After her teenaged daughter had retired to bed, Rosetta Melki curled up on a lounge chair to re-read the letter from a solicitor in New Zealand. A smooth sweep of her dark-brown hair obscured the page. She pushed the wayward strand behind her shoulder and pored over the subject line, half-listening to the rhythm of the rain as it pelted against the bungalow’s lead-lit windows amidst flickers of playful lightning.
Robert Mark Bentley, a newly discovered half-brother. What would Robert be like? Would he be musical, like she was and have the same olive-toned skin? Maybe he’d be artistic like Izzie, and a snowy-skinned redhead as well, although Rosetta had always attributed Izzie’s colouring to her ex. A typical Scot in appearance was Angus. Whether the titian was peppered with grey these days wasn’t of much interest to Rosetta. Anyone capable of deserting a daughter and shirking the costs of child-raising was…but why think of Angus at a time like this? The letter had said she had a brother, a blood relative of her own.
She smoothed a hand over the crisp ivory page. The letter had provided her with another gift. The name of her mother.
According to our records, you are the biological half-sibling of our client and biological daughter of the late Mrs Daniela Sophia Bentley.
Daniela, the mother she’d never known, benevolent but not quite real, the smiling and receptive half of imagined conversations. Tonight those conjured talks ended in the words ‘I’m sorry.’ Rosetta was sorry she’d not made greater efforts to find her, sorry her mother’s life had ended so early, sorry that she couldn’t mend the past.
The buzzy anticipation of making an international call the next morning and speaking to Robert for the very first time had meant she’d absent-mindedly made tea without boiling the kettle, only noticing the coldness of it after a deep-in-thought sip. Would he be amenable to meeting her if she booked a flight to New Zealand? The word family was no longer an emotive word. ‘Sibling’ was a pseudonym for ‘bully.’ Sticking up for herself and others was never too much of a problem, but finding Robert Bentley to be just as aggressive as her foster brothers and sister would be a terrible disappointment. Rosetta took another sip of cold tea and smiled at the melodramatic mood she’d slipped into. The guy didn’t have to match her jaundiced expectations.
‘Another parent,’ she whispered, shaking her head. ‘I’ve lost another.’ A different feeling, of course, to losing Mama and Baba. The Greek couple’s passing had caused her to selfishly resent their desertion, but she’d been angry more with herself than with anyone else for not being a big enough reason to keep them here. Her Baba had been her one-man support team, and Mama...well, Mama had been a grump. Good-hearted, though, beneath all those crotchety words, and an ace with babies and toddlers, her love of them a major motivator for adopting newly born Rosetta so willingly. She’d imparted a lot of valuable knowledge when Izzie arrived in the world. The doting grandmother. A picture of practical nurturance.
Rosetta was pleased to settle down to sleep. She put to rest her desire for tomorrow to hurry up and arrive, along with worries concerning the house, the big-bellied cat and the prospect of phoning Wall Street Golden Boy aspirant Adam Harrow to cancel Saturday’s date, then submitted to an unusually restless slumber.
She dreamed she was diving through coral; frolicking with seals, delighting in the weightlessness of a world free of frenzy. She floated past a school of seahorses that bobbed through the water’s turquoise haze like dewy-eyed kindergarten kids locked in an obedient march. She curled into a languid somersault and was stunned to find that her legs were no longer visible. In their place was a dolphin’s tail, dappled with the fragments of a muted sunbeam.
And then she was back on land, running through the same magnificent forest that she and book-club buddy Royston had dreamt of previously, the forest described in Lillibridge’s Our True Ancient History. The colours of the trees were fiery. Russet and yellow and crimson-red leaves fluttered about her. As well as the fiery tones were startling colours normally never seen in foliage. Electric blue. Lime. A deep hot-pink. A majestic night sky the colour of plums. The air was made Christmassy with the fragrance of pine needles. Added to that was the comforting aroma of smoke and hazelnuts.
She was running towards the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. He had the rippling physique of an athlete, skin that was golden, and calm eyes that were greenly blue. And feathered angel wings, which, rather than white, were a deep, dark brown. She went to throw her arms about the man, but he dissolved into the atmosphere as though he’d never been there at all. In his place was an eagle. The eagle blinked. To the sound of Rosetta’s screams, the eagle turned to stone.
