The Emerald Sea – Richelle Mead

BEING BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE WAS EXHAUSTING WORK. That had been true for most of my life. I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t helping support my family, fighting for every copper we earned. If you slacked off in Osfro’s bustling market district, even for an instant, then you were just opening the door for someone else to move in and snatch your triumph for themselves. That hadn’t changed when I moved into a household of girls all vying to marry wealthy men in a far-off land. Others here at Blue Spring Manor might think they could ease up, and that only worked to my advantage. Let them think they could coast now. Let them all hate me. I wouldn’t lose my edge. I’d stay focused on my prize, never getting distracted by people or frivolity. “Happy birthday, Tamsin!” I stumbled to a halt in the doorway to my room, clamping a hand to my mouth to cover my shock at the sight that met me. Intricately cut garlands of paper hung along the walls. A little box wrapped smartly in silver tissue rested on my bed. A vase of rainbowhued gladioli stood atop my dresser. And a plate of something lumpy and pink sat nearby.

As it turned out, not everyone hated me. “What is this?” I swiftly shut the door. “Wait. How did you even know?” My two roommates stood side by side, grinning broadly. “We have our ways,” said Mira. “Though we shouldn’t have had to use them,” chastised Adelaide. “Why didn’t you tell us?” “I didn’t want to make a fuss. It’s not a big deal.” I walked over to one of the walls and touched the garland. “This is lovely.

” “I made it,” said Mira. At ease, a lilting accent crept into her voice, the result of having lived most of her life in Sirminica. Looking at her, so neat and proper in a pink poplin dress, one would never guess she’d had to fight her way out of a war-torn country. “Miss Shaw gave me the supplies the last time she visited.” “And I made the cake,” piped up Adelaide. “It’s strawberry.” I frowned. “What cake?” She pointed, and I turned to the plate with the oozing pink blob on it. “Did you now?” I asked. “All by yourself? Like, with a recipe and everything?” “You’re lucky it’s your birthday, or I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of sass,” she returned.

I didn’t believe that for an instant, seeing as she tolerated my “sass” on a pretty regular basis. Adelaide had one of the wittiest, most cheerful dispositions I knew, which worked as a good balance to my unending restlessness and Mira’s quiet reflection. Everyone at Blue Spring was trying to rise from our roots and learn the ways of the upper classes, so you’d think Adelaide would be the one with an edge after working as a genteel lady’s maid. And she did have occasional bits of brilliance about obscure aristocratic behaviors. But that was often overshadowed by her complete lack of practical life skills. Like sewing. And cleaning. And . cooking. “Well, thank you .

though you shouldn’t have gone to the trouble. Um, especially the cake. It’s kind, but you two shouldn’t have wasted that time on me when you could have been studying.” Adelaide sat on the edge of her bed, swinging her legs. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have spent that time studying.” “Mira might have,” I shot back. Mira took a spot beside Adelaide and tossed her long black hair over one shoulder. “I don’t think I would have either.” “Oh, come on, you two! If you really wanted to get me something for my birthday, it would be to get more serious about your studies.

Time’s running out.” “I am serious about them,” Mira said indignantly. “Just not like you are. No one is.” “And we have loads of time,” said Adelaide. “I’m not going to worry yet.” There was no point in chastising her. Adelaide would be Adelaide. I’d learned that six months ago when I’d joined the Glittering Court. Like me, she and the other girls in our house had committed to a year of learning etiquette, politics, music, and what felt like a hundred more subjects.

These grueling days would pay off when we sailed to Adoria in the spring to find upper-class husbands who would elevate our standing in the new colonies. Some days I wished my two roommates would remember that. Of course, I still had to be the best, but I would like to see them be, say, second and third best. Mira did take her studies more seriously than Adelaide and, ever observant, had noted my late return. “Was there some sort of trouble downstairs? It looked like Clara and some others were trying to talk to you after class.” “As if that lot could give me any real trouble,” I scoffed. “They were just sulking because I interviewed Florence about all the eligible bachelors in Cape Triumph.” Adelaide’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. Florence was an alumna of the Glittering Court, and had returned from Adoria last week to tell us about her experiences. “You did what with Florence?” “Remember how she wanted to rest after lunch? She’s apparently gotten used to having a maid help her all the time—which is silly, since she started where we did—so I volunteered to help get her settled in the guest room.

