Read a Free Excerpt from House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

As one by one her beautiful sisters mysteriously die on their isolated island estate, Annaleigh must unravel the curse that haunts her family. Part Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, part ghost story, and full of romance, you'll get swept away by this dark fairy tale. But, be careful who you dance with. Start reading now...

Chapter 1

CANDLELIGHT REFLECTED OFF THE SILVER ANCHOR etched onto my sister’s necklace. It was an ugly piece of jewelry and something Eulalie would never have picked out for herself. She loved simple strands of gold, extravagant collars of diamonds. Not . . . that. Papa must have selected it for her. I fumbled at my own necklace of black pearls, wanting to offer her something more stylish, but the battalion of pallbearers shut the coffin lid before I could undo the clasp.

“We, the People of the Salt, commit this body back to the sea,” the High Mariner intoned as the wooden box slid deep into the waiting crypt.

I tried not to notice the smattering of lichens growing in- side the gaping mouth, drawn wide to swallow her whole. Tried not to think of my sister—who was alive, and warm, and breathing just days before—being laid to rest. Tried not to imagine the thin bottom of the coffin growing fat with condensation and salt water before splitting asunder and spilling Eulalie’s body into the watery depths beneath our family mausoleum.

I tried, instead, to cry.

I knew it would be expected of me, just as I knew the tears were unlikely to come. They would later on, probably this evening when I passed her bedroom and saw the black shrouds covering her wall of mirrors. Eulalie had had so many mirrors.

Eulalie.

She’d been the prettiest of all my sisters. Her rosy lips were forever turned in a smile. She loved a good joke, her bright green eyes always ready for a quick wink. Scores of suitors vied for her attention, even before she became the eldest Thaumas daughter, the one set to inherit all of Papa’s fortune.

“We are born of the Salt, we live by the Salt, and to the Salt we return,” the High Mariner continued.

“To the Salt,” the mourners repeated.

As Papa stepped forward to place two gold pieces at the foot of the crypt—payment to Pontus for easing my sister back into the Brine—I dared to sweep my eyes around the mausoleum. It was overflowing with guests bedecked in their finest black wools and crepes, many of them once would-be beaus of Eulalie. She would have been pleased to see so many brokenhearted young men openly lamenting her.

“Annaleigh,” Camille whispered, nudging me.

“To the Salt,” I murmured. I pressed a handkerchief to my eyes, feigning tears.

Papa’s keen disapproval burned in my heart. His own eyes were soggy and his proud nose was red as the High Mariner stepped forward with a chalice lined with abalone shell and filled with seawater. He thrust it into the crypt and poured the water onto Eulalie’s coffin, ceremonially beginning its decomposition. Once he doused the candles flanking the stony opening, the service was over.

Papa turned to the gathered mass, a wide shock of white streaked through his dark hair. Was it there yesterday?

“Thank you for coming to remember my daughter Eulalie.” His voice, usually so big and bold, accustomed to addressing lords at court, creaked with uncertainty. “My family and I invite you to join us now at Highmoor for a celebration of her life. There will be food and drink and . . .” He cleared his throat, sounding more like a stammering clerk than the nineteenth Duke of the Salann Islands. “I know how much it would have meant to Eulalie to have you there.”

He nodded once, speech over, his face a blank facade. I longed to reach out to ease his grief, but Morella, my stepmother, was already at his side, her hand knotted around his. They’d been married just months before and should have still been in the heady, blissful days of their joined life.

This was Morella’s first trip to the Thaumas mausoleum. Did she feel uneasy under the watchful scrutiny of my mother’s memorial statue? The sculptor used Mama’s bridal portrait as reference, transmitting youthful radiance into the cool gray marble. Though her body returned to the sea many years ago, I still visited her shrine nearly every week, telling her about my days and pretending she listened.

Mama’s statue towered over everything else in the mausoleum, including my sisters’ shrines. Ava’s was bordered in roses, her favorite flower. They grew fat and pink in the summer months, like the plague pustules that claimed her life at only eighteen.

