Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski
A New York Times and Indie Bestseller
The dark will bring your worst nightmares to light in this gripping and eerie survival story, perfect for fans of James Dashner and Neil Gaiman.
On Marin’s island, the sunrise only comes every twenty-eight years. But it’s not the dawn she has to worry about. When sunset triggers the tide to roll out hundreds of miles, the islanders of Bliss must quickly prepare to sail south, where they will wait out the long, fourteen years of unforgiving Night. Marin and her twin brother, Kana, ready their house for departure: locks must be taken off doors, furniture arranged, tables set. The rituals are bizarre, but none of the adults in town will discuss why it has to be done this way.
Just as the ships are about to sail, a boy goes missing—the twins’ friend Line. Marin and Kana are the only ones who know the truth about where Line has gone, and the only way to rescue him is by doing it themselves. But Night is falling. Their island is changing.
And it may already be too late.
“Fall’s biggest thriller novel.”—Mashable.com
“Halpern and Kujawinski invent a fascinating world that comes to life, full of intriguing monsters . . . The teens' desperate journey to find their way off the island will keep readers turning pages.”—Kirkus Reviews
Excerpt from Nightfall
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski
MARIN WALKED INTO THE WIND AND FELT IT GENTLY PUSH back. A few more steps and she’d be at the edge of the cliff. Her focus was on the thistle, the prickly green plants that crunched beneath her feet. What would happen to these plants during the years of Night? Would they wither and die, or would they simply lie dormant, waiting for the first rays of sunlight to peek up from the horizon? She had asked those who had been through this before, but they refused to discuss it. No one talked about the Night, even though it was almost upon them.
She stopped near the precipice. The water below was dark, almost black, and it stretched everywhere, like a liquid version of the sky. In the last year, as the sun had begun its final de- scent, the water had gone from blue-green to iridescent blue, and from there it grew steadily darker. A hint of its fluorescence remained, but now it provoked a shiver instead of a smile.
Marin took a deep breath of the cold sea air. When the sun vanished, it would get even colder. Everything would freeze—at least that’s what people at school said. In any case, by the time that happened, she’d be long gone, along with everyone else in Bliss. Only the buildings would remain, silent and empty, en- tombed in ice.
The wind flung Marin’s wavy black hair into her face. She was smaller than other girls her age, but she was stronger than most. Her arms and legs were long and well-muscled, the product of years spent climbing, hiking, and sailing. She had honey-colored eyes, long lashes, and bronze skin—a striking combination, which she inherited from her mother. Her cloth- ing, however, was plain and purely functional: waxed canvas pants, a raw denim shirt, and leather boots.
“Has the tide turned yet?”
Marin spun at the unexpected voice. She had been waiting for her friend Line, but instead she saw Palan—a frail man with paper-thin skin and a bald head marked with brown sunspots. Palan had lived through several Mornings and his skin bore the proof. His cobalt-blue robe rippled in the wind, revealing a left arm that ended in a stump just above his wrist.
“I’m not sure about the tide,” Marin replied. “What do you think?”
The old man faced Marin, his watery eyes looking past her, into the distance. “This is my fourth Evening,” he said quietly. He tightened the heavy wool scarf wrapped around his neck. “The sun seems to be moving faster and faster with the years.” Marin followed his gaze. The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon. Only a sliver remained visible. The entire western sky was ablaze in magnificent shades of orange and red. A few degrees more and the sun would vanish completely, plunging the island into darkness for the next fourteen years. They said this would happen soon, perhaps in a matter of days.
It sounded a bit like the end of the world to Marin, and she still found it hard to believe.
The wind blew gently and Palan sighed. “It saddens me that I will never see this place again. When I leave here—I expect I won’t return.”
Marin reached out and touched his arm. The old man turned away from the sea, back toward the island’s interior, and grasped her hand. “I’ve heard movement in the forest,” he whispered.
“What do you mean?” asked Marin, worried that Palan may have become lost in his mind.
Palan gripped her hand tighter but did not reply. A muffled shout rang in the distance.
They looked up and watched a teenage boy moving toward them. It was Line. If Palan hadn’t been there, she would have run to him, but now she just waved back.
When he arrived, Line appeared slightly confused. Palan studied them both, arched an eyebrow, and smiled.
Line’s dark brown eyes twinkled as he approached Marin. He was handsome in the way that few boys of fourteen are. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with an unkempt shock of reddish-brown hair, high cheekbones, and a cleft chin.
“Elder Palan,” said Line. “Any news of the boats?” A gust of wind pressed his curly hair flat against his head.
Palan straightened, as if the use of the honorific—Elder— reminded him of his role and station. “Sorry, my boy, I’ve heard nothing of the boats,” said Palan. “But I am not here for that. Come—I’ll show you.”
He approached the cliff ’s edge and pointed downward. Marin and Line followed close behind him and peered over. The face of the cliff was shrouded in shadow, but they could make out several thick white veins coming out of the cliff and running down its side, like a hardened trail of wax from a giant candle.
“It’s ice,” said Palan. It was colder at the edge of the cliff, and his shoulders began to tremble. “My father brought me to this place as a boy. The ice always begins here. It squeezes out of the rock and then, they say, it spreads . . . until it covers every- thing. The island turns to ice.”
Marin and Line stood close together, near Palan. Line’s fingers grazed Marin’s.
Palan leaned over several inches more. “Somewhere down there is the hag.” His voice turned hoarse. “At times, when the waves break just right, you can see her.”
He took a step back from the cliff and smiled with great con- tentment, as if recalling a particularly fond memory. Marin and Line looked down at the water. It seemed no different than be- fore. Palan often spoke in riddles, in the manner that those of such age do.
“I’d like to get a better view of that ice,” said Line, taking off the coil of rope slung across his shoulder and pushing up the sleeves of his sweater. His forearms and biceps were tan and muscled from years of rock climbing.
“As you wish,” said Palan. “But be careful. Ice is much slicker than rock.”
Suddenly impatient, Marin and Line said good-bye. As Palan shuffled back to town, Line set up the rope, tying it securely to a small brass ring jutting from the rock. Marin and Line had been climbing the cliffs that formed the island’s pe- rimeter their entire lives, and recently, it had been just the two of them. Going off unchaperoned was frowned upon, but at the moment, the town was too consumed with other matters to pay them any mind.
Just before beginning, they checked to make sure they were each securely fastened to the rope. Marin faced Line. She tucked a lock of hair behind his ear so it didn’t dangle over his eyes. “You were late,” she said, scowling as if she were cross with him.
“Just a minute or two,” he said with a grin. Line shook his head so that his hair fell back over his eyes. “It won’t happen again.”
They descended steadily until the ocean spray began to mist their legs. The rays of the setting sun could not reach this area, and it was darker than they expected. Still, they were able to see the veins of ice glowing in the murky twilight.
Line continued down several feet, until the ocean spray wet his heavy canvas pants and wool sweater. Marin heard him mutter in surprise.
“What is it?” she called.
Line looked up. Marin was standing comfortably on a tiny ledge two body lengths above him. “The tide’s turned,” he said.
She climbed down to get a better look.
“You’re right,” she said. “Look, you can see it.” She pointed to a thin band of white that clung to the cliff wall near their feet.
Line nodded. “That dried salt is the high-water mark.”
