along! I had forgotten how long this opening chapter is, so I'm breaking it up into two parts, so you're getting twice the posting fun this week.
Some words in this book are in Sereidenikè, the language of the sereidees. A glossary is here. I'll be adding words as they come up in the chapters, so check back from time to time.
The birds were singing in the twilight and Elisabeth hated them for it. From the line of elm trees past the garden their chorus blared, now a cacophony, now an impromptu harmony. Always it seemed unreal to her to hear such melodies from animals; in the past she had marveled at their talents, but tonight the sounds were grating. She had felt out of sorts since rising. The air was heavy with damp, unusually warm; she had seen the sweat on Jules’ face when she came up from the cellar, knew that the warmth she felt was uncomfortable heat for him. But it meant that he had opened all the windows in the house, and thus the song, as loud and as inescapable as a recital. From the study window where she was perched she could watch their small bodies fading into the deepening shadows of the elms; the first bats shot across the purpling sky. It was only slightly more interesting than her book, which lay at the far end of the window seat where she had tossed it. Another evening in a century of evenings, and her sister Mary had fifty more years of such on her: what would they do tonight? Perhaps something, perhaps nothing, but something and nothing were becoming blurred together, meaningless. Soon they would have to go to London or risk dying of boredom.
She pulled her skirts above her knees, exposing her bare legs to the night air. Her belly still curved full from their excursion a few nights ago. The fuck had been good, a robust tonguing in a little dew-damp glade and her lover smelling of soil from his day’s work; but his blood had been unpleasantly sour. Mary said it was gin, but Elisabeth hadn’t smelled gin on his breath, and she had drunk before from people practically swimming in the stuff—why hadn’t their blood tasted like bad vinegar? Too, she didn’t like to think of him pickling himself with rotgut liquors; no man with a tongue that talented should die young. Perhaps his brush with death would sober him for a time, to know there were such creatures as herself in the world, creatures that looked like a nice bit of muslin yet were to men what men were to animals. There was a moment—there was always a moment—when she first bit a person that they looked at her like a struck dog, just before her spittle soothed them into quiescence; she closed her eyes to it every time, but it haunted her in sleepless moments. What was it like, to feel such fear? The thought only agitated her further, made her feel snappish and angry, though at what exactly she could not say.
Outside a particularly bold nightingale began warbling with all the arrogant vim of an opera diva making his debut. It was too much; before she could think she seized a rock from the window sill and launched it with all her strength at the sound, sending it sailing into the darkness. The warbling ceased abruptly.
For a heartbeat, there was nothing but blessed silence; and then the brisk notes of a rude ballad echoed down the hallway. Elisabeth groaned and seized her book, holding it sightless on her lap as she tracked the music’s approach through the house. Mary’s new viol—though new wasn’t quite right, Alex had sent it to her four months ago, along with a crate of books to be put aside for his return. But new enough to still excite. When was he coming home? Any day now, or was she mistaken? She couldn’t quite remember what he had said; for that matter, she couldn’t remember when they had last all been together, the four of them and Jules and their mother. She and Mary hardly separated, save for when they took lovers; but Cathy had been gone for years, Alex was always chasing something to do with his studies, and their mother, well. Anna Yates simply had needs, or so she claimed; needs that were best met by vigorous lovers and an amusing locale in which to experience them.
Elisabeth took up another rock and flung it at one of the trees, listening for the faint thud as it struck the trunk. One of the few ways she could best her siblings: her aim was accurate. Useful for silencing songbirds, and little more. Mary could play any instrument, Alex had mastered alchemy and rhetoric, Cathy was welcome at all the courts of Europe, both human and sereides. And Elisabeth? Elisabeth could hit a tree trunk at a hundred yards and woo gin-soaked farmhands. Clearly she was destined for greatness.
The viol finally trailed off. Elisabeth looked up to see her sister leaning against the doorframe. “I don’t want to play tonight,” she said.
“Why not? You’re not reading your stupid book,” Mary said, pointing her bow at the offensive tome. Her loose black hair, thickly curled, waved around her head as if alive. Medusa, Alex teased her, and Mary hated him for it. “Just help me figure out that song we heard that night.”
In response Elisabeth raised the book to the moonlight, focusing on the page as if it were the most interesting passage in all the world. Which, compared to a night spent sounding out a tune with Mary, it was.
“Has she killed him yet?” Mary sat down on a nearby chair, balancing the viol, and Elisabeth groaned again.