And then I used the chance to get as much information out of her as I could about all the men she knew over there.” Silence and stares met me. Then, Mira said: “Yes. Of course you did.” “I’ve been using what she told me to study up on some of their interests. For example, there’s a prominent banker who’s looking for a wife, and he’s very into lawn tennis. Do you know what that is? I didn’t, though I do now, of course. I’ve been reading about it on my breaks.” “Actually,” said Adelaide, “I do know what it is. But how come you never told us about this?” I shrugged.

“Do you want to know? Do you want to start researching these men?” “No,” they both said. “See, that’s why I didn’t say anything, though I’d gladly share . some . of it with you. But as for everyone else? Not a chance. And that’s what I told Clara and her cronies just now.” “Tamsin, there is no one else like you,” said Adelaide, her voice full of both admiration and disbelief. Mira nodded, her earlier smile back. “And we wouldn’t have it any other way.” “Tease all you want,” I said, “but I’m telling you, something’s going on around here.

Each time Jasper visits—I don’t know. I can just feel it. We have to be ready.” Adelaide was getting bored with the shop talk. “Can we be ready after you open your present and have cake? Please?” I picked up the silver box. “Ah, well, I’m not so hungry just yet, but let’s take a look at this.” When I opened the gift, I found a polished wooden pen with a steel tip. It was nothing fancy, but it was clearly new and well made. “Where in the world did you get this? Neither of you have money to spare.” “Cedric picked it up in the city for us.

After an absurdly rich husband, we knew this was the present you’d want most,” Adelaide explained. “That other pen you were using was barely staying together.” “You’re right. Thank you.” An unexpected wave of emotion swept me. I didn’t need friends to succeed in the Glittering Court, but it was certainly nice to have them. “And thank Cedric too.” “Hopefully you’ll stop slacking on those letters to your family,” said Mira, remarkably straight-faced. “I think I saw you write only three of them yesterday.” “Then you missed one.

I did four.” I looked down at the pen, feeling an ache in my heart at the thought of my family. Everything I did here was for them, but ironically, it came at the cost of being away from them. “The six blessed angels know how I miss them. First birthday I’ve ever been away.” “You’re lucky,” said Adelaide, growing uncharacteristically solemn. “To have a family like that—to be so close to them.” The wistful note in her voice reminded me that she and Mira had lost their families. Maybe mine was far away in Osfro, but at least I had them. At least I’d see them again.

“I am lucky,” I agreed. I set the pen down and walked over to my friends, pulling them into a shared hug. “Because I have a family like this too.” We held each other for a few moments and then Adelaide said, “So. Is it time for cake?” I’d meant it when I told them I felt like something was going to happen. It took almost two months before I was proven right. Before then, life marched along to its normal rhythm at Blue Spring Manor. Instructors came by each week to teach their subjects, rotating between us and three other Glittering Court manors. I studied. I relished Adelaide and Mira.

I tolerated the others. And always, always, I wrote my letters home. One winter afternoon, Jasper Thorn—one of the two brothers who’d founded the Glittering Court—summoned us to the ballroom. That change of routine immediately put me on alert. When we arrived and saw blankets spread out on the floor and caterers setting up around the room, I panicked even more. “I knew it,” I kept telling Mira and Adelaide. “Maybe this is a surprise test. One to get us thinking about the big exams at the end.” Mistress Masterson, who ran the house, wouldn’t tell us anything, and I watched anxiously for Jasper’s arrival in the hopes of getting answers. But the next person who walked through was a man I didn’t know.

I didn’t recognize the couple who came in after him either. Or the woman and four little boys who soon followed. I knew who the next people were, though. With a cry of surprise, I raced across the ballroom. “Merry! Ma! Pa!” In an instant, I was engulfed by people whose hair was the same autumn red as mine. My thirteen-year-old brother, Jonathan, was trying to keep a stoic face but failing. His twin, Olivia, had no such reserve and cried openly as she hugged me. Little Merry, at three years old, had a much simpler reaction to a happy occasion. She squealed with delight and launched herself out of my father’s arms, nearly knocking me over in the process. “Careful there, love,” I said with a laugh.