All that remained was a gold wedding band looped like a bangle around the stone eagle’s leg. There came the sound of singers. Their voices were peculiar; screeching yet powerfully mesmeric. They chanted the words We end your joy.
The wedding band lit up as though struck by lightning and a foreboding voice shouted, ‘All things golden!’
The dream tumbled into a memory of Matthew Weissler—at the bar Adam had taken her to—as he nodded across at his wife on the purple lounge. Again she felt the sudden intake of breath at discovering Matthew wasn’t single as imagined. Looked down at his left hand where a golden ring glinted and wondered why she hadn’t taken note of it earlier. And then Dette Weissler’s voice, from her phone call delivering Rosetta’s interview result, replayed repeatedly in echoes. You weren’t successful.
A car by the beach refusing to start.
The laundry intruder's taloned fingers clawing at the windscreen.
Icy, helpless terror.
Rosetta woke up shivering. She wasn’t the only one to awaken with chills that morning. At the breakfast table, Izzie said, ‘I was freezing when I woke up. Shivering all over.’ The sixteen-year-old’s face was damp with perspiration and an unhealthy shade of scarlet. ‘But now it’s boiling. Like summer.’ By the time she was buttering her toast, she said, ‘I’m freezing! Climate change sucks.’
‘Honey, I think you might have a fever.’ Rosetta retrieved from their first aid box a thermometer and packet of painkillers. Izzie’s temperature was sky-high. She would not be attending school. Rosetta gave her two aspirins—the last in the packet—and a hot lemon drink, then sent her to bed before sprinting down the hallway to answer the meeping phone.
‘Hey, Fornighter.’ Craig. Friday Fortnight book-club regular and the friend whose career inspired Rosetta to take on the law degree she was yet to finish. Calling from Alice Springs on a mobile that kept cutting out. All Rosetta could hear was, ‘Incredible...These crystals we discovered are...’
‘Crystals? I didn’t know you were into crystals all that much.’
‘...Really amazing. We’ve started mining them. We’ve been...’
‘A mine? A crystals mine? Sounds bizarre. Ooh, is this to do with that “secret project” of yours?’
Several bouts of soft, staccato chuckling emanated from the receiver. ‘Yup. I didn’t want to tell...and...off to Alice Springs again...drop my car across to you in the morn...A guy was...and his doc couldn’t believe it either! How many people get to be cured of emphysema? Mining’s now in progress. Company’s nearly up-and-run...Can you hear me? Think my phone’s out-of-range.’
‘I can hear you okay, Craig, but you’re breaking up.’
‘Slightly. Looking forward to the loan of that gorgeous car of yours.’
‘Rosetta, can you hear me?’ The call cut out.
Rosetta tried calling Craig back, but his phone had switched itself off.
* * * *
Izzie Redding woke from a fevered sleep. She wanted to be at school. Instead she was confined to her room with nothing to listen to but the syrupy chip-chip-chireeee of a bird in the magnolia tree and nothing to look at but the bungalow’s whirly ceiling cornices.
Dozing some more would have eased the aches, but an edgy restlessness kept Izzie conscious. It didn’t help that her mind was circling around Glorion. She’d already known he lived in Brighton-Le-Sands but could never have imagined his home would be a narrow beachside shed or that he’d cook her a zesty birthday dinner, and without the need for electricity or gas.
Izzie checked her phone for texts. Apart from Jandy, Marla, Sara, Andrine and Rella, no-one from school had replied. She assessed the picture on the corkboard she’d sketched not so long ago, of the sun and moon locked in a kiss. She would re-do it one of these days, with brighter colours. Glorion’s art was more vibrant than hers. His golden girl, silver boy painting was awash with the boldest of hues, both primary and pearlescent. Adahmos and Eid he called it, his very own portrayal of book characters he believed had existed in real life. It made sense, Izzie supposed. Why would the author name his book Our True Ancient History if it wasn’t true? And how bizarre was it that Glorion voiced an interest in that particular book? He even knew of Rosetta’s Lillibridge site. ‘Rosetta Melki is your mother?’ he’d said. ‘But your surname’s Redding!’ and she’d had to explain that her mother returned to her maiden name after divorce.
