THIS POST IS SPOILERIFIC FOR WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED.
DO NOT SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.
A long time ago in a galaxy – wait. Once, there was this book, and it had a very different ending to the one it has now. Well, I say different, the core remains the same, but the circumstances around it changed, and one of the things that got snipped for brevity and pacing was a good-bye scene. An aftermath.
Because I still quite like it despite the clunky writing, I’m leaving it here for anyone who ever wanted to know more.
Jannik helps me to my feet. All I want to do is get out of here. I’m shaky and weak.
“Wait.” He crouches and slips his arms under Dash’s body, easily lifting him. The Ilven-thing drained Dash well, and he is nothing – an empty husk that she has left behind.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking him back to Whelk Street.”
I’m about to argue, to say something about how the others just left us here alone, about how Esta and Lils never trusted me, then I nod. He’s right. Dash needs to go back to where he belongs.
It takes us a very long time to walk back.
Verrel is standing at the doorway of the Whelk Street house, waiting. Behind him is Esta, her face blank. She just stares at us as we approach, and then when we are close enough to hear her says, “I told you they’d bring him back.”
“Is he -?” asks Verrel, although it’s plain on his face that he knows the answer.
I nod, too weary to speak.
The thunder of feet comes from the battered wooden stairs, and Lils appears, and Verrel and Esta step aside so that she can pass. There’s something different about her, and it takes my exhaustion-addled mind a few heartbeats to realise that her hair is loose, fluttering around her like a darkly malevolent cloud. Instinctively, I draw back, but there is no horror scraping against my skin, no dreadful memories.
She sees the look on my face, smiles beauteously. “It’s all gone,” she says, and as the words reach me, so do the first faint stirrings of calm, of peace, and visions of a future untainted by nightmares. It’s slightly melancholy, like waking up from a perfect dream without remembering the details, wishing that you could fall back asleep just to recapture what was lost.
“After Pelimburg, and after Lambs Island, this is all that’s left,” Lils says. She steps forward, and places her hand against Dash’s cheek. “And this is what’s left of his Flashness.” She says it softly, but there is only the slightest touch of remorse, as if she knew all along what was going to happen. Lils looks up at me, her eyes deep and dark. “You can’t bring him here.”
Another patter of feet on the stairs, and Lils turns around. “Nala,” she says, as the pale girl limps out into the sunshine. “You shouldn’t be up.”
“I came to say goodbye, properly this time.” Nala draws closer. She still looks washed out, but her hair is regaining its flaming orange hue, and her cheeks are faintly flushed. She brushes a lock of colourless hair back from Dash’s forehead and leans in to whisper against his skin. When she stands straight again her eyes are glassy. “Lils is right,” she says to me. “This isn’t his place any more. No more than it is yours.”
I was always scared it was coming, but the reality of being turned out of Whelk Street hits me so hard that I feel like I can’t draw breath.
“See here,” says Lils, her voice kind and soft. “You only stayed here because Dash needed someone like you, someone who could twist magic to his ideals.”
I don’t believe it, don’t want to. I stare at her dumbly.
“We liked you well enough,” she carries on. “But you need to go back to your own now.”
I want to tell her that I have no own, that there is nowhere for me to go, but Jannik nudges my elbow, and I turn away, wordless.
We walk along the street, until we are out of sight of the Whelk Street squat, and with every step I feel more adrift, lost and useless.
“Where to now?” I sit down on the low promenade wall, and Jannik takes a seat next to me, cradling Dash against him. My feet ache in my sea-swollen boots. My ankles are rubbed raw and I can feel blisters growing steady as puffballs on my heel and under my toes. I never want to rise again.
“What – why?”
Jannik stares at me, his mouth in a thin angry line. “Do you not think that he has parents – family – who would want him back?”
Dear Gris. I hadn’t even thought of that. The only thing I know of his family is that his sister died at my brother’s hand. “Where – how will we find them?”
He gives me a funny look. “I know where they are.”
“Stilt City’s miles from here.” And even then – when we reach it – how are we supposed to find our way through that tangle of shanties and bridges?
He nods. “Best we not sit here wasting time.”
Stilt City is a river-Hob township on the western outskirts of Pelimburg – a muddle of wooden buildings that perch precariously on long stilts in the wetlands. The houses are linked to one another by a complex system of tiny narrow bridges and open platforms.
River-Hoblings stop their games of catch-the-cat or spin-my-love to watch us pass. A few tag along after us, and by the time we reach the cloistered, sweltering, midge-infested heart of the vlei, we are a procession. A funerary march.
The shack that Jannik leads us to is indistinguishable from all the others – built from the flotsam and jetsam of the ocean and the city, a ragtag lean-to.
He stops on the little platform just outside the door, and waits. A small boy sits with his legs dangling over the edge, one grimy thumb in his mouth. He has Dash’s sharp face, and the same dark hair and wide eyes. He looks at the body that Jannik holds and scrambles to his feet. Wordlessly, he disappears into the shack.
A thin woman emerges with the child clinging to her apron. She stares at Jannik, then looks down at Dash.
“You’d best come in.” Her voice is tired and soft. It is a voice that has seen the deaths of children before. In my own way, I have brought down another.
We follow her into the shade. She closes the door flap behind us, and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden gloom.
“You can set him out here.” She indicates a wide wooden cot, with a straw-stuffed mattress. It is the only bed in the little one-room house. An old man sits on a chair near the entrance, smoking a pipe. Black tobacco stench fills the air, competing with the smell of cooking fish. A small girl – perhaps eight years old – with a bush of tangled hair pulled back into a plaited uni-tail stands at a table, washing dishes in a wooden bucket. She’s wearing a pink sundress. Mud and time have turned it pale, ripped its seams. She doesn’t appear to notice.
Over everything is the sour smell of must and damp, sweat and poverty. This is where Dash grew up. I find it hard to imagine him in his silks and dandified tat, fitting in with these dull dirt-grey people.
“Where did you find him?” The mother sits down on the bed, next to the corpse of her son, and touches his face. She frowns. “Sea witch did this?” She says it as if it were no more than his lot – another common-place death.
“Not a sea witch.” Jannik shakes his head. “A boggert. We found him on the island.” He goes quiet, then says softly. “I’m truly sorry.”
“Are you?” She looks up at us, alive, taking up space in her world. “You taught him letters, and made him want more than his lot. You should be sorry.”
Jannik swallows. “I taught him to read, but his ideas were all his own.”
She looks again at Dash, turning her back on us. “That’s fair,” she says. “Go away, bat.” She cannot even muster anger. Weariness has eaten her from the inside. She is just a shell who must mourn her children’s death in a way that will not shake the lashed frame of her wooden house.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, but she is no longer listening. I touch his sleeve and call him away.
The Hoblings follow us out of Stilt City, all the way to the crumbling end of the promenade where their land ends and ours begins.
I’m tired. So very tired. I curl up on the promenade. Kirren nudges at my hand with his cold nose, licking my fingers warm.