They hugged the cliff wall. After all the anticipation, it was happening. During the fourteen years of Day, the waters around their island remained at high tide. Then, just before the sun vanished, the tide reversed itself suddenly and rapidly, rolling out hundreds of miles and leaving exposed seabed where once there had been crashing waves. And the sea stayed away until Sunrise—some fourteen years later—when it returned just as fast. The timing of all of this was crucial for the islanders, who migrated with the tide. Once it turned, they had just a few days to depart.
“Do you think anyone else knows?” she asked.
“I bet the okrana know.” Line adjusted his hold on the rock and shivered. The nearby ice emanated cold with a surprising intensity. “We should go.”
He was beginning to climb back up when Marin saw something brown and green poking out of the frothy water.
“Line!” she called. Her voice was sharp against the muffled thump of the waves.
Line stopped. His foot was jammed into a tiny crevice in the rock, and one of his fingers curled around a slight nub. He leaned out and looked down, using his free arm and leg for bal- ance. To Marin, it looked like his finger and foot were glued to the wall. Marin shook her head and smiled. Show-off.
“What is it?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Just come look,” said Marin. Her eyes were wide and brim- ming with excitement. “There’s something in the water.”
Line climbed back down to join her on the ledge. He followed her gaze and, over the next few minutes, they watched a human form emerge from the receding tide. It jutted out at a strange angle, but still they could tell that it was a statue of a woman. The head was carved in simple lines, yet her expres- sion was surprisingly intricate. Her mouth was gaping open, as if she were screaming or expressing great terror. The statue was big—three or four times the size of an average person.
“Palan’s hag,” whispered Line.
The water level was dropping steadily, and soon they saw her upper torso. The hag brandished a shield and wore a sim- ple cloak wrapped tightly around a lean, muscular body.
“I see writing!” Marin called. “There—on the shield!”
They waited breathlessly through several waves, until the trough of one large wave revealed the following words in huge block letters: the houses must be without stain.
Marin tried to suppress an uneasy feeling. The island was littered with old ruins—crumbling foundations, broken pillars, old stone walls. This statue was just another relic of the island’s past. A vestige of ancient peoples. Still, the phrase seemed strangely relevant. The houses must be without stain. Now that the tide had turned, everyone in town would be cleaning their homes, preparing to leave. It was an ironclad rule—the last task before departure.
“Why is this statue here—in the ocean?” Marin asked.
Line said nothing at first. “It’s curious,” he finally replied. “It looks very old.” He frowned as if an unpleasant thought had crossed his mind, then turned to Marin. “I’m ready to head back. All right?”
“What’s the matter?” Marin asked. The sea had left a fine mist on their exposed skin and hair.
Line smiled, but it was forced. “I’m just cold, that’s all.” “Let’s go,” she said, nodding. Line was more her brother’s friend than hers, and she still didn’t know him that well. They began ascending the shadowy rock face. Marin was about to urge Line to climb faster when his foot rolled off the rock. It was shocking—he might have fallen backward if he didn’t have a rope to grab onto. Line was one of the best climbers in Bliss. He’d never slipped before.
“What happened?” called Marin.
“Ice,” said Line, almost as a curse. “It’s in the crags.” Together they climbed as quickly as they could, back toward the sunlight.
EVEN THOUGH MUCH OF THE ISLAND WAS COVERED IN shadow, there were still places that caught the light. The trail that led back to town was such a place. It was perfectly situ- ated along a hill, facing the nearly disappeared sun. As a result, everything—from the garnet pebbles on the ground to the swaying remnants of wheat and grass—shimmered.
After their cold, dark climb, even this small amount of sun warmed Marin. It made her think of the Desert Lands and of her mother, who was born in that distant place. The ice had ap- peared so suddenly—and the cold coming from it still seemed to grip her. All of a sudden, following the sun to the Desert Lands didn’t seem like an entirely bad idea.
“It’ll be chaos in town,” said Line as they walked up a hill dotted with clumps of fragrant, blue-tinged bushes. He shook his head and shrugged, as if this would be more an annoyance than anything else. “Pure chaos.”
Marin frowned, trying to imagine their orderly town in a state of chaos. “They send the envelopes out after the tide turns— right?” Of course, she knew this to be true. How many times has my father said as much? But still, now that the moment had arrived, she felt a compulsion to repeat it—just to be sure.
Line nodded. “I bet they’re doing it right now,” he replied. “And after that, everything will shut down—the markets, school, even the fall wheat harvest.”
Marin thought about this. “I figured we’d have at least two more weeks.” She paused for a moment and then added, “I guess that means we’ve just had our last climb together.”
Line sighed, hoping that wasn’t true.
“I knew this was going to happen,” he said, glancing at the sea. “Anyone who sails could see the tide was going to turn sooner rather than later. I don’t know why the mayor uses that stupid lunar calendar.”
They continued on, walking single file along the narrow path. Marin picked up her pace, both to match Line’s longer strides and to warm herself up. Was she cold from the climb, or was the wind turning sharper? Probably both. The path widened again, and Line drew up next to Marin. Although she didn’t look over, she could sense that he was close to her. “What are you going to do now?” she asked softly.
Line massaged his palms to release the tension from climb- ing. “Well, classes for the children will have ended now that the tide’s turned—so I have Francis to look after. I’d like to for- age for some mushrooms, too—maybe even a bit of lekar.”
“You think you’ll be able to find lekar so close to Nightfall?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he replied. “Francis and I could really use the ex- tra money.”
Line lived with his younger brother. Their father died just after Francis’s birth, and two years ago, their mother had sud- denly taken ill and died, too. The doctor said it was pneumonia, an illness that often came with Dusk. After that, the two boys lived with their uncle for a while, but it hadn’t worked out—he was foul-tempered and spent most of his time drunk. For over a year now, fourteen-year-old Line and seven-year-old Francis had been on their own. It was unusual, to say the least, but Line managed.
Line grabbed at a clump of dead wheat stalks and started shredding them. He glanced at Marin. “With the tide turning, I have a lot to do. I haven’t really packed up the house yet.”
Marin’s eyes widened. Her family had been doing this for weeks. Line’s house was much smaller, but still. “I’ll help,” she said quickly.
It was Line’s turn to look surprised. “Really? What if your parents find out?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she retorted. “I’ll help a bit—that’s all.” Marin was suddenly embarrassed, and she wondered if Line could tell. Luckily, they’d crested a hill and were heading down the other side, into shadow. Of course, Line was right. It would be risky going to his house. Marin’s mother, Tarae, didn’t like the idea of her spending time alone with a boy—especially Line, who lived without parents.
They continued along the footpath, crested a small bluff, and took in the view, surveying their town’s collection of ever- green gardens, neatly manicured walls, timber-framed houses, and slate rooftops. It was a bucolic place. Theirs was a town of five hundred people, but from this vantage point it looked small. And compared to the massive forest that covered the island’s interior, it was small—just over a hundred buildings, nestled together.
Delicate trilling noises suddenly filled the air. Moments later, a mule appeared pulling a cart. It was decorated with dozens of silver bells, which jingled rhythmically as the cart rolled down the dirt road that led toward Bliss.
In the driver’s seat was a figure clad in a black robe; he was the town’s vicar, a stony-faced man whose eyes stared purpose- fully ahead. In the backseat sat a fragile-looking elderly woman who held an infant in her arms. The woman was the matriarch of a band of widows who scaled fish to earn their keep, and she claimed to be 107 years old. No one had the temerity to dispute this. She looked so frail, it was surprising that she was able to sit up straight and hold the baby.