Octavia followed a year later. Her body was discovered at the bottom of a tall library ladder, her limbs tangled in a heap of unnatural angles. An open book adorned her resting place, along with a quote etched in Vaipanian, which I’d never learned to read.

With so much tragedy compressed into our family, it seemed inevitable when Elizabeth died. She was found floating in the bathtub like a piece of driftwood at sea, waterlogged and bleached of all color. Rumors ran from Highmoor to the villages on neigh- boring islands, whispered by scullery maids to stable boys, passed from fishmongers to their wives, who spread them as warnings to impish children. Some said it was suicide. Even more believed we were cursed.

Elizabeth’s statue was a bird. It was meant to be a dove, but its proportions were all wrong and it looked more like a seagull. A fitting tribute for Elizabeth, who always so badly wanted to soar away.

What would Eulalie’s be?

Once there were twelve of us: the Thaumas Dozen. Now we stood in a small line, my seven sisters and I, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a ring of truth to the grim speculations. Had we somehow angered the gods? Had a darkness branded itself on our family, taking us out one by one? Or was it simply a series of terrible and unlucky coincidences?

After the service, the crowd broke up and began milling around us. As they whispered their strained condolences, I noticed the guests were careful not to get too close. Was it in deference to our station, or were they worried something might rub off? I wanted to chalk it up to lowbrow superstition, but as a distant aunt approached me, a thin smile on her thin lips, the same question flickered in her eyes, just below the surface, impossible to miss:

Which one of us would be next?

Chapter 2

I LINGERED IN THE MAUSOLEUM AS EVERYONE LEFT for the wake, wanting to say goodbye to Eulalie on my own, free from prying eyes. His services rendered, the High Mariner gathered up his chalice and candlesticks, his salt water and my father’s two coins. Before setting off down the little path to the shoreline and back to his hermitage on the northernmost point of Selkirk Island, he paused in front of me. I’d been watching the servant boys seal the tomb’s entrance, piling bricks slathered with gritty mortar over the crypt and obscuring the rush of swirling eddies below us.

The High Mariner raised his hand in what appeared to be a blessing. But somehow the curve of his fingers was off, more like a gesture of protection.

For himself. Against me.

Without the press of people in the crypt, the air felt colder, settling over me like a second cloak. Sickly-sweet incense still danced through the room but couldn’t quite block out the tang of salt. No matter where you were on the island, you could always taste the sea.

The workers grunted as they hoisted the last brick into place, silencing the water altogether.

Then I was alone.

The crypt was really nothing more than a cave but for one unique feature: a wide river ran underneath, carrying fresh water—and the bodies of departed Thaumases—out to sea. Each generation had added their own bits to it, fashioning stonework around the burial site or gilding the ceiling with an elaborate mural of the night sky. Every Thaumas child learned to read their way across the constellations before ever picking up a book of letters. My great-great-grandfather started adding the shrines.

During Elizabeth’s funeral—an even bleaker affair than Eulalie’s, with the High Mariner’s thinly veiled chastisement of suicide—I counted the plaques and statues dotting the cavern to pass the time. How long before the shrines completely over- ran this hallowed space, leaving no place for the living? When I died, I wanted no monument to remember me by. Did Great Aunt Clarette rest better in her eternal slumber knowing her bust would be gazed on by generations of Thaumases?

Thank you, no. Just push me into the sea and return me to the Salt.

“There were so many young men here today,” I said, kneeling before the wet masonry.

It was honestly a wonder they bothered bricking it up at all. How long until these stones would be broken open for another of my sisters to be shoved inside?

“Sebastian and Stephan, the Fitzgerald brothers. Henry. The foreman from Vasa. And Edgar too.”

It felt unnatural having such a decidedly lopsided conversation with Eulalie. She normally dominated everything she was a part of. Her stories, outlandish and full of hyperbolic wit, held everyone in her audience captivated.

