BHC Press is proud to bring you an exclusive preview of Emmie Mears‘ newest work; the highly anticipated Look to the Sun, releasing on October 28th. A touching tale of finding hope in dark places, Look to the Sun is sure to find a place near the top of your to-read list.
For fifteen years, the National People’s Voice has ruled in relative peace, quietly snuffing out dissent wherever it’s found. Silently enforcing their views and doctrine upon the people of Sanmarian as citizens disappear overnight and businesses mysteriously close.
Rose Abernethy and Beo Mataya are two strangers drawn together by one thing alone: Red Sunrise. A mysterious book no one else seems to have read. A book only two types of people ever ask about—collectors and the National People’s Voice. A book both Rose and Beo feel was written just for them and that strangely seems to echo what is currently going on in their beloved city.
As the facade of calm seethes into violent protests, Rose and Beo are caught in the middle. Drawn into the center of a forgotten tragedy, they discover the book may not only hold the key to the secret of the city’s past but also the key to its future.
“…[the] message of hope, acceptance and courage during the worst of times will entrance the reader with its artistic flair, complexity and delivery of raw emotion.”– InD’Tale Magazine
Some days are sneaky.
They wake beside you, stretching in your bed, handing you your house shoes, quietly toasting your bread. While you clean your teeth, they boil the water for your tea. They lull you into that bleary-eyed bliss of the mundane until you believe the day will be like so many others, that you will kick off your shoes at the end of the day much the same way you put them on, as the person you were when the soles of your shoes crossed the threshold of your front door.
But then some small snap occurs. A missed tram. A lost pocketbook. Smoke rising from your office. An egg thrown at your autocar. Getting marooned in the lift just as you’re meant to meet with your boss. A bird splat. A bomb. A revolution.
Even more insidiously, sometimes even the winding steps of the mundane troubles only manage to hide within them something bigger, something worse.
Today was a sneaky day.
The sky had a ceiling, and Rosenni Abernethy smelled fire on the wind. Her small yellow autocar had gotten her through the past fifteen years since Papa had died, and as she pulled the acceleration lever, she willed it with all her might to get her through the final ten minutes of her drive over the bumpy cobbled streets of Sanmarian’s city centre.
She was already late for work. Everything had been fine until her toe found the corner of the sofa, and the jolt had sloshed tea onto her chest. Now the hibiscus tea stain was fading to pale pink on the white linen overshirt she hadn’t had time to change. The sole of one shoe had inexplicably fallen off, and her only other suitable pair pinched. And then everything else had unraveled like Papa’s old grey jumper she couldn’t make herself throw away.
A seagull dropped a watery splat on her leather satchel. It took four tries to start the autocar, and one of the ignition buttons stuck on the fourth try, causing the red lights on the dash to flash in panic until she pried it unstuck with a long thumbnail. The streets were packed with traffic, the sound of blaring horns filled the air, and even though the world cooled itself toward the promise of winter, a sheen of sweat took up residence on Rose’s upper lip.
The autocar coughed.
“Be reasonable,” she told it. “You just got a patch-up last week. Your oils are fine, you’ve plenty of fuel, and I fixed your button so you didn’t die. You owe me.”
In response, the autocar’s cough became a screeching whine, and the gear exchange suddenly began to vibrate like a hummingbird’s wings.
“This is not…” Rose trailed off as the autocar sputtered to a halt on the slope of Carino Avenue and began to roll backward, bumping over each cobblestone. She stomped on the floor brake and yanked the brake lever at once. “…happening.”
A horn bawled behind her.
Rose looked at the steering wheel. The shiny round circle at its centre seemed to look back innocently.
“Thanks awfully,” she said.
Craning her neck to look over her shoulder, Rose saw her first small flash of luck for the day.
Maybe seagull shit was a reminder that the gods were getting around to her luck after all.
On the edge of the road was a single gap in the usual bumper-to- bumper parked autocars. With a feat of skill even her Aunt Aleis would have to give grudging approval over, Rose shifted the autocar into neutral and, leaning on the horn button with one hand and steering with the other, slid the reverse-rolling vehicle into the gap. The tyre bumped the kerb and scraped along the stones, but she avoided hitting the bumper of the black autocar behind her and squeaked to a halt. Rose engaged the floor brake, put the useless yellow lump of a vehicle into park, and sat back, head lolling against the seat bench.
She gave herself a count of three to pity herself for such an ill start to the day, then gathered her leather satchel (now wiped clean of seagull splat), patted the familiar lump in her trouser pocket where her father’s fob watch always dwelled (its ticking was quiet, but no matter how loud her surroundings, Rose could always feel it), and opened her door to step out into the street.