Marin and Line came to an abrupt halt. This custom—the so-called Pageant of Life and Death—occurred as soon as the tide turned; because this was their first Sunset, it was also the first time they’d witnessed the ritual. They stood in place, watching the cart pass, until the sound of its bells grew faint. The noise, however, was soon replaced by a number of distant, high-pitched screams. The sounds were not human, but they were bloodcurdling all the same.
“What is that?” asked Marin. She put her hands to her ears. “It makes my skin crawl.”
“They’ve started slaughtering pigs for the journey,” said Line. “Things are moving faster than I thought. We’d better hurry.”
THEY TOOK A WINDING GOAT PATH THAT LED THROUGH the abandoned fields surrounding Bliss. With the sun so low and the weather turning cold, their previously fertile farm- lands had gone barren. Only a few fields still produced food, but it was nutritionally poor fall wheat and stunted potatoes. In recent weeks, even these were hard to find—the fields sud- denly teemed with bugs, mites, and strange biting worms. And so the people of Bliss lived mainly off their supplies while waiting for the ships that would take them south.
Line’s home was a small farmhouse at the edge of Bliss, notable for its round stained glass windows. Just beyond his farmhouse, the houses were built closer together, and the cobblestone roads of the town appeared.
As they neared Line’s home, they could see that foot traf- fic in town had picked up dramatically, and the usually quiet streets were filled with people chattering and pushing past one another. Bells began tinkling, and people stopped what they were doing to stare at the main street, which cut Bliss neatly in two. The Pageant of Life and Death had arrived in town.
Parents drew their children close, while others muttered de- votions and averted their eyes.
Line slowed down and frowned. “Why is Kana in that tree?” At the mention of her brother’s name, Marin looked around eagerly. “Where?”
Line pointed to a bare apple tree that stood near his house, overlooking Bliss’s main street. Like most apple trees, this one had stopped bearing fruit almost a year ago. Now a slender, fine-boned boy watched the pageant from its topmost fork.
“Kana!” Marin yelled.
The boy flinched but did not acknowledge her, not even with the slightest turn of his head.
Again he ignored her.
Kana was Marin’s twin. He was about Marin’s size, but where Marin was dark-skinned, with black wavy hair, Kana’s hair and skin were pale—“snow-kissed,” as they called it. The only physical feature they shared was their long pitch-black eyelashes. They made Marin’s eyes unusually expressive; for Kana they served as a spotlight, drawing attention to his pale blue eyes.
Until recently, though, his eyes hadn’t seemed to work. Kana had been born blind. Or at least that’s what the family had believed. At around ten years old, as the sun started dip- ping lower in the sky, Kana began perceiving shapes and shad- ows. When he squinted he could see better, so the town’s glass blower made him a bizarre pair of spectacles, which were es- sentially wire frames with eye patches on them. Each patch had a tiny hole in the center, allowing in only a pinprick of light. Within the last year, however, as it grew darker, Kana no longer needed the spectacles at all.
“Kana!” shouted Marin again, betraying more than a touch of irritation. Nearby townspeople turned toward her voice. Kana looked at her, revealing the other side of his face, which was marked by a jagged scar that began at the top of his right cheekbone and continued down to his jaw. Kana eyed Line and his sister coldly for a moment, then turned away.
Line put a hand on Marin’s arm. “Don’t force it,” he said. “He’ll come around.”
Marin just furrowed her brow. “Come on,” said Line.
A short while later, they found Francis waiting at the farm- house where he and Line lived. He was wearing green overalls, a buckskin vest, and a gray flannel hunting cap. This was his favorite outfit, and Line let him wear it every day—until the smell became too ripe. As soon as he saw Line, Francis jumped to his feet and raced toward them. Line ruffled Francis’s thick brown hair, which probably should have been cut months ago.
“Were you waiting long?” asked Line.
Francis shrugged. “Some okrana came for you a few min- utes ago.”
“Now what?” said Line. The okrana were the town’s volun- teer police. They patrolled the coastline, looking out for the raiders and thieves who occasionally preyed on towns. Most were farmers with a desire for something more exciting, but Bliss—up to now—had provided little opportunity for action. Lately, they had been checking in on Line often—urging him to pack up and get his house in order. This drove Line crazy.
Marin wasn’t so sure he didn’t need the reminders, but she never admitted as much.
“They gave me something,” said Francis. He dug into his pants and extracted a crumpled envelope. “They said it’s for the master of the house. What does that mean? Are you the master?”
Line ignored his brother and eyed the envelope. “I guess the letters are here,” he said to Marin. “I wanted to get to the bak- ery before this. We need bread.”
“Don’t worry—there’s plenty at our house,” said Marin. “My mother’s been hoarding it. Let’s open the envelope. May I?”
“Might as well,” said Line.
Francis began fidgeting, unable to contain his excitement. “I’ll do it!” he exclaimed. He tore awkwardly at the seal, rip- ping the paper in several places. Impatient now, Francis thrust it at Line, who promptly gave it to Marin.
She felt the envelope’s weight in her palm. It was heavier than she expected. Carefully, she pulled out two sheets of thin paper. The first page contained a detailed floor plan of the house. The second was filled with notes describing where each carpet, piece of furniture, and picture was to be stored.
“What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a diagram of a wall in the front room. It was marked with an arrow and the words rat, snout, and teeth.
Line peered at the pages. Marin looked inside the envelope again, and saw a skeleton key encrusted with verdigris.
Francis’s eyes grew wide. He snatched the key but fumbled it, and it fell to the ground with a metallic clang. In an instant, he’d crouched down and picked it up.
“Can I keep it?” he said, face beaming with excitement.
Line took the key from Francis and turned it over several times. “Later,” he said as he pocketed it. “I don’t want to lose this before I know what it opens.”
Francis frowned and gave his brother a shove. “I’m old enough! I won’t lose it.”
Line glanced at Marin and smiled. At least several times a day, and in a variety of situations, Francis claimed to be old enough. It was his favorite thing to say.
Line grabbed Francis and lifted him up. “Let’s get inside,”
said Line. “I’m starving.”
He opened the door, walked inside, and unloaded Francis, who rushed away. Marin paused on the doorstep to look be- hind her. The Pageant of Life and Death was still occupying everyone’s attention, and Kana was no longer in the tree.
Line reappeared at the doorway. He held the door open for her and smiled. “Coming inside?”
Marin nodded and quickly followed him, shutting the door behind her.
THE FIRST FL OOR OF LINE’S HOUSE WAS A LARGE OPEN space with whitewashed walls, which appeared a murky green in the glow of the many stained glass windows. The walls were bare except for a number of crudely fashioned pegs where the family hung its cloaks and hats. Line lit a few candles so they could all see properly. During the brighter years of Late Morn- ing and Noon, the stained glass helped mute the ever-present glare of the sun. Nowadays, it was so gloomy that Francis re- fused to enter the place alone, which is why he’d been waiting outside.
Even in the dim light, however, there was no mistaking how little packing Line had done. Farm tools—spades, hoes, and buckets—were still caked with dirt. The corners were thick with cobwebs made by strangely industrious spiders that emerged in the recent months of Twilight. Dirty plates and dishes, crusted and flaking from previous meals, lay on the kitchen table and counters. Bearing mute witness to the dirt and grime was an army of toy soldiers, perched on every ledge and in every crevice.
Line waved a hand at the mess. “I may have mentioned that
I haven’t packed up the house yet.”