“I think, of all the mourners here today, their tears were the biggest. Were you sneaking out to meet one of them that night?” I paused, picturing Eulalie out on the cliff walk, in a billowing nightgown of lace and ribbons, her lily-white skin drenched blue in the full moon. She would have made sure to look especially lovely for a secret assignation with a beau.

When the fishermen found her body smashed on the rocks below, they mistook her for a beached dolphin. If there truly was an afterlife, I hoped Eulalie never learned that. Her vanity would never recover.

“Did you trip and fall?” My words echoed in the tomb. “Were you pushed?”

The question burst from me before I could stop to ponder it. I knew without a shadow of a doubt how my other sisters had died: Ava was sick, Octavia was notoriously accident-prone, even Elizabeth . . . Drawing a short breath, I dug my fingers into my skirt’s thick, scratchy black wool. She’d been so despondent after Octavia. We’d all felt the losses, but not as keenly as Elizabeth.

But no one was there when Eulalie died. No one saw it hap- pen. Just the brutal aftermath.

A drop of water hit my nose and another fell on my cheek as rivulets ran into the crypt. It must have started to rain. Even the sky wept for Eulalie today.

“I’ll miss you.” I sucked in my lower lip. The tears came now, pinpricking at my eyes until they fell freely. I traced an elaborately scrawled E across the stones, wanting to say so much more, to spit out my grief, and helplessness, and rage. But that wouldn’t bring her back.

“I . . . I love you, Eulalie.” My voice was no more than a whisper as I fled the dark cavern.

Outside, the storm raged, churning the waves into frothy whitecaps. The cave was on the far side of the Point, a peninsula on Salten, jutting out into the sea. It was at least a mile back to the house, and no one had thought to leave me a carriage. I pushed aside my black veil and began walking.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” our maid, Hanna, asked be- fore I headed down to join the wake.

I paused, feeling the weight of the older woman’s motherly eyes on my back. I’d had to immediately change clothes once I returned. The storm had soaked me through, and curse or not, I wasn’t planning on dying of a cold.

Hanna held out a long black ribbon with a look of expectation. Sighing, I let her encircle my wrist with the thin strip, as she had many times before. When death visited a house- hold, you wore a black ribbon to keep from following after your loved one. Our luck seemed so bad, the servants even took to tying the maudlin bits around the necks of our cats, horses, and chickens.

She finished off the ribbon with a bow that would have been pretty in any other color. My entire wardrobe was nothing more than mourning garb now, each dress a darker shade than the last. I hadn’t worn anything lighter than charcoal in the six years since Mama passed away.

Hanna had chosen a satin bauble, not the itchy bombazine from Elizabeth’s funeral. It left welts on our wrists that stung for days.

I adjusted my sleeve’s cuff. “I’d rather stay up here with you, truth be told. I never know what I ought to say at these things.”

Hanna patted my cheek. “The sooner you get there, the sooner it’ll all be over with.” She smiled up at me with warm brown eyes. “I’ll be sure to have a pot of cinnamon tea waiting for you be- fore bed?”

“Thank you, Hanna,” I said, squeezing her shoulder before going out the door.

As I entered the Blue Room, Morella made a beeline for me. “Sit with me? I don’t really know anyone here,” she admitted, pulling me toward a sofa near the tall, thickly paned windows. Though speckled with a confetti of raindrops, they offered a spectacular view of the cliffs. It seemed wrong to hold the wake in this room, showcasing the very spot where Eulalie fell.

I wanted to be with my sisters, but Morella’s eyes were so large and pleading. At moments like this, it was difficult to forget she was much closer to my age than to Papa’s.

No one was surprised when he took a new bride. Mama had been gone for so long, and we all knew he hoped to have a son eventually. He met Morella while in Suseally, on the mainland. Papa returned from the voyage with her on his arm, utterly smitten. Honor, Mercy, and Verity—the Graces, as we called them collectively, all so young when Mama passed—were delighted to have this new maternal figure in their lives. She’d been a governess and took to the little girls immediately. The triplets—Rosalie, Ligeia, and Lenore—and I were happy for Papa, but Camille stiffened whenever someone assumed Morella was one of the Thaumas Dozen.