“No, she hasn’t killed him yet. It’s called Virtue Rewarded, not Murder Rewarded.”
“He’s abominable! Let the poor girl go home, for goodness’ sake.” She began playing again. “I would have drunk him to his toes for no reward at all,” she added, pushing her fangs forward and giving them a swift lick.
Raising her voice, Elisabeth remarked, “last week you were advocating that she simply fuck him for as much money as she could get.”
“No, you were advocating for that; I merely agreed with you. It’s always the lesser of two evils with you.” She swung her legs aside as Elisabeth tried to kick her. “Now if it were a Miss B rather than a Mister B seducing her …”
She ran through the song again, waggling her tongue at Elisabeth, who shook her head. “No, no,” she said, putting the book down again. “It had that little drop in the chorus, remember? She bid him do his best, put in all, put in all.”
“That’s not what I remember,” Mary said.
Elisabeth shook her head, but she was starting to doubt herself. “I could have sworn the chorus went like that …”
“No, I don’t think it did,” Mary replied. She stood up again, sounding out the tune on the viol as she drifted from the room. “If she does kill him, come and read me that bit,” she added over her shoulder.
Every time she came to the chorus Elisabeth’s nerves twanged, and she groaned once more. She was already closing the book, unable to help herself, as she knew Mary knew she would. For it would itch at her now, itch and itch with every listen, and she would have to scratch. She would go to the harpsichord, she would spend ages working out the chorus, her sister would blithely say “oh, you’re right, now that you’re here let’s play it through,” and by then the night would be half gone. It was a decades-old groove they fitted themselves to. She had thought to finish Pamela, but now she was to play with Mary; she would ask to go to, say, Naples, where she had never been, and find herself subtly routed to Barcelona; she would suggest going to the village whose intimate, casual dances she preferred, and somehow end up in town, with its looser women for Mary’s pleasure and the assemblies mannered and stultifying. She knew the game, and still she acquiesced, because what was the point in protesting? A dance here or there, a night reading or not, this city or that, what did any of it matter? A question she could never answer.
Sighing, she moved toward the door and the lure of the misplayed chorus, only to pause, suddenly aware of the silence. The birds had quieted after her rock, but it was not the first time she had ended one with violence. Always they had rallied, sometimes singing even louder as if in protest. This silence was different. It was if the birds had been smothered; it was as if everything outside had been smothered, every creeping and flying thing, the rustling trees and the breeze that moved them. In the hall she turned towards the gardens, passing Mary waiting by the harpsichord because of course Elisabeth would come, Elisabeth always came. But she did not come; she went into the gardens and stood there, listening. From the doors she could see the roses their mother had been desperately trying to coax into something lush … that is, until their aunt Helena distracted her with the lure of Vienna and off she went to the Continent, promptly forgetting all about them. Past the roses to Elisabeth’s right was the drive and Jules’ prized apple tree, and to her left the start of stone-walled fields and the forested hills beyond. She looked, she listened, and she heard and saw nothing. It was unnerving.
“What is it?” Mary said behind her, padding barefooted across the flagstones.
“The birds stopped singing,” she said. “Why did the birds stop?”
Mary waited a beat. “Because they are asleep, Lissy,” she said, enunciating the words, as one would with a child.
“They were in full voice just a moment ago.” Elisabeth went further out into the garden. “Perhaps there’s something in the trees?”
“Who cares? Wolf blood is vile.” She sounded a few notes on the viol. “You may have been right about the chorus going up a note …”
“What? I said it went down!”
“Stop playing that bloody song,” Jules said from above. They both looked up to see his round, olive face sticking out from his bedroom window, his nightshirt glowing blue-white in the moonlight. With the lamp lit behind him his face was shadowed, making him more shape than man.
“But it’s funny!” Mary added a few notes for emphasis. “You were laughing fit to burst that night.”
“If you’re going to make me listen to that obscene gibberish yet again, you can at least do me the favor of getting me drunk first,” Jules retorted, and withdrew before they could argue with him further.
Mary stuck out her tongue at the empty square of his window. “What’s got his goat?”
“It’s the heat, I think,” Elisabeth said, looking out at the trees again. “The breeze has stopped.”
“When it’s cold he wants it hot, when it’s hot he wants it cold. When it’s raining it’s the proverbial flood, when there’s sun for several days he fears for his lettuces.” She shook her head. “I’m going back inside. Enjoy your wolf, or whatever’s out there.”