“You may have mentioned that,” Marin said dryly. It was strange to be in Line’s house without an adult present. And yet this was how Line lived—on his own—with no one to answer to. She imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to live here, too, with Line, spending her time with her own rules, rather than those of her parents.
Line led Francis into a small alcove at the back of the house, which served as the kitchen. He pushed a small wooden panel in the wall, triggering a copper pipe to splash cold water into a cast-iron pot that sat in the jade washing basin. Marin stood nearby, fidgeting with a toy soldier that she’d picked up.
Just then, Francis screamed.
A monstrous apparition was staring at them through the front window. Its face was long and blackened, except for its eye sockets—a pair of cavernous, bloodred tunnels through which two green serpents protruded. The face quickly dis- appeared, and then there was a knock on the door. Francis cowered behind Line.
“It’s okay,” said Line, lifting his brother into his arms. “I was expecting something like this—they’re a little early, though.”
He swung the front door open. A nine- or ten-year-old child stood in the doorway, wearing the gruesome mask they’d seen in the window. Marin considered ducking out the back door, but it was too late; the child had already seen her. Will he tell anyone? It probably didn’t matter. People had bigger things to worry about these days than who was unchaperoned.
“Take off your mask,” ordered Line. “You’re scaring my brother.”
“We’re not allowed to,” said the boy. He turned his head, as if looking for confirmation, and a second figure emerged in the doorway. This was a grown man, wearing a yellow mask em- blazoned with flame-shaped metalwork.
“Who are they?” whispered Francis, his face half buried in
“I am the Specter of Night,” the boy with the serpent eyes intoned. His deep voice was clearly forced. “And he is the Specter of Day.”
The man in the golden mask nodded.
“The tide has turned,” continued the boy with the serpent eyes. He spoke solemnly and deliberately, enunciating every word, as if reciting the lines from a poem. “The cycle of the stars has begun. The sun is gone. Darkness shrouds the island. We are to leave.”
Line took a step forward. “We have the envelope,” he said. “And we’re in the middle of preparing the house.” He paused. “Are you done here? Like I said, my brother is scared.”
“He should be scared,” the boy said. “I am the Specter of Night and there are other spirits, much more gruesome than I, waiting in the woods. My face was made in their likeness.”
“Is that true?” asked Francis, looking up at his brother. “He’s repeating the lines from an old poem,” said Line. “It’s
just a silly game.”
“You should show more respect,” interjected the man with the golden mask. He pointed an accusing finger at Line. “These customs are sacred. Prepare your house before the furriers ar- rive.” He looked around. “You have work to do here, boy.”
Line’s jaw tightened. He set his brother on the ground and stalked toward the door. Marin, sensing a possible confronta- tion, stepped in front of Line and addressed the man with the golden mask.
“Specter of Night,” she said, inclining her head respectfully. “You have something for this house, do you not?”
The man nodded, appeased. The boy with the serpent eyes reached into his coat, pulled out a small paper bag, and gave it to Marin. “Cover your scent.”
Francis pushed his way toward Marin. “What is it?”
“Lime,” replied the boy with the serpent eyes, using his reg- ular pitch now. “It’s what they put on dead bodies. You need to sprinkle it around the house before you leave.”
Marin bowed. “I’m sure there are other houses awaiting your arrival.”
“Blessed be the Day,” said the man with the golden mask. “Save us from the Night,” said the boy with the serpent eyes. And then, much to everyone’s relief, they departed.
No one spoke at first. Francis kept his large brown eyes fixed on his brother.
“Was that the silversmith?” asked Marin, finally breaking the silence.
“It sounded like him. He’s a friend of my uncle’s,” Line said with a roll of his eyes.
Line sent Francis to play with his soldiers, then returned to the kitchen. Eager for something to do, Marin began to clean, starting with wiping down the windows. As she rubbed a cloth across the dusty panes of glass, she thought again of the hag in the ocean. The houses must be without stain.
Line cooked up a generous amount of dandelion greens, sprinkling in salt, pepper, and dried cod. When the food was ready, he served three large plates and they sat at a rickety wooden table. They were hungry, and ate in silence.
Francis finished first. He dashed to a worn-down armchair and picked up an oversize leather-bound book embossed with flowing gold script across its cover: Tales of the Desert Lands. It told the story of a little girl named Shiloh who was born along the equator, where the sun rose and set in a shorter cycle: seventy-two hours of Day followed by seventy-two hours of Night. Children from all of the northern islands were given this book, in order to prepare them for life in the desert. Once there, the islanders would spend fourteen years in a small city of sand- stone buildings, situated on a crescent-shaped beach hemmed in by the Desert Lands on one side and the ocean on the other.
Marin stood up from the table and walked over to the chair where Francis was sitting. She eyed his book and recalled how Shiloh rode a two-humped horse across the dunes, befriended the desert nomads, and found wādīs where treasures were bur- ied. Most memorable of all was the story of Shiloh’s time at the Cloister—a forbidding stone tower rising from the sand—where she spent a year isolated with other girls her age. It was a rite of passage for natives of the Desert Lands and their daughters. During this time, the “women-to-become” meditated together and used scalpels and ink to etch markings across their bodies and faces.
Francis looked up at Marin. “What’s it really like in the Desert Lands?” he asked. “Your mother lived there, didn’t she?”
Marin nodded. “She did.”
“And that’s why she has those marks on her wrists?”
Marin nodded again. “The markings aren’t only on her wrists,” she explained. “They go all the way up her back, too.”
“Can I touch them one day?”
“Francis—it’s late,” said Line, eager to change the subject. “You need to get to bed.”
Francis shook his head. “I don’t want to go by myself. And
I’m not tired.”
“Go with him,” Marin told Line. She felt a sudden pang of sadness for Francis, this little boy with no parents to tuck him in. “I’ll clean up, and we can move the furniture when you come down. And don’t forget, we also have to deal with the key.”
LINE WALKED FRANCIS UP THE NARROW, CREAKING stairs that led to the second floor, holding his hand so he wouldn’t trip in the dark stairwell. At the top of the stairs was a small landing and three doorways. One doorway led into Line’s room, another into Francis’s room, and a third into the room his parents had shared.
“Can I sleep in your room tonight?” asked Francis.
“Okay,” said Line. He was too tired to argue. Francis walked over to Line’s bed and climbed into it. Line crawled in next to him and pulled a huge comforter over them. It was used only in Twilight, when the weather became uncomfortably cold. Fran- cis was quiet, and for a moment, Line wondered if he’d fallen asleep. That hope was dashed when Francis turned and asked, “Did Mother know about the spirits who live here at Night?”
Line paused. Francis did not talk about their mother often. “Nothing lives here at Night,” Line replied, patting his little
brother on the shoulder. “It’s too cold. The island freezes.” “But the spirits are dead,” persisted Francis. “So it doesn’t matter how cold it gets.”
“There’s no such thing as spirits,” said Line gently. “Adults think that telling kids to get ready before the spirits come will make them pack up quickly. But we live on our own, so we’re kind of adults already and don’t need to play. Understand?” He kissed his brother on the cheek. “Now close your eyes.”
“But I’m not tired.”
Line sighed. “Do you want me to sing?” “Yes,” said Francis with a yawn.
Line cleared his throat and began to sing “Hand Over Hand,” one of the ballads that old men and women sang as they scaled the island’s cliffs. It was a slow, sad melody—perfect for chant- ing in rounds, with each climber on a rope singing in intervals. Line sang for a while, then hummed the tune.