I stared across the room at the large painting dominating one wall. It depicted a ship being dragged into the blue abyss by a kraken, giant eyes enlarged in fury. The Blue Room held many treasures from the sea: a family of spiny urchins on one shelf, a barnacle-encrusted anchor on a plinth in the corner, and specimens from the Graces’ shell collection on any surface tall enough for them to reach.

“Are the services always like that?” Morella asked, spreading her skirts across the navy velvet cushions. “So serious and dour?”

I couldn’t help my bemused look. “Well, it was a funeral.”

She tucked a wisp of pale blond hair behind her ear, smiling nervously. “Of course, I only meant . . . why the water? I don’t under- stand why you don’t just bury her, like they do on the mainland?”

I caught sight of Papa. He’d want me to be nice, to explain our ways. I tried to allow a trickle of pity into my heart for her.

“The High Mariner says Pontus created our islands and the people on them. He scooped salt from the ocean tides for strength. Into that was mixed the cunning of a bull shark and the beauty of the moon jellyfish. He added the seahorse’s fidelity and the curiosity of a porpoise. When his creation was molded just so—two arms, two legs, a head, and a heart—Pontus breathed some of his own life into it, making the first People of the Salt. So when we die, we can’t be buried in the ground. We slip back into the water and are home.”

The explanation seemed to please her. “See, something like that at the funeral would have been lovely. There was just such an emphasis on . . . the death.”

I offered her a smile. “Well . . . this was your first one. You get used to them.”

Morella reached out, placing her hand on mine, her small face earnest. “I hate that you’ve gone through so many of these. You’re far too young to have felt so much pain and grief.”

The rain came down harder, shrouding Highmoor in muddled grays. Great boulders at the bottom of the cliffs were tossed about by the raging sea like marbles in a little boy’s pocket, their crashes blasting up the steep rocks and rivaling the thunder.

“What happens now?”

I blinked, drawing my attention back to her. “What do you mean?”

She bit into her lip, stumbling over the unfamiliar words. “Now that she’s . . . back in the Salt . . . what are we supposed to do?”

“That was it. We’ve said our goodbyes. After this wake, it’s all over.”

Her fingers tinkered with restless frustration. “But it’s not. Not truly. Your father said we have to wear black for the next few weeks?”

“Months, actually. We wear black for six, then darker grays for another six after that.”

“A year?” she gasped. “Am I really meant to wear these dour clothes for a whole year?” People near the sofa turned their heads toward us, having overheard her outburst. She had the decency to blush with chagrin. “What I mean is . . . Ortun just bought my bridal trousseau. Nothing in it is black.” She’d borrowed one of Camille’s dresses for today, but it didn’t fit her well. She smoothed down the edge of the bodice. “It’s not only about the clothes. What about you and Camille? Both of you should be out in society, meeting young men, falling in love.”

I tilted my head, wondering if she was serious. “My sister just died. I don’t exactly feel like dancing.”

A crack of thunder made us jump. Morella squeezed my hand, bringing my eyes back to hers. “Forgive me, Annaleigh, I’m not saying anything right today. I meant . . . after so much tragedy, this family should be happy again. You’ve mourned enough for a lifetime already. Why continue to shroud yourself in pain? Mercy, Honor, and dear little Verity should be playing with dolls in the garden, not accepting condolences and making idle small talk. And Rosalie and Ligeia—Lenore too—look at them.”

The triplets perched on a love seat truly only big enough for two. Their arms linked around each other, holding themselves like a fat spider as they sobbed into their veils. No one dared approach such concentrated grief.

“It breaks my heart to see everyone like this.”

I slipped my hand free of hers. “But this is what you do when someone dies. You can’t change traditions just because you don’t like them.”

“But what if there was a cause for joy? Something that ought to be celebrated, not hidden away? Shouldn’t good news triumph?”