Propping herself up against the pillow, Izzie eyed the dark-blue book-club novel on her bedside table, the edition her mother had borrowed from Royston. She’d loved Glorion’s account of the book. She didn’t doubt Adahmos and Eid were real people once, but Glorion’s belief in the existence of sprites and a power-hungry race obsessed with gold had seemed way too way out. By the time she’d left for home, though, Izzie had wondered more about the theory. Even wondered why Glorion knew so much about that apparent timeframe. Modern science deemed time-travel impossible, and yet…
Guess I’m not too giddy with this cold-virus to read, she thought.
She was eager to look over a few pages, if only to check that Glorion’s retelling of the story was right.
A thin streak of light shone on the corkboard, setting aglow her sketch of a pink gem encased in lunar-gilt metal. She paused to remember the silver-pink crystal Glorion carried around, which appeared to have powers she couldn’t explain. Izzie had never seen anything like that at the crystals shop her mother had worked at. None were known to generate the effects of electricity and gas. When she’d ribbed Glorion about it, he’d cosied-up on the couch and kissed her.
Izzie floated for a while in the memory of Glorion’s kiss. It’s only you, Izzie, he’d said. I only like you.
She grasped the cloth-covered novel with its tarnished title and pressed it open. Its yellow-edged pages held the familiar woodsy fragrance of antique books. Her eyes skimmed over the first page.
<><> <><><> <><>
Our True Ancient History
<><> A tale from the People of the Sea <><>
Retold by Reverend Edward Lillibridge
In the Year of Our Lord, Seventeen-Seventy-one
<><> <><><> <><>
Izzie turned to a random chapter, Chapter XLII, which began with the nocturnal Norwegian elf named Pieter dazzled by sunbeams streaming into a gilded room.
Realising she needed some sun herself to sharpen the faded words, Izzie opened the curtains behind her aching head, settled comfortably against the pillows and began to read…
<><> XLII <><>
‘Quite handsome, if it weren’t for his brown irises.’ The words hung ponderously in the stillness.
Piercing daylight stabbed at Pieter’s half-closed eyes. He glimpsed the gleam of a gold ceiling etched with rose garlands and sun-faces.
‘Ah, you are conscious now, Your Highness.’ A servant woman curtsied, then exited the room.
Swimming through Pieter’s bleared vision was a sallow face with cold eyes and the thinnest of smiles. A man of Gold’s Kin, cloaked in fabric embellished with emeralds and amethysts, was towering imperiously over him. Rings on his nobbled fingers flashed in silver-white and azure bursts. From his neck hung a grotesque medallion representing the pterodactyl god, Grudas, a pendant Eidred had told him was only ever worn by the empire’s solens. ‘Highness,’ he said. ‘It is fortunate you survived the shipwreck. My men have salvaged some of the treasures you brought ashore in your ship’s life boat.’
Vague memories filtered back to Pieter…a potion tasting of forest fruits and bitter fern, dozing drunkenly on damp sand, his ankles nudged by waves...callous hands dragging him along a beach...cries of ‘Enemy! Shipwrecked invader! Kill him!’
The recollection of another voice, deep and commanding, returned to him. ‘Release him at once. Do you wish to be clapped in irons? This is the Solen’s most honoured guest: Prince Adahmos of Ehypte.’
He’d felt a feathered wing brush against his face...had heard the gallop of hooves...and then he’d been overcome by a stifling blackness.
The Solen continued. ‘My vizier will explain what has happened. I expect to see you at the midday banquet tomorrow. It is to be held in your honour.’
‘Er...Sire, I thank you. I …’
The Solen swept out of the room.
Another man of Gold’s Kin was soon before Pieter, explaining in a hurried, disinterested way that he had been discovered crazed with fever in the shallows of the Grudellan Sea. ‘You will meet the Solen’s daughter at the banquet tomorrow. Eidred of Grudella has all the qualities of a humble and obedient wife and is renowned throughout the land for her delicate beauty.’
Grateful now that Storlem’s courage and Orahney’s magic had protected him, that they’d had no intention of betrayal as he’d initially concluded, Pieter waved a careless hand in the air. ‘I will judge her worthiness and decide for myself. You are dismissed.’ The unfamiliar words had burst mechanically from Pieter’s mouth. Orahney’s potion had caused him to be arrogant!
The vizier bowed three times and backed out of the chamber.