Some time later, Line woke with a start. How long have I been asleep? It could have been minutes or hours—he was too disoriented to tell. He stood and walked downstairs. Marin was gone, and the house was in tip-top shape. She had done a great deal of work—the dishes were cleaned, the toys put away, and the tools returned to the shed. Much of the furniture had been moved, too. Marin was incredible.
They had grown up alongside each other, part of a group of children who’d been born at Sunrise. Throughout their early childhood, Marin and Kana had kept to themselves, as twins often do. In fact, one of Line’s earliest memories was watching Marin lead Kana along the cliffs. For years, Line had thought her beautiful—her brown skin, her smile, her confidence, even with the elders. Yet it was Kana whom Line befriended first— the two boys became close around the time that Line’s mother died.
Together, they explored the darkened edges of the forest, where Kana helped Line gather mushrooms and a medicinal plant called lekar. Lekar always fetched a good price at mar- ket, but it was hard to find so close to Night, so he mainly sold mushrooms now. This, and a little farming, was how Line sup- ported himself. It was only within the last three months or so that Line and Marin started spending time together—and this, unfortunately, had been the beginning of things souring be- tween Line and Kana, and between Kana and Marin.
Line walked into the kitchen. The old windup clock by the stove read midnight. He had been asleep for hours. Then, on the counter near the food cupboard, he saw a note.
I thought I’d let you sleep.
The kitchen chairs are in the living room. The coffee table needed to be rotated by a half turn, so
it faced the other way. (Insane.) The end table from Francis’s bedroom is in the parlor. I moved the desk by myself. Aren’t you impressed? I also cleaned up your parents’ room. I hope you don’t mind.
There were a few notes on the floor plan that I didn’t understand, like the bit about the rat, snout, and teeth. And I couldn’t find the round tables. I’ll bring you some bread tomorrow.
Remember the key. It fits that door in the cellar.
“The key,” said Line aloud. He nodded—fully awake now—and set to work. He grabbed a lit candle from the dining room and proceeded to a door at the back of the kitchen. He opened it, cleared away a thick draping of cobwebs, and headed down- stairs to the cellar. The stone walls of the cellar were sweating rivulets of water, which had softened the gravel and dirt floor, making it mucky. Line could feel his shoes sticking to the earth as he walked.
At the far end of the cellar, he found what he was looking for: a sturdy wooden door, bolted and sealed shut with an old warded lock. He’d never seen the door open. His mother had told him it was a storage closet, and he’d never been especially curious about what was inside. The cellar was not a place to spend free time.
Line took the key from his pocket, slid it into the lock, and fumbled around until he was rewarded with a click. He opened the door and revealed two round tables and three large wooden boxes. He walked deeper into the closet and leaned in to exam- ine the boxes more carefully. One of them was marked rat, a second was marked snout, and the third was marked teeth.
Line sat back on his heels, intrigued. He hadn’t expected the arrival of the envelopes to lead to a treasure hunt in his own house.
One by one, he brought the boxes to the main floor and ar- ranged them in a row. Line knelt down over the box marked rat and pulled out a huge animal head, stuffed and mounted on a wooden slab. It looked like a cross between a rat and a storybook mastodon. The head was twice the size than that of a horse, which meant that the body must have been gigantic. Beneath the head was a brass plate emblazoned with ornate cursive letters written in a strange alphabet.
“Wow,” said Line. “You’re an ugly one.” He consulted the floor plan and concluded that rat was meant to go on the middle peg in the front room. The head fit perfectly. He then walked back across the room and opened the crate marked snout—and removed yet another mounted head. This one had interlocked plates instead of fur, two pointy tusks, and a long snout—almost like an armadillo with an especially big nose. This head hung to the left of rat. Finally, he opened the box marked teeth and pulled out a third mounted head. It was almost identical to snout, except for a set of long, jagged fangs.
“What are you?” asked Line quietly, as if he half expected the head to answer his question. “And where in God’s name did you come from?”
There’d always been stories that wild boars—and animals even fiercer and more primordial—lurked in the depths of the island’s forests. Line never entirely believed such tales, but he never totally discounted them, either. It was a large island, and very few people left the immediate vicinity of town and the coastline.
Line consulted the floor plan again, placed teeth on the wall, and returned the wooden boxes to the basement. He then moved the two round tables into the front room. Finally, he opened the small paper bag of lime and sprinkled it as he walked around, giving the entire dwelling the air of a dis- infected outhouse.
When he was done, he stopped to stare into the lifeless eyes of rat, snout, and teeth, wondering what the purpose of hanging these grotesque animals on the walls could pos- sibly be. It was pointless—absurd. What will I tell Francis at breakfast?
Line glanced at the small grandfather clock in the corner. It was an hour past midnight. Francis would be asleep for the next six hours. His little brother was the soundest sleeper that Line had ever encountered, and this was a good thing. Line wanted to make a quick trip to the edge of the woods to collect mushrooms for trading. And he knew of a spot that might still have some lekar, though that was probably too much to hope for.
He reread Marin’s letter. She’d even cleaned his parents’ room—knowing that it had to be done, and that he was reluc- tant to do it. Marin saw a problem, and she attacked it. They were a good team. But everything would change in the Desert Lands. Line knew this because Marin’s mother had pulled him aside recently and said exactly that. She hadn’t been unkind about it, just matter-of-fact: This is the way it must be—she will spend time with other girls her age. In seclusion. And after that, she will be busy with many other things. Tarae had lingered on those last words as she looked at Line. Her message was clear: the relationship between Marin and Line would come to an end when they left Bliss.
Line never told Marin about this conversation. Maybe she already knew. All this filled Line with a sense of immediacy— the next day, or two, perhaps, was all that he and Marin had.
He stood up straight and looked again at Marin’s letter. If he went quickly, there was something he could do for her.
He’d been thinking about this for weeks but hadn’t found the time. It wouldn’t take long, and he’d be back before Francis awoke. He grabbed a thick wool sweater and rushed out of the farmhouse.
AFTER A RESTLESS SLEEP, MARIN WOKE EARLY AND DE‑ livered a loaf of bread to Line’s house. She came while the town was still largely asleep and placed the warm parcel at the front door. Marin had already been up for several hours, baking the dark, tough bread—known as sheet iron or tooth dullers—which would be their staple for the long journey to the Desert Lands. The main ingredient was fall wheat, a slender, reedy grain that grew reluctantly in the dimming light of the last year. For those who remembered the hearty summer wheat of years past, it was a poor substitute. Still, Line and Francis probably wouldn’t care, especially since the loaf was still warm. Marin walked away, smiling at the memory of the three of them eating together last night. It might be a long while before she spent time with them like that again. Soon she would be in the Cloister. What then? Will Line wait for me—for a full year? And wait for what?
On the way home, Marin trailed along the cliffs, pausing for a moment to take in the view. The island and surrounding water were gripped in shadow. Angry gray-black clouds roiled above, while only a thin sliver of orange peeked on the horizon.
Marin looked up the shoreline to where the island began to curve inward. Standing here, she felt as if the island were a massive ship plowing through the sea. No matter how terri- ble the storm, waves would beat themselves into nothingness against the cliff wall.