Elisabeth turned as well, her gaze flitting over the vista … and then she paused once more.
A figure was walking steadily down the moonlit drive towards the house, her full skirts swaying from dainty panniers, her head held high beneath a vast bonnet. She carried a small bag in her hand; her steps were noiseless; her shadow seemed to blot out the world around her.
“Shit,” Elisabeth breathed.
Mary, halfway inside, paused with a hand on her hip. “For fuck’s sake! What now?”
“Cathy’s home,” she whispered.
“What? You’re joking,” Mary said, craning her head over Elisabeth’s shoulder; as soon as she saw the striding figure she let out a hiss. “I don’t believe it.”
“Why has she come home? Wasn’t she …” But Elisabeth realized she had no idea where Cathy had been, or what she had been doing. If she had told them, Elisabeth had forgotten it.
“I have no bloody idea,” Mary said and spat on the dirt, making Elisabeth jump. As clear a sign of appetite as a wolf licking its chops, yet their bellies were still swollen. “Whatever it is, it cannot be good.”
“Why?” Elisabeth asked, following her inside.
“Because the last time she was here, I heard her tell Alex she would only come back to this shithole for three reasons: war, our mother’s death, or the world ending.” She grinned at Lissy over her shoulder, her fangs peeking from her gums. “I wonder which one has come to pass?”
It was, Elisabeth thought, one of her eldest sister’s peculiar gifts that she made every space she inhabited seem faintly repulsive. The comforts of the study, its worn furniture and overflowing bookcases, became shabby once Cathy stepped into the room. She would not seat herself on any of the chairs, which, considering the bright yellow damask she wore, was perhaps understandable. Elisabeth and Mary spent their nights at home in rough linen, without stockings or shoes; the stays they wore were solely for Jules’ sensibilities. Now, faced with their sister’s yards of damask, the hint of creamy petticoat peeking out from her skirts, the cascades of snow-white lace around her wrists, Elisabeth felt herself little more than a scullery maid. It made her ashamed; more worrisome, however, was that it made Mary angry.
Cathy’s haughty profile, gleaming a pale olive in the dim light, seemed knife-sharp as it swept the room; the brilles over her brown eyes closed, as if shielding her from the worst of their filth.
“Is Julian dead?” she inquired.
Mary exhaled. “You know damn well he’s just upstairs.”
“And it’s not his job,” Elisabeth said. “He does the daylight work, the garden and … whatnot,” she added hurriedly, because in the moment she could not think of the exact words for what Jules did. “I’m supposed to keep the study clean, and Mary does the parlor.”
Her answer, however, only seemed to disturb Cathy further. She wavered, as if overcome by a strong emotion, then touched her forehead delicately. “Dare I ask the condition of the cellar?”
“No one,” Mary said, “has touched your bed since you last slept in it.”
Which had to have been two years? Five? Elisabeth’s shame deepened. All this time, and Jules so conscientious about the grounds.
“Why are you back, anyway?” Mary continued, seemingly oblivious to Elisabeth’s consternation. “The last we heard you were staying with the Király, eating off china, sleeping in feather-lined cellars, comparing fang sizes or blood color or whatever you do to pass the time …”
Cathy smiled at Mary, as if she were a precocious toddler. “I have indeed visited with many of our people on behalf of our family. Someone has to maintain what tattered relations we have. Only I thought it had been so very long since I saw you two.” She took out a handkerchief and wiped the seat of a plain wooden chair, frowning at the smear of dust; carefully she lowered herself onto the very edge. “And clearly I was right to worry. Where is Anna?”
“Our mother,” Mary said, “is in Vienna with Helena.”
“The aviary no longer intrigued?”
“The aviary’s gone,” Elisabeth said in a small voice. It really had been some time. “Her last interest was roses.”
At that Cathy barked with laughter. “How appropriate. Sickly sweet, full of thorns, and useless without pruning.” She fanned herself, though she was no more hot than her sisters. “Well. What shall we do with ourselves on a fine night like this? The village opera, perhaps? The local salon, to debate the finer points of sheep-fucking?”
“The road to London,” Mary jerked her head, “is that way.”
“Oh, I could not set out again tonight, I would ruin my shoes.” She extended one small foot out from under her skirts, revealing a satin mule atop a dirt-smeared patten. “No, I think a bath is the first order of business.”
Elisabeth glanced at Mary, who was positively glowering. “Ah, I think Jules used up the cistern water this evening. It was so very hot, you see.”