“These shoes I’m in are meant for dancing, not acrobatics.” She squirmed and peered down at the shoes. “Ooh, look at the buckles! Look at your dress! Look at all of this!” Her green eyes stared around the room, growing wider with each new wonder she saw. “Everything is so beautiful. Is this where we’re going to live? Can we see the rest of it? Can I see the dress from your letter? The one with green flowers?” “Hush, child,” said Ma, her eyes misty. “You aren’t letting her get a word in.” I hugged Merry tighter and showered kisses on her. “That’s fine with me. I hear myself plenty. I can’t believe you’re here! What’s going on?” Pa scratched at the red beard on his chin.

“Not sure. We got the invitation a week ago, and they sent a carriage for us today.” “Well, I don’t care what it’s for, so long as you’re here.” I tucked Merry’s curls behind her ears so I could better look at her beloved face. “I’ve missed you so much. I’ve missed all of you so much.” The room buzzed with happy reunions. Laughter and tears surrounded us as other girls reunited with longed-for families. I spun around, suddenly concerned about Mira and Adelaide, but then I saw them with their own guests. Mira was beaming at an older couple who looked to be Sirminican too, and Adelaide was giving a stiff hug to a boisterous woman in a tacky red dress.

I urged my family over and made introductions. Mira explained that the husband and wife, named Pablo and Fernanda, were fellow refugees. The woman with Adelaide was Sally, a distant aunt. Jasper finally arrived and called us to attention. Though old enough to be my father, he was handsome and always smartly dressed. He was also something of a showman and knew how to sell. “First, let me welcome you here today to Blue Spring Manor.” He held up his hands in a grand gesture. “You are our guests, and we are all at your service. Second, I want to thank you for the sacrifice I know you must have made in the last eight months by lending us your daughters.

But it has been our privilege and our honor to have them, to help them develop the potential you surely knew they had all along. Today you’ll get a glimpse into the world they’ve entered—a world that will be dwarfed by the riches and splendor they’ll get when they marry in Adoria.” When we’d joined the Glittering Court, we’d done it with the understanding that we couldn’t visit our families back in Osfro, and they couldn’t visit us here. I’d had to accept the dreary prospect that I could very well be facing two years without seeing them. I’d long hoped for a reunion of this type but never dreamed it would happen. So, that vigilant, always planning part of me warned that something like this wasn’t being done as a random act of generosity. I shelved those concerns—for now. Just this once, it felt good to relax my guard and be with these people I loved. Jasper urged us all to get food, and we brought it to the blankets, eating picnic-style. Merry, never leaving my lap, found the setup delightful and chattered on about it and any other thoughts that came to her mind.

I listened contentedly, nearly bursting with joy. The others got a chance to share their stories too, the twins telling me about school, and Pa describing a building project he’d just been hired onto. Ma, at one point, exclaimed, “Look at your hands! You’ll never be able to do a load of clothes again.” I felt a flush of pleasure. I’d worked with her for years washing laundry for households throughout the city. It had taken a lot of care at Blue Spring to repair the damage of soap and lye, and while my hands weren’t perfect yet, they’d improved by leaps and bounds. “Not much longer and you’ll be relaxing your hands too,” I told Ma after we ate. “I’ll make sure of it. I wish I could do something about it now. I hate the thought of you shouldering most of the workload.

” She tsked. “Don’t give it a second thought. You have better things to focus on today.” Merry, head leaning against my chest, said, “We all love and miss you so much. But I love and miss you the most.” The poignancy of her words was underscored with a challenge as she glanced at the rest of our family, daring them to say otherwise. I held her tighter. “I believe it, sweet one. I believe it.” And yet, as much as I reveled in every moment of being with her and the others, I was always conscious that it would have to end.

At some point, they would be taken away from me again. I smiled, laughed, and gazed at their beloved faces while my dread grew and grew. Nausea stirred in the pit of my stomach; my hands sweated as I held on to Merry. When Jasper at last called an end to the gathering, I felt as though I was going to throw up. Merry noted the signs of departure, like people gathering their things and exchanging hugs. She turned to me in a panic. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you.” “I wish you could, love.” My voice cracked.