A fanfare celebrating the princely visit preceded Pieter’s first royal dinner: one hundred trumpeters upon a scarlet carpet, and a procession of fire-eaters, acrobatic jesters and pastel-hued forest unicorns, which, tragically, were kept imprisoned, locked into gilded cages beyond the pyramids.
And Eidred’s body-king father, a man who subscribed to the illusion that he, as Solen of Grudella, was more important than anyone of lesser riches, a man who thought nothing of having his former wives murdered upon giving birth to daughters and not sons, greeted Pieter magnanimously, as he would a favourite nephew. Adahmos of Ehypte was known throughout the empire to be exceedingly affluent, in possession of a great deal more land than the Solen. The prince’s fondness for Eidred of Grudella was to be encouraged. Like wheat basking in the benign rays of Sol, Adahmos was to be rewarded warmly by the Solen when interest was shown in the princess.
Their restriction in proximity was maddening in the extreme for Pieter. He and Eidred were not permitted to touch while courting, not even to clasp hands in greeting. Where once Eidred graced him with her presence on returning from schooling each day, now it was only at banquets that he’d got to speak with and look upon her. On the Sun’s Days he was granted a walk around the grounds with his cherished lady, only to return to a cold, gold-filled room, aching for when next they would meet, and on those all-too-seldom saunters they were never completely alone. Two servants trailed behind them. Behind the servants, two of the Solen’s eagle-winged guards.
Once Pieter officially proposed marriage, the Solen requested he visit Soothsayer Zemelda to hear how he might amass greater amounts of gold. Orahney certainly shared secrets with Pieter, but of quite a different nature. When Pieter discovered how deftly the autumn faerie had toiled in ensuring he and his beloved remained together safely, he was humbled with gratitude.
<><> <><><> <><>
Feeling sleepy once more, Izzie set Our True Ancient History aside, wondering where Glorion was now. She could easily relate to Lillibridge’s reference in that chapter to a restriction in proximity causing madness.
The bird in the magnolia tree began on another round of its chip-chip-chiree song, the shadow of its open-beak and scallop-edged feathers flickering gracefully across Izzie’s quilt cover. Reminded of the feathery she-oaks she’d seen when emerging from the cavern beneath Glorion’s boatshed, Izzie shrugged. Who had tried to break in? Who was Glorion escaping? She shook her head. What he’d told her just didn’t add up. How could a respectable high-school student become a target for SAPO, the Swedish secret police? And Glorion wasn’t a Swede. Or was he? The rumour sweeping the school that he faked his Dutch accent mightn’t have been so crazy after all.
Something was not as it seemed. Izzie nestled back into the bed, fatigued by the woozy, prickly, clammy effect of her cold. How could she be sure that the guy she was head-over-heels for was actually who he said he was? Maybe Glorion was just a dreamy product of her imagination, someone too good to be true.
Sent:..........5 May 2008
Please reply as soon as you get this email. Today at school was mad. Two men, a reporter and a cameraman from The Sydney Telegraph hung around outside the gates and called out to some of the Year Tens that they needed to speak to friends of Glorion Osterhoudt.
Tyson told them he’d last seen him yesterday afternoon. Glorion was at his place watching the soccer and he told Tyson he was going to your birthday picnic. (Tyson couldn’t go ’cos he got a respiratory virus—he wasn’t ignoring us or anything). Around 5 p.m. Glorion said he’d join your party if it was still going and mumbled something about visiting the supermarket first to get you chocolates and flowers. Tyson warned him that you might have gone home, that this wasn’t Europe where people partied hard. You’re so lucky no buses were at the depot when you went to leave. You and Glorion would never have met up!
It was so exciting talking to everyone at school today about the group text you sent us last night. We all reckon you’re a legend! Like I said in my reply, you just happened to choose the hottest guy in Year Ten.
What’s with you dodging school on the most important day of your life? If you haven’t seen the latest reports on Internet News, do it now. Since you haven’t answered any of my calls or texts, I’m thinking it’s possible you’re in bed sick, totally unaware of the notoriety you’re gaining throughout Australia and probably the world! If this is the case, I’ll give you a rundown, just so you don’t totally freak out when you see/hear the news. There’s so much I want to talk to you about, but here’s the more important stuff, and, I think, the most mindblowing information either of us will ever receive in our whole lives.
Glorion Osterhoudt is....