A servant approached, offering glasses of wine. I took one, but Morella dismissed him with a skilled shake of her head. She’d quickly settled into her role as mistress of Highmoor.

“I suppose so.” I hesitated. Another roll of thunder boomed through the air. “But there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate today.”

“I think there is.” Leaning in, Morella dropped her voice to a conspiring whisper. “A new life.” She discreetly placed a protective hand over her stomach.

I swallowed my mouthful of wine, nearly choking in surprise. “You’re pregnant?” She beamed. “Does Papa know?”

“Not yet. I was about to tell him, but we were interrupted by those fishermen, with Eulalie.”

“He’ll be so pleased. Do you know how far along you are?” “Three months, I think.” She ran her fingers over her hair.

“Do you really think Ortun will be happy? I’d do just about any- thing to see him smile again.”

I glanced back at Papa, surrounded by friends but too lost in memories of Eulalie to respond to their conversation. I nodded. “I’m sure of it.”

She took a deep breath. “Then such happy news shouldn’t keep, should it?”

Morella crossed to the grand piano in the center of the room before I could answer. Picking up a bell from the lid, she rang it, effectively quieting the room.

My mouth went dry as I realized what she was about to do. “Ortun?” she asked, jarring him from his thoughts. Her voice was high and thin, like the chiming of the bell in her hand.

It was my mother’s bell. Camille and I had found it years ago while playing dress-up in the attic. We had loved its silvery tone and brought it to Mama when she grew too weak to be heard throughout the house. Now every time I heard it ring, memories of her last pregnancy came back to me with the force of a cold wave crashing into my chest.

When he was at her side, Morella continued. “Ortun and I want to thank you all for coming. The last few days have been an unending night of darkness, but your presence here now is like the first warm tendrils of a beautiful sunrise creeping across the sky.”

Her words, though obviously chosen with care, flowed easily from her. My eyes narrowed. She’d practiced this beforehand.

“Your memories of dear, beautiful Eulalie paint our hearts with gladness, lifting them from the gloom. And we are happy— joyful, even—for in this bold new morning, a fresh chapter dawns on the House of Thaumas.”

Camille, who had been in conversation with an uncle across the room, shot me an uneasy look. Even the triplets broke their tight link; Lenore stood next to the love seat, her fingers digging into the cushy arm.

Morella held Papa’s hand and rested her other on her flat stomach, erupting into a wide grin as she relished the attention. “And just as night is chased away by morning’s glow, so too will the shadows of grief be pushed aside by the arrival of our son.”

Chapter 3

“THAT WOMAN!” HANNA SPAT OUT AS SHE FINISHED unfastening the tiny jet buttons running down the back of my dress. She helped me step out of it before pushing back her salt- and-pepper curls with a huff. “Using what was supposed to be Eulalie’s day to announce such startling news. What gall!”

Camille flung herself backward onto my bed, next to Ligeia, rumpling the embroidered coverlet. “I can’t stand her!” She twisted her voice into a high-pitched mockery of Morella’s. “And just like the god of light, Vaipany, with his sun, my son will be a shining, sunny ray of sunlight, like the sun, my son.” Camille buried her snort in a pillow.

“She could have chosen her timing with better care,” Rosalie admitted, leaning against a bedpost, twirling the end of her russet braid. The triplets, identical in every way, had a shade of auburn hair I envied, completely different from the rest of us. Of all my sisters, Eulalie had been the fairest, her hair nearly blond but not quite. Mine was darkest, the same shade as the black Salann sand, unique to the island chain’s beaches.

I released the garters around my thighs with a low hum of agreement. Though I was happy for her and Papa, the news truly ought to have been announced at a later date. Rolling the drab, dark stockings down my legs, I wondered what Morella’s trousseau was filled with. Had Papa lined it with white silk hose and ribbons and laces, thinking a new wife would put an end to his bad luck? I threw a black voile nightgown over my head, whisking away thoughts of satin underskirts and jewel-toned dressing robes.

“What does it mean for us if it is a son?” Lenore asked from the window seat. “Will he become heir?”

