I tiptoe along the hallway, keeping to the centre of the carpet runner. My fingers trace brocade wallpaper and familiar picture frames, but my eyes fix on the unpredictable floorboards to either side of the soft runner. A squeaky one to my left… I step over it. That creaky couplet to my right… I work my way around them. I’m exposed here, like an antelope chancing an open savannah. The lush carpet with its soft pink and brown swirls cushions my footsteps, and with each step I come closer to learning the truth.
I’m almost at the kitchen. Only the storeroom after that and I’ll be there. But the kitchen will be my biggest challenge. If Anna hasn’t stepped outside then I’m in trouble.
“I’ll be back in a minute, Murdoch.”
It’s Anna. I freeze. Her solid, flat-heeled footsteps echo across the kitchen’s wooden floor as she strides in from the courtyard to dump a pile of freshly cut herbs on the counter. The kitchen fills with the earthy scent of basil. I can hear Jaes and Murdoch chatting out in the courtyard. They must be deciding on our daily boot camp. I’m surprised Murdoch hasn’t tracked me down to join in.
Anna runs her hands under the tap and plods back outside. “Once you’ve finished, you better go and get your cousin, Jaes. She needs a workout too.”
What did she mean by that? I’m as strong as a swordfish and twice as fast. Anna chats with her brother for a while, and then I hear the sound of the peg basket drawn along the wire of the washing line. She’s back on schedule.
Anna likes things to run on time. Washing out of the machine by 10am and on the line to dry in the incessant blasts of coastal wind that give my bed sheets a fine coating of salt.
I edge forward, passing the gaping hole that is the kitchen’s enormous entry, and quicken my steps as I pass the storeroom. I’m almost there.
Uncle’s study is on the right and, as I approach the ornate door, I notice it is slightly ajar. I can hear Uncle pacing inside. I sneak to the opening, careful not to lean on the door. Carefully, I peek through the gap.
The phone blares. I jump, almost lose my balance and just manage to fold myself against the wall as Uncle strides past the gap to grab the home line.
He listens. I catch my breath.
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary, but thank you.” His voice is clipped and quiet.
With the phone in the left hand corner of the room, this might be my only chance to catch a direct look at Uncle’s desk. He’ll have his back to me. I steel myself, plant my feet and swivel ‘til I’m directly in front of the door. Then, pushing it with one finger, enough to mimic the action of a small breeze, I take a peek.
Uncle faces the window, his broad back a wall of tension. He’s dressed entirely in black. To the right, I can see his huge desk. There it is. A message in a bottle.
I can’t believe Jaes was right. An actual message in a bottle. Not a letter. That would be far too practical. Not an email, by the winds, that would be too modern. No. Here, at Conclave Manor, it seems we’ve taken to communicating by something even slower than snail mail—sea snail mail?
The bottle stands to attention on Uncle’s carved coral desk, like a lone soldier on guard. I can make out a scroll, secured with a wax seal the colour of dried blood, trapped within its blurry, glass exterior. The bottle is green, opaque and solid. How will Uncle get the message out? I shake my head. What are we, pirates? For reef’s sake, couldn’t they use a phone? Perhaps it came from a far-off pod asking for help. The Sprats aren’t operating in our waters now. Perhaps they’ve moved to other areas and are terrorising other people like us? But, surely, news like that could be communicated using human technology. It isn’t as if we don’t have access to it.
“Right. Well, thanks for letting me know.” Uncle’s voice startles me, and I realise I’ll be in full view when he turns around. I backtrack along the hallway, slip into the reading room and throw myself down into my favourite wicker chair, hands drawing comfort from its smooth mahogany arms and deep, squashy cushions. That was close. If he’d seen me lurking outside the door I would have got an earful.
I breathe out my nerves and roll my shoulders. The reading room smells like old books and dusty newspapers. Magazines crowd tables in high piles. I reach for the nearest, National Geographic. Turning to the bookmarked story, I stifle a giggle. ‘Mermaid—the Myth.’ Sometimes, I feel like emailing them a video of me to say, ‘Hey, science guys, look, a tail!’ But I know I never would. It’s an unspoken rule that we no longer commune with humans. No good has ever come of it.
The low hum of an appliance sounds from the kitchen. Anna is whisking something up for lunch. The scent of cinnamon wafts down the hall.
A loud crash brings me upright. I leap to my feet and race for the door, then stop in realisation.
So, that’s how you get a message out of a bottle.
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