“You have no idea how much I wish you could.” “Then can you come back with us?” “No. I have to stay here a little longer and finish my studies. But I’ll keep writing every day. Twice a day, if I can. And before long, I’ll see you all again in Adoria, and we’ll live in a fine house—finer than this—with all the things you could ever want.” Merry’s lip quivered a bit. “Why can’t we just live in this one?” “Livvy, Jon,” said Ma loudly, “they haven’t put all the food away yet. Why don’t you take Merry over there and pick some sweets for the trip back? You’ll have plenty of time for goodbyes.” Merry still looked troubled but allowed Olivia to take her from me.

Pa glanced between them and Ma and, after a moment’s deliberation, went over to the food too. “Six, child,” said Ma. “You look ready to faint. Come sit down.” I shook my head frantically and clutched her arm. “I can’t do it. I can’t be away from her again.” “Yes you can.” Ma’s gaze was steady and clear as she patted my hand. “You’ve already come so far.

You can’t turn back after all you’ve done.” “I want to leave. I’m going home with you. Right now.” “Tamsy—” “Ma, how can I do this?” I hissed, trying to hide my hysteria from others. “Eight months I’ve been away already. Eight months, almost nine! And it could very well be another year by the time you’re able to sail over. It’s practically half her life!” “You’re with us all the time. She talks about you constantly, and we read your letters every day. We reread them.

Hush,” she added, seeing me about to protest. Her voice lowered to almost a whisper. “And listen. I was going to write you, but you should know now. It won’t be a year. It’ll be six months.” “W-what??” “You remember that the Wilsons were planning on coming to Adoria?” I frowned, unsure how our neighbors fit into my breakdown. “Yes . ” “Well, Merry’s coming with them. Her coughing spells were light this autumn, so we didn’t need to buy as much medicine.

It let us build up a nice bit of gold, enough to buy her a ticket! She’ll be in Cape Triumph with the Wilsons in six months.” I stopped shaking. “Are you serious? That’s when I’ll arrive!” “Yes. I know you won’t have things settled yet, but I’m sure it won’t take long—not for you. The Wilsons have a lead to work in the south but will stay in Cape Triumph a few weeks to look after her.” A fledgling hope started to rise in me, but too many other fears dragged it down. “But the money! If she needs the medicine—” “She has plenty. We had a lucky streak. You know I wouldn’t do anything rash, and you know the Wilsons are like our own blood. They’ll take good care of her.

” I stared off at the rest of my family by the food table. “It’s still six months.” “Six months is less than a year. For the price of, what, not even a year and a half, you’ve ensured all the years of her life will be secure. And yours.” “And yours,” I said in a small voice. “I’ll send for you too.” Ma wiped at her glimmering eyes. “I know you will, Tamsy. Just get by a little longer.

You’ve never backed down in your life, and I know you won’t now, my girl. Did you find out what you needed to know?” With great effort, I attempted to shift to business. “Yes. There was a girl here— Florence—who’s pretty thick with Cape Triumph high society. She told me all about the men who’d been available when she was there, and it matched up with what Esme had said. I’ve memorized everything about them—and there are several who are pretty openminded.” “Good. You’ll have them all charmed in no time, I’m sure.” “I’m glad one of us is.” Pa and the others were returning, and the sight of them made all the emotion swell up in me.

“Some days, Ma, I’m just so worried . ” “Don’t be,” she said, her voice affectionate but firm. “Remember what you promised yourself: no defeat. Not ever again.” Only the others’ return kept me from choking up again. Jonathan and Olivia hugged me, and Merry climbed back up into my arms. Spots of pink icing showed on her face. “What’s this?” I rubbed some of it away. “I thought you were just getting something for the ride back to the city.” Merry grinned, showing her one dimple.

“There were so many, though.” “Oh, well, I suppose it’s all right then.” I pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Be a good girl. And the rest of you be good too. No skipping school, Livvy.” Olivia made a face. “I only do it on days Ma needs extra help.” “You won’t need to do it much longer. A year from now, you’ll go to the best school in Adoria.