Camille sat up. Her face was puffy from crying, but her amber eyes were sharp and peevish. “I inherit everything. Then Annaleigh, whenever the curse claims me.”

“No one is being claimed,” I snapped. “That’s a bunch of non- sense.”

“Madame Morella doesn’t think so,” Hanna said, stretching on tiptoes to hang my dress in the armoire. The row of its identically shaded companions depressed me.

“That we’re cursed?” Rosalie asked.

“That you girls will inherit first. I heard her talking to your aunt Lysbette, gushing about how in her stomach is the next duke.”

Camille rolled her eyes. “Maybe that’s how they handle things on the mainland, but not here. I’d love to see the look on her face when Papa corrects her.”

Sinking onto the chaise, I pulled a light throw over my shoulders. I’d never fully warmed up after my walk in the rain, and Morella’s announcement had cast a further chill in my heart.

Ligeia tossed a bolster back and forth. “So your husband would become the twentieth Duke of Salann?”

“If I wanted,” Camille replied. “Or I could be duchess in my own right and let him carry on as a consort. Surely Berta taught you all this ages ago.”

Ligeia shrugged. “I try not to remember anything governesses say. They’re all so dreary. Besides, I was eighth-born. I hardly expected to inherit anything.”

As sixth daughter, I certainly understood how she felt. Born in the middle, I now stood second in line. The night after Eulalie died, I couldn’t sleep, feeling the heavy weight of new responsibilities pressing on my chest. The Thaumas crest—a silver octopus with arms flailed, grasping a trident, scepter, and feather—dotted the architecture in every room of Highmoor. The one opposite my bed stared down with an importance I’d never noticed before. What if something happened to Camille and suddenly every- thing fell to me? I wished I’d spent more time on my history lessons and less at the piano.

Camille taught me how to play. We were stair-stepped, the closest in age of all the sisters, save the triplets. I was born ten months after her, and we grew up as best friends. Whatever she did, I was eager to follow after. When she turned six, Mama gave her lessons on the old upright in her parlor. Camille was an apt pupil and showed me all she learned. Mama gave us four-hand versions of all her favorite songs, soon deeming us proficient enough for the grand piano in the Blue Room.

The house was always full of music and laughter as my sisters twirled around the house, dancing to the songs we played. I spent so many afternoons on that cushioned bench, pressed close to Camille, as our hands traveled up and down the ivory keys. I’d still rather play a duet with her than the most perfect solo all on my own. Without Camille next to me, the music felt too weak by half.

“Miss Annaleigh?”

Drawn from my reverie, I looked up to see Hanna’s eyes on me, eyebrows raised.

“Did she say how far along she is?”

“Morella? She thinks three months, maybe a little more.” “More?” Camille smirked. “They’ve only been married four.”

Lenore left the window and joined me on the chaise. “Why does she bother you so much, Camille? I’m glad she’s here. The Graces love having a mother again.”

“She’s not their mother. Or ours. She doesn’t even come close.” “She’s trying,” Lenore allowed. “She asked if she could help plan our ball. We can use it as our debut, since we can’t go to court during mourning.”

“You can’t throw a ball either,” Camille reminded her.

“But it’s our sixteenth birthday!” Rosalie sat up, a pout marring her face. “Why does everything fun have to be put on hold for a whole year? I’m tired of mourning.”

“And I’m sure your sisters are tired of being dead, but that’s how it is!” Camille exploded, pushing off the bed. She slammed the door behind her before any of us could stop her.

Rosalie blinked. “What’s gotten into her?”

I bit my lip, feeling as though I should go after her but too tired for whatever fight might ensue. “She’s missing Eulalie.”

“We all miss her,” Rosalie pointed out.

A blanket of silence descended over us as our thoughts drifted back to Eulalie. Hanna roamed the room, lighting tapers before lowering the gas sconces until they flickered out. The candelabras cast wavering shadows to the corners of the room.