Cathy looked at her with a kind of bemused impatience. “Then Julian will have to go to the well.”
“You can go yourself! He’s our brother—” Mary began.
“If we called every one of Anna’s strays a brother, we would be quite the menagerie.”
“—and his job is seneschal, not footman.” She caught up her viol once more and sat herself in Elisabeth’s window seat, playing a note only to fuss over the tuning.
“I would expect such an argument from Lissy, in whose divine form we celebrate generations of Scottish thickheads.” Elisabeth flushed at her sister’s words, making Cathy smile like a cat as she continued, “But Anna swore your father was one of the finest Persian philosophers of his age. I highly doubt such an esteemed thinker fetched his own bathwater.”
“Who said he bathed at all?” Mary asked, waggling her own dirty foot at Cathy. “Perhaps he believed the closer you got to dirt, the more divine you are. After all, we sleep best underground, and we’re the holiest of holies, are we not?”
“Two little fools,” Cathy retorted. “Even for heninejaina, this is absurd. Now of all times you should know your place, which is decidedly above the Julians of this world.”
“Cathy, we don’t say those words anymore,” Elisabeth said, while at the same time Mary said, “what do you mean, ‘now of all times’?” But it was true; Anna—their mother, now Cathy would have her using names as well—had forbidden it. None of their old language, especially words that divided them. Heninejaina, half-blooded: it made her feel like half a thing to Cathy’s full-blooded whole.
“Did you think I came back here to deliver water like a maid?” Cathy’s eyebrows arched. “I came back for you two, because tonight we are going to witness history. I came back to ensure you see. He nejaina laleein felei. The blood must speak.”
Mary leaned over to Elisabeth. “End of the world,” she stage-whispered, but Elisabeth waved her off.
“So … what are we to witness?” she asked.
Cathy blinked at her, as if not quite understanding the question. “Why, the comet, sister,” she said. “Tonight the comet comes.”
Elisabeth and Mary exchanged a blank look.
“The comet that heralds the Taiart Gal.”
Still they just looked at Cathy, who exhaled violently. The tips of her fangs were just visible, as if she was struggling to keep them in check. Her brilles rose, her brown eyes piercing them both. “The return of the Nagac,” she ground out. “The return of our god. How could you both live this long and still be so stupid?”
It was Elisabeth’s turn to blink. “A giant serpent is coming to Cornwall?”
“No, no, Lissy. It returns everywhere at once, like Christ. Isn’t that right, Cathy?” Mary snorted. “We’re stupid but we’re not that stupid, and you didn’t come to the arse end of England for a fairy tale. What do you really want?”
Cathy’s fangs slid forward; she hissed, long and low. The dusting of scales on her cheeks, masked by her elegant powder, rippled in the dim light. Mary met her gaze evenly, but her whole body was tense; she was winding the viol string tighter and tighter.
“She wanted to see us, like she said,” Elisabeth put in quickly, trying to think, what could she do? “Why don’t we swim?”
Both her sisters looked at her, identical brown eyes gazing out of vastly different faces, Mary’s brown and plump to Cathy’s hard-edged olive. Heninejaina, anfinejaina—and now she was thinking in those words again, after so long. How swiftly Cathy could disrupt everything.
“We could go up to the old quarry,” she explained. “You went with us that first year, Cathy. It’s still full from the rains. You’ll get your bath, and the vista is high enough that we could see the comet.” She hesitated. “Will it be bright enough to see? We’ve thought about buying lenses, like we saw that time in London, when we went to the Academy …”
But she trailed off beneath the weight of their unblinking gazes. Slowly, deliberately, Mary swiveled hers to Cathy: well? Cathy’s fangs were still visible, long and thick like a cat’s, so much thicker than Elisabeth and Mary’s own. Fangs for tearing. Elisabeth had seen Cathy feed when angered, had wondered at times what would happen if Cathy turned that anger on her. Would her own throat, bitten out, grow back as other injuries did? The missing cannot be replaced, she had been told that over and over, but what if it was a matter of shredded cartilage and tissue?
And then, abruptly, Cathy withdrew her fangs, and some of the tension left the room.
“Very well,” she said. “A swim. And perhaps we will bear witness the future.”