And you’ll have a private drawing instructor.” I ran a hand over Merry’s hair as she licked her fingers. “And you, love, I’ll be seeing even sooner than that. You’ve been so patient. Can you do it just a little longer?” Time was a tricky concept at her age. Six minutes, six months, and six years all ran together. Her little face started to darken again, but then she gave a brave nod. “As long as you send more letters. And promise not to leave anymore.” I started trembling once more.

“No. We’ll never be apart again, I swear it.” Seeing my resolve falter, Ma touched my cheek. “I had my doubts about this Glittering Court, but I know now that you did the right thing. Seeing you like this, such a proper young lady . ” She cleared her throat. “Well. It’s clear this is what you were meant for. This and more.” “We’re all meant for more.

And we’ll all have it,” I told her fiercely. Another call sounded, urging the guests to finish goodbyes. “I should go get you the latest letters. I have a whole bundle I haven’t mailed. But spread them out so you have something new to read each day.” I handed Merry to Pa and then fetched the letters from my room. I peered at myself in the mirror as I left and was pleased to see how calm I looked. No trace of my distress, no sign that I was crumbling inside. But as soon as they were gone—after many, many more hugs and kisses—I couldn’t maintain the façade. My family walked out the front door, and I hurried back upstairs, not caring that I had to push my way through some of the other lingering guests.

I burst into my room and went to my bed, burying my face in my hands. A couple of minutes later, Adelaide slipped in. Quickly, I rubbed my face on my sleeve. “I’m fine,” I told her when she sat beside me. “It’s okay to be homesick. You don’t have to be ashamed about missing them.” “I’m not ashamed . but I can’t let them—the others—see me like this. I can’t show weakness.” Her blue eyes brimmed with compassion.

“Loving your family isn’t weakness.” I thought again about how she didn’t have any family—well, except for that unexpected aunt. I was beyond lucky. And now I had to wait only six months for Merry! I tried to tell myself that, as Adelaide continued her attempts to console me, but the pain was too fresh to let go just yet. At one point, I blurted out, “If you only knew what I had on the line—” “Then tell me,” Adelaide said urgently. “Tell me, and maybe I can help you.” Her words elicited a whole new ache within me. “No. If you knew, you’d never look at me the same.” “You’re my friend.

Nothing’s going to change how I feel about you.” The temptation was overwhelming. I wanted to tell her and Mira both, to let out all the pent-up emotion that had tormented me these long months. And I wanted to clear the space between us. I wasn’t lying to my friends, but I wasn’t telling them the entire truth either. But I couldn’t. The secret I carried was too powerful, too dangerous. One hint of my secret getting out, even accidentally, could ruin everything in Adoria. “I can’t,” I told Adelaide. “I can’t risk it.

” She nodded, her smile gentle. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But I’m always here. You know I am.” “I know.” The door was suddenly flung open, and Mira rushed in. “Everyone’s gone—the families. Jasper’s calling for all of us to assemble back in the ballroom.” I jumped up.

My earlier suspicions returned and—for now—I set aside my emotions. I had to be sharp. I had to be ready. “I knew it,” I told them. “I knew something was happening.” And I was right. When the whole household was gathered downstairs, Jasper delivered an announcement that turned our worlds upside down. “I hope you’re all excited about Adoria, because we’re going there—two months earlier than planned.” The news sent us reeling, and our composure dissolved into whispers and speculation. Two months early! That meant a departure in just over one month.

Adoria, which had always been spoken of like some far-off fairytale land, was suddenly right at hand. When we’d quieted, Jasper went on: “I know this change in plans is unexpected. But really, it’s a reflection of your outstanding progress that we feel confident in bringing you to Adoria early. In just a couple of months, you’ll be in a whole new world—adored and coveted like the jewels you are.” My heart pounded as he delved into details and explained how we’d be taking exams early too—within the next few weeks. The others gasped, but I knew I could pull it off. It’d mean some sleepless nights and frantic days, but that would have happened regardless of when we took exams. A sudden and thrilling realization struck me. Going to Adoria early meant I’d arrive ahead of Merry. I could secure a husband in that time and have a household ready to go.

Just like that, my earlier uncertainty vanished. My passion and focus were renewed. I was going to blaze through these exams and have my pick of prominent suitors in Adoria. And everything was going to be perfect when my daughter arrived.

.

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