Lenore stole part of my throw and burrowed under it. “Do you think it would be so very wrong to go along with Morella’s plan? To have a ball? We only turn sixteen once. . . . We can’t help it that everyone keeps dying.”

“I don’t think it’s wrong to want to celebrate, but think of how Camille feels. Neither of us debuted. Elizabeth and Eulalie didn’t either.”

“So celebrate with us!” Rosalie offered. “It could be a grand party—to show everyone that the Thaumas girls aren’t cursed and everything is fine.”

“And we don’t turn sixteen for three weeks. We could mourn till then and just . . . stop,” Ligeia reasoned.

“I don’t know why you’re trying to convince me. Papa is the one who will have to approve it.”

“He’ll say yes if Morella asks him.” Rosalie smiled slyly. “In bed.”

The triplets fell into fits of laughter. There was a knock at my door, and we all hushed, certain it was Papa coming to chastise us for making so much noise. But it was Verity, standing in the middle of the hallway, drowning in a dark nightgown two sizes too big for her. Her hair was mussed, and glittering tracks of tears ran down her face.

“Verity?”

She said nothing but held out her arms, begging to be picked up. I hoisted her into an embrace, smelling the sweet warmth of childhood. Though she was sweaty with sleep, goose bumps ran down her bare arms, and she snuggled into my neck, seeking comfort.

“What’s the matter, little one?” I rubbed soothing circles over her back, her hair as soft as a baby robin against my cheek.

“Can I stay here tonight? Eulalie is being mean to me.” The triplets exchanged looks of concern.

“You can, of course, but do you remember what we talked about before the funeral? You know Eulalie isn’t here anymore. She’s with Mama and Elizabeth now, in the Brine.”

I felt her nod. “She keeps pulling my sheets off, though.” Her thin arms encircled my neck, clinging to me tighter than a star- fish at high tide.

“Lenore, check on Mercy and Honor, will you?” She kissed the top of Verity’s head before leaving. “I bet they were only teasing you. Just a game.” “It’s not a very nice one.”

“No,” I agreed, and carried her over to the bed. “You can stay tonight. You’re safe here. Go back to sleep.”

Verity whimpered once but closed her eyes and settled into the bedclothes.

“We should go too,” Rosalie whispered, sliding off the bed. “Papa will be checking on us soon.”

“Shall I walk you back to the second floor?” Hanna offered, holding out a pair of candles for Rosalie and Ligeia.

Rosalie shook her head but accepted a hug and the light be- fore stepping out of the room.

“Think about what we said,” Ligeia added, kissing my cheek. “Ending the mourning would be good for us all.” She hugged Hanna good night and scurried down the hall.

The triplets refused to have their own bedrooms, saying they slept better together.

Hanna’s attention shifted to me. “Will you be going to bed too, then, Miss Annaleigh?”

I glanced back at Verity, snuggled deep in my pillows. “Not yet. My mind feels too full for sleep.”

She crossed to a side table, and I drifted back to the chaise, folding and unfolding the throw in my lap. Hanna returned with cups of cinnamon tea and sat down beside me. Something about her movements transported me back six years, to the night of Mama’s funeral.

Hanna had sat exactly where she was now, but I’d been on the floor, my head buried in her lap as she comforted as many of my sisters as she could. Camille was next to me, her eyes swollen and rimmed red. Elizabeth and Eulalie knelt near us, folding the trip- lets into a sobbing embrace. Ava and Octavia bookended Hanna, each holding a sleeping Grace. The only one missing was Verity, just days old and with her wet nurse.

None of us had wanted to be alone that night.

“It was a lovely funeral,” Hanna said now, twirling her spoon and bringing me back to the present. “So many young men. So many tears. I’m sure Eulalie must be pleased.”

I took a shallow sip, letting the spices linger on my tongue before agreeing.

“You’ve been awfully quiet tonight,” she prompted after the silence grew too long.

“I just keep thinking how strange this day felt. How strange everything has been since they . . . found her.” My mouth tripped over the words, as if the idea behind them was too unwieldy a shape to break into neat sentences. “Something feels wrong about her death, doesn’t it?”

