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House of Shadows

By´╝ÜRachel Neumeier


In a city of gray stone and mist, between the steep rain-swept mountains and the sea, there lived a merchant with his eight daughters. The merchant’s wife had died bearing the eighth daughter and so the girls had raised one another, the elder ones looking after the younger. The merchant was not wealthy, having eight daughters to support, but neither was he poor. He had a tall narrow house at the edge of the city, near his stone yard where he dealt in the blue slate and hard granite of the mountains and in imported white limestone and marble. His house had glass windows, tile floors, and a long gallery along the back where there was room for eight beds for his daughters.

The eldest of his daughters was named Ananda. Ananda was nineteen years old, with chestnut hair and pretty manners. She was not precisely engaged, but it was generally accepted that the second son of a merchant who dealt in fine cloth meant to offer for her soon, and it was also generally understood that she would assent. The youngest daughter, Liaska, was nine and as bright and impish as a puppy; she romped through her days and made her sisters and her father laugh with her mischief. In between were Karah and Enelle and Nemienne and Tana and Miande and Jehenne.

Gentle Karah, loveliest of all the sisters, mothered the younger girls. They adored her, and only Karah could calm Liaska on her more rambunctious days. Practical Enelle, with their father’s broad cheekbones and their lost mother’s gray eyes, kept the accounts for both the household and their father’s business. Tana, serious and grave even as a child, made sure the house was always neat. Lighthearted Miande sang as she went about the kitchen tasks, and made delicate pastries filled with cream and smooth sauces that never had lumps. Jehenne learned her letters early and found, even when quite young, that she had a feel for both graceful lettering and graceful phrases.

Nemienne, neither one of the eldest nor one of the youngest, neither the most beautiful nor the plainest of the daughters, drifted through her days. Her attention was likely to be caught at any moment by the sudden glancing of light across slate rooftops, or by the tangled whisper of the breeze that slid through the maze of city streets on its way to or from the sea. Though Nemienne baffled her father and puzzled her sisters, her quiet created a stillness otherwise rare in their crowded house.

For her part, Nemienne could not understand how her sisters did not see the strange slant into which light sometimes fell, as though it were falling into the world from a place not quite congruent. She didn’t understand how they could fail to hear the way every drop of falling rain sometimes struck the cobbles with the pure ringing sound of a little bell, or the odd tones that sometimes echoed behind the sound of the wind to create a breathy, half-heard music pitched to the loneliness at the heart of the bustling city.

Even at home, Nemienne couldn’t seem to keep her mind on letters of account or business—but then Enelle was the one who was interested in the prices of stone. Nor could Nemienne be trusted to take bread out of the oven before it burned—and anyway, Miande made much better bread. And when Nemienne went to the market, she seldom came back with what she had been asked to buy, returning instead with a flowering sprig she’d found growing out of a crumbling wall, or humming over and over three notes of a song she’d heard a street musician play. When sent to even the nearest noodle shop, just down the street and around the corner from the house, Nemienne sometimes got lost. She would find herself inexplicably walking down a street with no idea where she might be, so she had to ask strangers for the way home. But then, Tana always struck the best bargains in the market and the shops, so there was seldom a need for Nemienne to go on such errands.

The merchant looked proudly at Ananda, who would surely be happily wed by the turning of the year. He treasured Karah and would not look for a possible match for her even though she was nearly seventeen, for she was his favorite daughter—but then Karah was so sweet and good that she was everyone’s favorite, so no one minded that she was their father’s favorite, too. Practical Enelle was his greatest help in his business affairs; he called her his little business manager and joked that he should make his stone yard over into a partnership with her.

The merchant depended on Tana and Miande when he had his business associates to his home for a dinner, and always the dinners ran smoothly and comfortably, so that even the wealthiest merchants, who had wives and keimiso and children of their own, said they wished they had such a houseful of pretty and accomplished daughters. The merchant beamed smugly. He never told them that the invitations that brought them to his house had usually been written by Jehenne, whose hand was smoother than his. And on quiet family evenings, Liaska set her father and all her sisters laughing with her clever puppets, which she used in wickedly accurate mimicry of her father’s associates.