It was strange to think that the people from Bliss had lived here for only a few generations—just over a hundred and fifty years. Before discovering the island, they sailed the Polar Sea following fishing stocks, as weather and the currents permit- ted. Then they landed on the island and found a beautiful story- book town, perfectly intact and completely uninhabited. After much prayer and argument, a decision was made. To the sounds of deep bass-toned drums, the oldest person carried a newborn baby into Deep Well House. There they stayed for twenty-four hours, hoping that the house did not contain some trap or curse that would kill them. Eventually, the old lady emerged trium- phantly carrying the exhausted baby, and everyone moved into the town.
As a child, Marin loved to hear every detail of this story, and she eagerly looked forward to its retelling during the Pageant of Life and Death. But over the years, she’d grown dubious of the history. She’d recently overheard an uncle repeating the story to one of her younger cousins, and asked him afterward if he really believed it.
“Of course I believe it,” replied her uncle with a smile. They were sitting in the parlor of Shadow House and he was sipping his ale contentedly. “Don’t you?”
“It makes no sense,” Marin had said. “Why were all of these houses in perfect condition?”
“It was our destiny to come here,” replied her uncle, setting down his ale and leaning in. “This island was a divine gift, and you do not question such gifts. You accept them and humbly express your gratitude.” Marin merely shook her head—as she always did when the adults spoke of destiny, and gifts, and unquestioning acceptance. There had to be a better ex- planation—a fight, a battle, maybe even a plague—but clearly this town had been inhabited, right up until the moment her people had arrived. And the former residents had been scared off, run off, or killed off. She glanced back at the town. No one would abandon such a perfect place without cause. Marin felt certain of this.
For several seconds, she stared at the water and felt the bracing wind curl around her face. Then something in the dis- tance caught Marin’s eye. To the left of the disappearing sun, dipping between each curling wave, was a boat. Her heart sank. Only one? Impossible. They needed more than that to evacuate the whole town. Moments later, a few more boats came into view, sailing in tight formation. The clippers that would transport them sailed in the middle, surrounded by sleeker, two-hulled vessels. All the sails were yellow. It was the furriers, no doubt about it. They were right on time, coming with the tide. The furriers were mercenary nomads of the sea who hunted in the Polar North, accumulating furs, then sailed to the Desert Lands to sell their stock. Furs were prized, even in the Desert Lands, where it grew cold when the sun fell. Along the way, the furriers picked up passengers from the northern islands—for a price.
Marin turned and ran back toward town. Was she the first to spot the ships? She hoped so. It’d be nice to show the okrana how easily a teenage girl could best them at their own job. She followed the old wagon trail back to town, jogging and then running. At a certain point, she was sprinting flat out, and al- most crashed into someone heading toward her. She tripped and came to a stop in a cloud of dust.
“What is it, child?” asked the person she’d almost collided with. He was a portly man in a blood-smeared smock—Bliss’s fishmonger. He’d seen Marin running and come out from be- hind his carving table to meet her. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“The furrier boats,” said Marin as she struggled to catch her breath. “They’re here.”
“How many?” barked the fishmonger, as if he were annoyed that she had failed to specify an exact number.
“Half a dozen,” said Marin. “I—I don’t know. I didn’t count.” “Half a dozen!” he replied. He bit his lip and ran a hand through his matted brown hair. “By God, I hope there are more than that. Otherwise, we’ll have riots—families against families, brother against brother. It has happened before.”
Marin stared at him, unnerved by the fear on the fishmon- ger’s face.
“What do we do?” she asked.
The fishmonger didn’t seem to hear her. So she took a step closer and asked again, almost shouting this time.
The fishmonger looked at the ocean and squinted. “Get home and tell your people,” he ordered. He turned abruptly and headed into town, leaving his fish to the flies.
MARIN SPRINTED UP A WINDING DIRT ROAD TOWARD the woods. Her house was about a mile from town, and stood alongside a cold, fast-running stream. It was a grand old man- sion called Shadow House, named for its proximity to the for- est. Because of their age, the trees in this section of the woods had massive trunks and stretched several hundred feet tall. Over the course of Marin’s childhood, as the sun arched across the sky and sank toward the sea, the shadows from these trees had lengthened, like the fingernails on an old man who had lost his clippers. Within the last several months, the shadows had crept faster, nearly erasing Marin’s house from the landscape—as if blotting it out in a pool of black ink. This close to the woods, the shadows of the trees were so thick and overlapping that Marin wouldn’t have been able to find her house at all if her mother hadn’t placed candles in the windows.
As she approached the front door, Marin heard a steady clanking, like someone banging two pieces of steel together. She squinted through the darkness and saw her father kneeling by the front door, banging away with a small hammer. The door was a huge oval-shaped slab of oak, crisscrossed with a lattice- work of blackened metal. Her father was hammering with great concentration at an ornately engraved copper keyhole below the doorknob.
“It won’t come off?” asked Marin. She breathed deeply and tried to catch her breath.
Marin’s father was so startled that he dropped his hammer. Anton was a stonemason by trade and he looked the part, with broad shoulders, bulging forearms, and perpetual dust in his light brown hair. He wore heavily patched workman’s coveralls and a long-sleeved muslin shirt. The only sign of softness was in his dark blue-green eyes, which were unmistakably kind.
“Marin,” said her father with a shake of his head. “You scared the wits out of me. It’s not wise to sneak up on people like that—especially these days.”
She leaned over to peer at the keyhole. “Is it rusted shut?” “Afraid so,” replied Anton. “The other locks came off without any trouble, but this one is stuck.”
“I still don’t see the sense in it—taking off the locks,” she replied.
Anton leaned back onto his heels and stared at her. It was clear that she’d run home and had something to tell him. He smiled expectantly, bringing dimples to each cheek.
“I walked home along the cliffs.” She paused for a moment, savoring the news she was about to deliver. “I saw the boats— they’re here.”
Anton nodded slowly. “How many?” “Half a dozen.”
Her father frowned and stood up. “Half a dozen,” he repeated.
“Is that enough?” she asked.
Anton deliberated the question for several seconds. “I sus- pect more are on the way,” he said finally. “Overall, the furriers always come with enough. There have been exceptions, but not in recent times . . .” He picked up the hammer with one hand and ran his thick fingers through his hair with the other. “We’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Although his voice was confident, he still looked uncertain. “Go on, hurry along and tell your mother.” Anton opened the door to let Marin in, and turned back to the lock. “She’s looking for you,” he said, then began to hammer loudly.
Upon entering the foyer, Marin heard her mother’s foot- steps before she actually saw her. The footsteps were hurried, frantic, as if she were nearly running. Her mother was frenzied with the prospect of moving.
As far as Marin could tell, Tarae had been eager to leave the island ever since arriving fourteen years ago. “I came here because of love,” she was fond of telling her children. “Your father was so charming and so handsome that he lured me to this rock in the Polar Sea.” Anton was a native of the island, and had met Tarae during his last stay in the desert. They had married and Tarae had agreed to follow him north, but it had never been an entirely happy arrangement. Now, on the eve of their journey to the south, Tarae was unable to contain her excitement.
“Mother!” Marin called. “I’m back—I saw the ships!” “I heard.”