Hanna was watching me. “It always feels wrong when a young person dies, especially someone like Eulalie, so full of beauty and promise.”

“But it’s more than that. I could understand why the others died. Each death was horrible and sad, but there was a reason for it. But Eulalie . . . what was she even doing out there? Alone and in the dark?”

“You and I both know she wasn’t meant to be alone for long.” I remembered all those tearstained faces. “But why would she meet someone there? She didn’t even like going to the cliffs in broad daylight. The heights scared her. It doesn’t make any sense

to me.”

Hanna clicked her tongue, setting aside her cup before pulling me into a hug. I caught just a trace of her soap then—milk and honey. Hanna was far too practical for perfumes or bath oils, but the warm, no-nonsense scent comforted me. I breathed it in as my head rested against her shoulder.

It was softer now, more giving, and the skin that peeked over the neckline of her shirtwaist was lined and crepe-thin. She’d been the nursemaid at Highmoor since Ava was born, always there to help patch skinned knees and soothe bruised egos. Her own son, Fisher, was three years older than me and grew up alongside us. Hanna laced us into our first corsets and helped pin up our hair, drying tears as the untrained curls refused to cooperate. There wasn’t any part of our childhood she missed, always nearby for a warm hug or a goodnight kiss.

“Did you turn down the bed for her that night?” I asked, sitting up. Hanna would have been one of the last people to see Eulalie. “Did anything seem off?”

She shook her head. “Not that I recall. But I wasn’t with her long. Mercy had a stomachache. She came in asking for pepper- mint tea.”

“What about . . . after? You helped with . . . her body, didn’t you?”

“Of course. I’ve taken care of all your sisters. And your mother.” “How did she look?”

Hanna swallowed deeply and made a sign of protection across her chest. “Such things shouldn’t be spoken of.”

I frowned. “I know she must have . . . it must have been terrible, but was there anything . . . amiss?”

Her eyes narrowed skeptically. “She plummeted more than a hundred feet, landing on the rocks. There was quite a bit amiss.” “I’m sorry,” I said, deflating. I longed to ask her if anyone else helped prepare the body for its return to the Salt, but Hanna was done talking about it.

“You’re tired, love,” she said. “Why don’t you settle into bed and see how you feel in the morning?” She kissed the top of my head before leaving. The door clicked quietly shut behind her.

After checking that Verity had truly gone back to sleep, I crossed to the window, drawn by a strange restlessness. My bed- room overlooked the gardens on the south side of the house, three stories below. A wide fountain, showcasing a marble clipper ship, was at the center of the lawn, just off a decorative hedge maze.

Verity rolled over, murmuring sleepy incoherences. I’d drawn half the heavy drapes when a flicker of light caught my attention. Though the rain had ended, the sky was choked with dark clouds, obscuring the stars.

It was a lantern, flickering in and out of sculpted topiaries— sets of breaching humpback whales. As the light broke free from the trees, I spotted two figures. The smaller carried the lantern, setting it to the side before sitting on the fountain’s rounded lip. The candlelight caught the white streak in Papa’s hair.

What was he doing out in the gardens so late on the night of Eulalie’s funeral? He’d sent us all to bed early, saying we ought to use this time for solemn prayers to Pontus, asking for the sea god to grant our sister eternal rest in the Brine.

The hood of the other figure’s cloak fell back, revealing a headful of blond ringlets. Morella. She patted the empty space beside her, and Papa sat. After a moment or two, his shoulders began to shake. He was crying.

Morella leaned against him, wrapping her arm around his back and drawing him closer. I looked away as she reached up to stroke his cheek. I didn’t need to hear what she was saying to know her words consoled Papa like a soothing balm. She might not have understood our island ways, but I was suddenly glad of her presence at Highmoor. No one should have to bear such compounded grief alone.

Turning away from the window, I crawled into bed and snuggled up next to Verity, letting her measured breathing lull me to sleep.

 

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