In the cellar they undressed in silence. It had been one of the appeals of the house, that it had a large wine cellar with many alcoves and only slight damp. Together Alex and Jules had built partitions in the arches to make small rooms, not fully sealed but at least allowing some privacy. When they truly wanted solitude, they left on their own journeys, though Elisabeth had never left long or gone far, at least not without Mary. Cathy and Alex could visit with other sereidees, welcomed in their full-bloodedness despite their family’s exile; their mother and Helena had their own elaborate adventures, usually involving young artists and arcane books; Elisabeth had only ever clung to Mary’s skirts. Too, there had been seneschals before Jules, she could remember two such, but both had been made erin and left to serve others, preferring the luxuries of wealthier dangenes to mad Anna Yates and her leased shitholes. But then Julian had come back from university and refused the transformation, and they had moved here. Almost like a home now. Since they settled in Cornwall she and Mary hadn’t gone further than London, for wasn’t there enough in London? Yet now that Cathy was here it seemed another facet of her foolishness, that she had done so little while Cathy had traveled far and wide.
She stripped down to her shift, kicking aside her skirt and stays. Her own wardrobe nearly empty while Cathy’s, she knew, was bursting; she seemed to leave dresses and petticoats in her wake, only to exclaim in disgust upon her return, how out of date her things were! All her siblings wanting, wanting, be it musical instruments or laboratory specimens or whatever was the fashion of the moment; she remembered once, long ago, walking the length and breadth of Lisbon trying to find the milliner who had created a hat Cathy craved in the same way that they sometimes craved blood, a hunger without caveat.
What was it like to want, so badly? Elisabeth had wanted at times: a particularly charming man or woman for her lover, to see a certain view, to experience something being talked about. But just as quickly the desires would fade, whether or not she fulfilled them. While Mary had once spent two years trying to obtain the sheet music for an aria she had heard through an open window.
Oh, she really needed to find a purpose in her own life, even if it was something absurd, like making pincushions. She held up her own, turning it one way and another: a lump of stuffing covered in pretty cloth and studded with pins. Like Cathy, only with her all the points faced outwards.
“Lissy,” Mary called from the stairs.
It was then that Elisabeth felt it: an instinctive unwillingness to leave the safety of her room. By the stairs she heard Cathy’s low murmur, and then her stomping as she ascended; Mary followed more slowly, saying something unintelligible but clearly caustic. Elisabeth suddenly, profoundly did not want to go; but it was her idea, and what might happen if she left Cathy and Mary alone, and the two of them already taking jabs at each other?
Slowly she ascended, her very body cringing, her heart beating no no no. Down the hall through the open doors she saw her sisters in the garden, their shifts pale streaks in the darkness; as she made to follow a voice whispered from above, “Lissy?”
She peered up the stairs to see the faint outline of Jules looking down at her, holding a candlestick in his hand. The light made his bristling hair gleam; when had he started to go grey? “Is that Cathy?” he asked.
“It is,” Elisabeth replied, hoping she didn’t sound as uneasy as she felt. “I wouldn’t come down,” she added quickly. “She’s been on about a bath, she wanted to send you to fetch water.”
“At this bloody hour, and when she can carry four buckets to my one?” He grimaced. “Did you know she was coming?”
A hint of hurt in his voice. He hated it when they forgot to tell him things; he always seemed to think it was deliberate, not that they just couldn’t keep things in their minds as he did. “I didn’t, and I don’t think Mary did either,” Elisabeth said. “She was just … there.”
“I didn’t hear a carriage.”
“Neither did we.” Which suddenly seemed strange. Had she walked from the village? It was unlike Cathy to walk when she could ride. And in those shoes? Elisabeth looked again at the darkness outside, and the two pale specks waiting in the gloom. Again her very being cried out go back downstairs and hide.
“It’s not like Cathy to walk anywhere,” Jules said, as if echoing her thoughts. “Do you need my help?”
Elisabeth shook her head. Whatever happened, she knew Jules’ presence would only make things worse. “We’ll be fine,” she said, trying to sound like she believed her own words. “You go back to bed. There will be plenty to do tomorrow, I’m sure.”
“How long is she staying this time?”
“I have no idea.” She smiled up at him. “Only one small bag, though, so a briefer visit than her last?”
“I hope so. Three bloody months of bickering, it’s a wonder any of us were alive by the end of it.” Still he hesitated. “I could wait up …”
“We’ll be fine, Jules.” It came out more curt than she had intended, but it had the desired effect. He withdrew, dousing the stairwell in darkness, and a moment later she heard his bedroom door slam. As she longed to do in turn, go somewhere and shut the door on it. But there was nothing for it now; slowly she plodded out into the night, her sisters like fixed stars guiding her path.