Moments later, Tarae emerged from the darkness, holding a candle. Marin’s mother was tall and darkly olive-skinned, with waist-length raven-black hair that gleamed in the candlelight. Like her daughter, she had honey-colored eyes, a trait that was fairly common in the Desert Lands. Tarae was wearing a sleeveless white gown, cinched at the waist with an elabo- rately braided belt. Her arms, shoulders, and lower neck were covered with interconnected skin markings that depicted a tapestry of snakes, lizards, and dancing nymphs. They started just above her wrist, then twisted and turned and writhed all the way to the base of her neck. The sight was arresting, even for Marin, who had seen her mother’s body many times before. What really surprised Marin, however, was her mother’s re- vealing outfit. Women on the island typically wore pants, silk waistbands, and long-sleeved shirts made from simple muslin. In colder weather, closer to Nightfall, they wore long oilskin coats. No one dressed like this—not on the island.
“I met your father in this dress—he could not avert his eyes. The poor man is bewitched, they said.” Tarae’s cheeks flushed with color as she smiled at the memory. “He fell helplessly in love—and it happened just weeks after I left the Cloister.”
Marin had heard many times about her parents meeting and about Tarae’s year in the Cloister, where she pierced her eye- lids with lizard bones and marked her skin with scalpels and ink.
“Are you going to the boats dressed like that?” asked Marin tentatively, thrusting her hands into the front pockets of her pants. People will gawk at you.
“Why not?” asked Tarae, sounding slightly wounded. “Would you mind?”
“Of course not,” said Marin, kicking at the floor with her boot. “I was just asking. It’s cold out there.”
“Marin,” said her mother, stepping closer to her daughter. “After fourteen years, I am headed home. I know that you love your life on this island, and I don’t expect you to share my joy. Just understand that . . .” Tarae’s voice cracked as she tried not to cry. “I recognize something of what you feel. I wasn’t much older than you when I left the desert.”
Marin swallowed hard. She had never really thought about just how scared her mother must have felt coming to Bliss. She was about to say something—what, exactly, she didn’t know— when suddenly a breeze blew in from the front door, causing the candle in Tarae’s hand to flicker and then go out. They could hear the sound of Anton hammering on the lock down- stairs. Tarae muttered in annoyance and turned to get a match.
“Wait!” said Marin. “Don’t light the candle yet.” “Why?”
“Because,” said Marin. “I want to see your arms again.” Tarae spun around and arched her back proudly.
IT LOOKED AS IF RAYS OF GREEN LIGHT WERE EMANATING from cracks in her mother’s skin. Marin had seen these lumi- nescent markings before, but pitch darkness made them look different—bolder, brighter.
“What you see is on every desert woman—they are the ar- rows of light—and they guide us not only in the Cloister, but throughout our lives.” Tarae caressed her daughter’s cheek and placed both hands palm down on her hair, as if bestowing a blessing. “You will understand better when we arrive in our new home.”
Marin pulled away, almost recoiling. “I’m sorry . . . I have things to do.” I can’t think about this—not now. The idea of moving to the Desert Lands was not particularly appealing, especially when it meant giving up her freedom . . . and Line. Still, she realized belatedly that her voice sounded harsher than she intended.
Tarae’s arms fell, and her radiant smile faded. “Yes,” she said flatly. “You have chores to do.”
“Where’s Kana?” asked Marin.
“Working—as you should be.”
Marin pressed her lips tightly together. She was determined not to say anything to further provoke her mother. Their rela- tionship had been tense of late, especially in regard to Line. It was better to lie low until they were on the boats.
“Hurry along now,” said Tarae. “There are scuff marks on the living room floor. Your brother is working to remove them. You will help. Remember, the houses must be without stain.”
Marin paused for a moment. A tingling ran up her spine. Those were the very words that appeared on the statue of the hag. “Why did you just say that?” she asked. “Where does it come from?”
“I don’t know—it’s just an island saying,” said her mother, who was now busy herding dust into a pile on the floor.
“But what does it mean?”
“It means you need to start working,” said her mother impa- tiently. “Now go.”
Marin found Kana in the living room. He was wearing black wool pants and a matching sweater. The contrast made his skin look paler than usual. At the moment, he was hunched over with his back to her, scrubbing at a stain on the wood-paneled wall.
Thick carpets that ordinarily stretched across the floor were rolled up, ready to be carried into the storage rooms downstairs. Marin was surprised to see that, beneath the rugs, the floorboards were scarred with hundreds of circular inden- tations—as if someone had walked around stabbing the floor with a spear.
“Have you seen what Mother’s wearing?” Marin asked. She
tried to sound lighthearted, in the hopes that she and Kana might enjoy a brief truce. Kana continued working at the stain.
He finally looked up and stared at her impassively, with nei- ther fondness nor bitterness in his eyes. It was his Kana-as-a- blank-canvas look, and Marin hated it.
“You can start on the other side of the living room—there are some blotches on the wall,” said Kana. He turned back to the stain and began prodding at it in a violent, jerky motion. Marin sighed, walked to the far wall, and began to scrub. The excitement of the arriving furrier boats seemed far away; her family was putting her in a very bad mood.
Several minutes later, Marin finished and moved to the parlor, a large room furnished with several upright couches, a stone fireplace, and an old but functional player piano. Cur- rently the piano was playing a nocturne whose forlorn melody echoed down the hallways. Marin found the music unbearably sad, but Kana was fond of it, and he played it whenever he was home. The house had six bedrooms, a parlor, a formal dining hall, and a solarium. Stonemasons like Marin’s father wouldn’t usually live in such a grand place, but the house’s location next to the woods made it less desirable.
Today there was a fire crackling in the fireplace. It was a stark contrast from Marin’s childhood, when it had been far too warm for a fire. Now they built one almost every day. The island was cold, and ocean storms appeared more frequently, peppering houses with driving hail. A burning ember cracked in the fireplace, and Marin jumped. She was more on edge than she realized.
Tarae appeared in the doorway, standing so she was in pro- file. Her back—with its incandescent skin markings—cast a faint glow on the wall behind her, giving her an almost ghostly appearance. “Marin,” she said with a kind of forced cheerful- ness. “Please get the clock from Kana’s room. I meant to ask him, but he’s already upstairs. Put it on the mantel in the parlor and make sure it’s facing seaward.” She paused, then smiled in a way that put Marin on alert.
“I have something for you—wait here.” A minute later, Tarae appeared again in the doorway. She was holding a rectangu- lar box, six inches long and three inches wide. It was made of highly polished copper, and the red-brown hues of the metal threw ribbons of color onto Tarae’s white dress. She ap- proached Marin solemnly and held out the box. “Your birth- right. I have been waiting for this moment . . .”
Marin took the box in her hands. The metal was cold and heavy.
“You will need this in the Desert Lands.” Tarae’s light brown eyes brimmed with tears. “Keep it safe during the journey.” She caressed Marin’s cheek with the palm of her hand. “Do you want to open it?”
Marin knew how much her mother wanted her to open the box, but she couldn’t. It felt unbearably awkward. She’d do it later, on the furrier boats, when the reality of her life in the Desert Lands was inescapable.
“Mother,” said Marin. She drew closer and placed a hand gently on Tarae’s arm. Marin’s voice was apologetic, sheepish, and so quiet that it was barely audible. “Can we do this on the boats? When there’s more time? I just—I feel so rushed.”
Tarae pursed her lips and nodded. “As you wish.”
Marin mumbled her thanks and headed upstairs. The sec- ond floor of the house had seven rooms, but only hers and Kana’s were occupied. After they were grown enough to move out of their parents’ bedroom, Marin and Kana had chosen these, which were right next to each other.
Recently, however, Marin had begun to wish that their rooms were farther apart. On several occasions within the last few weeks, Kana had woken her with hysterical screaming. She’d run to his room and found him terrified and staring out the window, or sitting upright in bed, one arm across his face, another extended outward, as if pushing something away.
