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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 inside 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.
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 neighboring 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?