“Mother, Crone, Maiden”

Knowing the future is not about knowing the future. It’s about knowing which path to take.

Ilven comes from a family of Saints—future-tellers—but she knows her father didn’t waste more than a few grains of the precious drug scriv to see her fate. Now she’s facing an arranged marriage to a man she’s never met. So, inhaling stolen scriv, she reads three possible futures for herself, searching for the path that will lead to her heart’s desire.

This evening, for your reading pleasure, we have a tasty treat from our friends at Tor.com: “Mother, Crone, Maiden,” a short-story prequel to When the Sea Is Rising Red, Cat Hellisen’s forthcoming YA fantasy novel. Enjoy!

Illustration by Goni Montes

“Seeing into the future is not a straight line. You are given the choice of a hundred paths through a treacherous swamp. Some will lead you safely onwards, others drown you, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which,” my mother says.

I’m sitting at a polished wooden desk in our family library, surrounded by the dusty rustling of knowledge. My mother has been explaining these dry facts at me for the entire afternoon. I press the point of my quill into the wood, and watch the split climb up the shaft.

House Malker has always been noted for its excess of Saints, and our lives are dictated by omens and Visions. We are ruled by our reliance on the drug scriv, the gateway to our power. Scriv, more precious than any metal or jewel or life. Without it, we are nothing. There is never enough, and there is certainly never enough to waste more than a few grains on the future of a girl.

Were I a boy, my father would have overseen my education and had me tutored by the best of the university’s learned men. Instead, I am learning to tell the future from my mother.

She’s still talking, her voice as distant and meaningless as the screeching of the sea mews over the cliffs near our mansion. “For an important business or political decision, it has not been unheard of for a Saint to try for the same Vision ten or fifteen times. A Saint can also choose the manner in which they see.” She taps three pieces of colored glass on the desk, selects one. With the red glass in her hand she says, “Pay attention, Ilven.”

“I am.” This is not exactly true. Through the narrow windows I can see Felicita on the far edge of our property, waving at the house from our spinney. Our meeting place. Her House is greater than mine, and so Mother encourages this friendship, even as she catalogs all Felicita’s flaws.

“Perhaps if you looked in my direction instead?” My mother sidles toward a painting of a battle between the Lammers and our age-old enemies, the Mekekana, and holds up the red glass. “This is emotion,” she says, and the picture shows me only the brightest and most blazing things. The blood of the dead is washed away. She swaps the glass for the blue. “Political decisions.” The picture reveals now not the glory of the war, but the cold black blood that fueled it. The Mekekana’s vast beetle-ships become savage, their barbaric machines cold and iron-dark as they crawl on their immense wheels, crushing our bones beneath them.

Despite my desire to leave this room and its towers of oppressive books, I find myself interested. No one has ever explained the way Saints make decisions to me, as if somehow I was always too stupid and small to understand. They have merely taught me by rote, and expected that to be enough. “And the green?”

“We’ll call this personal power,” she says. Again the focus shifts; what appeared important before becomes subdued.

All futures are tinted by the way in which you choose to view them.

Here then is a truth only Saints understand: Knowing the future is not about knowing the future. It’s about which choice to make.

That is why you can never get a straight answer from a Saint, for they have none to give.

I am sixteen and to be married in a matter of weeks. I had no say in this future. My father chose him for me and I have never seen the man’s face nor will I until I am presented to him on my wedding day. He lives many miles upriver, on a wine estate. I’m told the wine he makes is very fine. I wonder how many paths my father bothered to look down before he made up his mind.

My mother was unhappy with the decision, measuring out scriv with a tiny silver spoon and trying for different ways to see her Vision. Eventually she gave up and tried with cards instead, and all Saints know that cards are useless for anything more than parlor games. Even this failed her, and so she has accepted my father’s choice.

I do not accept it. Not when I have something I want more.

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