But he wouldn’t talk about it. Not to her, anyway. After one of these episodes, Marin heard him and Tarae whispering in his room. The following day, Anton bolted Kana’s window shut. When Marin asked why, they told her that Kana was suf- fering from “night terrors”—nightmares so terrible that they seemed real even after you awoke.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Marin continued down the candlelit hallway toward the open door of her brother’s bedroom. Kana was studying his reflection in the mirror while rubbing lekar into the scar along his cheek.
Lekar was a powerful remedy against infections of all kinds. It could be eaten or applied to a wound, and it worked quickly. Many villagers claimed it had saved their lives. It came from a bright yellow fungus that appeared on the underside of wood- fern, a small, soft plant that grew in the deep woods. It was very difficult to find or even to buy—especially this close to Nightfall—and Kana was lucky to have it. He’d been applying a small amount to his face just once a week, and it was working, though he’d always bear a scar.
Marin knew she had intruded upon a private moment, but she couldn’t help but watch. Every once in a while she was re- minded of the fact that her brother was actually quite beauti- ful. People in town said he looked like their father, but it was only recently that she’d begun to see the resemblance. He had grown taller, broader, and stronger from top to bottom during the past few months, and had even developed a dimple on each cheek like their father. He still wasn’t as tall as Line, or as thickly built as Anton, but he had undeniably come into his own.
The only blemish on Kana’s face was the scar. A fresh wave of guilt washed over Marin. She was about to dart away when Kana set down the jar of yellow lekar, turned his back to the doorway, and approached a large rocking chair in the corner of his room. He looked down at it and began to whisper. At first, Marin couldn’t understand him, but then the words seemed to waft through the darkness, like a chant or the faintest of prayers: It didn’t happen . . . It didn’t happen . . . It didn’t happen.
IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. KANA MOUTHED the words as he studied the leather-bound chair that had been torturing him for weeks. I’m being tormented by a piece of fur- niture, he thought. How tragically stupid. And yet that was the truth of it. The chair figured prominently in Kana’s recurring nightmare. In it, he was lying in his bed, and a woman would call out his name. She sat in the rocking chair, hidden beneath a cloak, and she always said the same thing: “Stay away from the woods, child—don’t let them see you.” It would have been funny, in a dark kind of way, if it didn’t seem so real. And that was the thing—it felt so lifelike that Kana wasn’t entirely cer- tain that he was dreaming.
On one occasion, he was positive that the woman leapt from the rocking chair—with astounding speed—landed on top of him, and covered his mouth and eyes with a cold, musty rag. Kana struggled but couldn’t shake her off. He gasped for air but couldn’t breathe. She was suffocating him. As she did this, she started talking again: “It’s better this way, child—better for you.” Then, rather inexplicably, as he felt his body go slack, she let him go. He tumbled off the bed and cracked his forehead against the floor. Everything went black. When he opened his eyes, hours later, he was looking into the terrified face of his mother. She’d come to check on him and found him on the floor, his face covered in thick, drying blood. That happened a week ago. Thankfully, he hadn’t dreamed since.
Kana continued to stare at the old chair, as if it might start to rock on its own. It was an absurd thought, and yet it wouldn’t really have surprised Kana. Not at this point. His great-aunt Malony was a lunatic—everyone knew this—and, apparently, he had inherited her illness. I have Dad’s dimples and my great- aunt’s screwy brain. His aunt had died several years ago, but he could still picture her: Malony had cloudy eyes and hair so thin it revealed her scalp, which was always covered with scabs. She had lived with his father’s oldest sister, in a small bedroom in the attic. As a very little boy, he was terrified to be near her.
He’d voiced these worries to his mother as she was cleaning up his bloodied face, but she’d dismissed his concerns. “Kana, my love, it’s impossible.”
“Is it?” Kana had replied. “Malony threw herself down the stairs, didn’t she? And they locked her in her bedroom after- ward, right?”
Tarae had shaken her head. “You’re fine,” she’d told him. “It’s the coming of the Night—it’s upsetting all of us.”
Now Kana continued to stare at the old rocking chair until he heard a wooden board creak in the hallway. He listened for a moment. “Marin—are you just going to stand there?”
There was no reply.
He turned and faced the doorway. “You’re not very good at spying,” said Kana. “If you want to come in, then do it.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Mother asked me to bring your clock downstairs.” Marin stepped out of the hallway and entered his room. “What are you doing?” she asked. Marin absentmind- edly rubbed her hands together and looked around Kana’s bedroom.
“Slowly losing my mind,” said Kana. He glanced at Marin. “What’s that box you’re carrying?” Recognition dawned on his face. “Oh. That’s the box Mother’s always chattering about. I’m a little jealous—my going-away gift was a set of bolted win- dows.” He smiled. “Did you two have your talk? How did that go?”
Marin opened her mouth in amazement. It was uncanny how he was able to hone in on what had happened.
“The talk didn’t go that well,” she replied with a sigh. There was no point in elaborating. Kana clearly didn’t want to have an actual conversation about this. “I just came to get the clock. That’s all.”
Marin took the clock off the wall and left the room.
Alone again, Kana felt drained, as if his brief back-and-forth with Marin had been more taxing than he realized. He eased himself down on the rocking chair. It groaned predictably every time Kana pushed back. It was one of the noises he re- membered most from his childhood. He listened for sounds coming from Marin’s room but heard nothing.
Marin. My twin sister, Marin. He missed her. That was the truth of it. He missed being closer with her—talking, joking, even just walking to school together. The constant bickering was tiresome. And yet he couldn’t stop himself. He was angry— deeply angry—and this emotion had a will of its own.
Kana closed his eyes and envisioned the forest. He could smell the pine, and even with the window bolted shut, he knew a gentle breeze was making the needles shudder ever so slightly. It’d be good to get out.
He stood up and was about to leave, when he heard voices from outside. Kana pressed an ear against the window. Before he knew who it was, he could hear their agitated tone. After listening for several seconds, he called out to Marin.
She appeared at the doorway with a tired smile. Kana stud- ied her face. Even in the poor light, he could see her with star- tling clarity. Her bronze skin seemed to glow, adding color to her eyes and lips. It was no wonder Line was so taken with her.
“What is it?” asked Marin.
“You have visitors coming,” said Kana.
“What are you talking about?” she asked. Her eyes flicked to the window next to Kana. After years of being nearly blind, Kana’s hearing was incredibly acute.
“The okrana are heading toward our house,” he said. “They’re coming from the woods and they want to talk to you.” In addition to monitoring the coastline, the okrana were the only ones in Bliss allowed to range in the woods. And as far as
Kana and Marin knew, the okrana never made house calls. “Are you joking?” asked Marin, narrowing her eyes.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” he replied, face stoic.
Suddenly nervous, Marin stalked out of Kana’s room and headed downstairs. As she went, she heard voices in the foyer, followed by her mother calling for her. At the foot of the stairs she met Tarae, who had wrapped a long black shawl tightly around her bare shoulders.
“Oh, Marin,” said her mother. “What have you done, child?” “I did what you told me to do,” she protested. “I put the
“No, something else,” said her mother. “The okrana want to speak with you.”
“I don’t know,” said Tarae. Her anger was subsumed by a thick layer of motherly worry. Her lips and cheeks were pinched from frowning. “They wouldn’t say.”