Before this day, marriage had been a vague concept to Coralline, something in the distance, like the clouds in the sky. Now, she felt as though the clouds had descended suddenly upon her and struck her with lightning. Her mind churning, she considered the changes to her life that would be wrought by marriage. Her name would change, for one; she would go from Coralline Costaria to Coralline Elnath—the new name just didn’t have a ring to it. More importantly, she would no longer live in this home with her parents and little brother, but would live with Ecklon and his parents in the Mansion—the largest home in Urchin Grove. But she didn’t want to live in the Mansion.
“Cora?” said Ecklon.
His hand trembled under the tellin shell, Coralline noticed through her haze. It was that slight movement that shook her; it told her that, for the first time since she’d known him, he was nervous.
She thought back to the day last week when she’d been sick with a cold. She hadn’t told Ecklon, and she still didn’t know how he’d learned it, but he’d come knocking at her door with a bowl of buttonweed. “How did you know I was sick?” she’d asked. “I’m a detective—it’s my job to know,” he’d said. “Well, I’m a healer,” she’d countered, “and it’s my job to not make you sick.” His eyes glinting, he’d wrapped his arms around her waist. In contrast to her words, her body had melted against his, and her fingers had tangled in his hair. “I wouldn’t care if I was sick every day as long as I was with you,” he’d said, and given her a long, languorous kiss.
What was she thinking? Did she have dementia like her patient Mola? This was Ecklon, proposing to her—Ecklon, courageous and kind—Ecklon, as her mother often reminded her, the most eligible bachelor in the village of Urchin Grove. She would be fortunate to marry him. His proposal was a surprise, that was all, and she hated surprises.
“Yes,” Coralline said, raising her blue-green eyes to his. Then, more emphatically, “Yes.”
Ecklon smiled at her, then at each of her parents. They beamed back at him. Coralline found that, like a star, his smile could swing any satellite into orbit, even her mother and father, who otherwise rotated in opposite directions.
The rose petal tellin was strung on a translucent vine, and Ecklon held it out toward Coralline so he could clasp it around her neck. She turned away from him, grateful to have a moment without her face in full view. His fingers brushed her shoulder blades as they closed the clasp at the nape of her neck. The click of the clasp made her think of handcuffs, and her heart pounded in her ears. Turning back to face the table, keeping her gaze down, Coralline raised the rose petal tellin off her collarbone and ran her index finger over its surface, back and forth. The shell’s texture was smooth, its ridges gentle—as their relationship had been.
When Coralline looked back at Ecklon, she found that he had heaped dulse onto his plate, as had her mother and father. Finally, it was time to eat, but, though Coralline was hungry, she had no more appetite for the fronds she otherwise loved. She continued to examine the rose petal tellin, as if it would show her the future.
Suddenly, a tremor distilled into the living room through the window, its pressure that of a drumbeat, its vibrations throbbing through the stone of the house and pulsing through Coralline’s very marrow. A stone-stick slipped out of her father’s hand. It skittered slowly toward Coralline’s tailfin, but she did not dare retrieve it for him.
Her parents and Ecklon sat still and stiff—the standard reaction to passing ships, in order to reduce the possibility of detection—but Coralline clutched the rim of the dining table. Goosebumps climbed from her wrists to her shoulders, and her stomach clawed at itself. She longed to hide under the table, but it would look cowardly. In an effort to distract herself from her terror of the danger above, she started counting her breaths. But she’d managed to count only to five, when the grasp of her fingers started to loosen, and her head started to feel as light and bouncy as plankton. She was beginning to feel faint; it happened to her often. Her father said it was because she did not take the time to eat adequately; her mother said that fainting occasionally was fine, so long as she remained thin.
Coralline tried to anchor her thoughts onto something, for it would help her remain conscious. Her glance fell on her father’s right arm.
It was a narrowing rod that culminated not in a hand, but a bony swelling of a wrist. There was a filmy softness to the skin of the wrist, like that of a newborn; though her father was fifty years old, the skin over his stump was just months old. Coralline shuddered to remember the day his hand had been severed: His wrist had been a mangled mess of bone and sinew, blood spurting out of it like the ink of an octopus. Her mother called it his haccident—an abbreviation for “hand accident”—but Coralline considered the term misleading (though she’d grudgingly come to use it as well). What happened to her father had not been an accident: Ocean Dominion, its ships ever-present on the waters, had planted dynamite in a coral reef in Urchin Grove, in order to kill and collect schools of fish.
Coralline’s father, a coral connoisseur, had been studying the reef with his microscope. He’d made a note on his parchment-pad that coral polyps, the tiny, soft-bodied organisms whose exoskeleton formed the reef, were finding it difficult to absorb calcium carbonate from the waters, due to ocean acidification. When he’d looked up from his parchment-pad, he’d spotted dynamite tucked in a crevice of the reef. Immediately, he’d inserted his hand into the crevice to extract it. He’d managed to wrest the dynamite out, and had raised his arm to hurl it away, but it had exploded, taking his hand with it.
Coralline’s mother had told him he should have bolted the scene instead of risking his hand and life.
“My hand exploded, so the reef wouldn’t,” Trochid had replied. “I would do it again, Abalone.”
“Well, I don’t want a handless husband!” she’d snapped, amber-gold eyes flaming. “And if you have such poor judgment, I must insist you retire, Trochid.”
Applying steady pressure over the next days like a tightly bound tourniquet, Abalone had compelled him to resign from his role in the Under-Ministry of Coral Conservation. In his retirement, he had become a shadow of his former self, in Coralline’s opinion. He drifted aimlessly through the living room in the early hours like a ghost. His desk, previously stacked with books like The Animated Lives of Anemones and Love of Limestone, now sat empty, except for one volume: Handling a Difficult Adjustment to Retirement.
Coralline looked at her father’s stone-stick on the floor. It divided into two, then three, until it looked like an array of fingers. Her head started to loll, but, just then, the tremors in the waters ended. The ship had passed. Her daze dissipated slowly… Once she was mentally steady again, she bent at the waist, collected the stone-stick, and handed it to her father. He took it, but, rather than eat with it, he set it to the side of his plate. He clasped his left hand around his stump, as though his wrist throbbed with a phantom pain in proximity to the phantoms on the waters.
“Humans are a menace,” Trochid said. “Our only solace is that they cannot disrupt our lives any more than they already do.”
“Why not?” Coralline asked.
“Because they’re fire, and we’re water. Fire vaporizes water, and water vanquishes fire. The two can never truly meet.”