Her toes protested in their too-tight shoes. If she was fortunate, once she got to work she could take them off and nurse her feet to some semblance of health before day’s end. She’d need it. Work was now a thirty minute walk across the Plax Rynka, the central square of the city that used to house actual markets more than the now-customary thrice annually.
Outside in the dusty morning air, the sun filtered red-gold through the city haze. Sanmarian’s Xaran Tower was just visible over the shops and tenements that lined Carino Avenue, pink-red and glimmering softly. Rose couldn’t tell if the fire she smelled on the air was a fault of the car or the exhaust from the others or something else. It prickled at her nose as she rounded the rear of her yellow lumpmobile and stepped up onto the kerb. Normally she took the ring-road around Sanmarian’s walls, driving until the fortress towers rose before her and turning southward then into the city’s inner centre. Today, though, on foot, she would cut directly across the market square and have to have to walk all the way up the hill toward the fortress.
Sanmarian was called the City of Towers, which Rose had always found grossly unimaginative because there were nine and it was too obvious a derivative name. The city walls and towers—and nearly all its buildings within the walls—were made of sunset stone, a denser sandstone that over the past several centuries had slowly, slowly lost the cracks between its blocks, becoming its own mortar and fusing into the cohesive pink-red, uneven and gritty on the palms but strange and beautiful and glittering in the light.
At least, visitors to Sanmarian said it was strange and beautiful. Rose, who had lived in the city from the time she first had mucous scooped from her newly opened mouth and pierced the air with that first screech of I’m alive!, found it beautiful but not at all strange.
Most days, Rose could smell the sea’s tang over the dust of the city; always there was the cry of gulls on the wing. Sanmarian wore the jewel-blue Tarenr Sea like a mantle on all sides but one. Only one road ran out of the city to Sankael, the capital of Kael, in the northwest. On maps as a child, Rose had always fancied Sanmarian’s dangling peninsula like a dewdrop just about to fall. It was a small city. Not many people came in or out when it came to settling or relocating, though in summers the market square was often crowded with tourists. Strategically superfluous and rather pointlessly defensible, Sanmarian was mostly cut off from the rest of the country (and the continent), and Rose liked it that way. Mostly.
Sanmarian had its own troubles to worry about. Rose sniffed the air again, certain the fire smell was getting stronger. Her feet ached, secondary to the creeping anxiety she felt at the scent on the winter breeze.
She made her way up Carino Avenue toward Xaran Tower. Autocars passed through the tower gates, but pedestrians passed through the foot- gates on either side of the avenue. There were no longer any actual gates— far too impractical with vehicle traffic—but everyone still called them gates anyway. On the other side, the avenue narrowed, the cobbles grew bumpier, and the buildings seemed to inch closer together. Lampposts doused for the day, refuse bins freshly emptied, the rhythmic rumbling of tyres on stones. There was something Rose very much liked about mornings in Sanmarian.
Ahead, she could see Market Tower (another truly creative name—Rose had always called it the Tower of Stories as a child, because it housed the library). Also up ahead, Rose heard shouting. Not just one person shouting.
She passed the last cross street before the Plax Rynka, footsteps slowing warily, louder now that the autocar traffic had given way to the pedestrian zone of the city centre. Rose could hear what sounded like a hundred voices. Sound sometimes ricocheted oddly in the city—something about the nature of the sunset stone, Papa had told her once. Not seeing anything up ahead, Rose quickened her pace again. The cool morning air felt suddenly warmer. Fifty metres before Carino Avenue gave way to the expanse of the plax, Rose saw why she’d smelled fire on the wind.
A mob of protesters poured onto Carino Avenue, holding signs and flaming torches that gave off an acrid bite. Their illuminated faces glowed orange even in the pinkish morning light. Rose didn’t have time to get out of the way. One of the protesters slammed into her shoulder, shoving her into the wall of a hat shop. She gritted her teeth, inhaling deeply and striving for a blank face. That was what Papa had taught her, in the years before when Sanmarian often surged with unrest between the progressive magistrate that had governed the city and the fascist party that usurped control from her. Rose had been too young to fully understand it then, but before Papa died, the city had changed hands what felt like once a year.
Rose didn’t know who these protesters were or what they wanted. Some of the signs held slogans that said things like JUSTICE and some of the signs had photographs of faces. Others simply held a symbol of a scale. That was new. Rose didn’t recognise any of the faces on the signs from newspapers, but then, if they were protesting the NPV, the ruling National People’s Voice party, she wouldn’t. Any faces that vanished from the earth at the hands of the NPV wouldn’t show up in a newspaper they controlled.
She edged her way away from the wall, the linen of her overshirt catching on the stone. Her heart had decided to hurry its beat in her chest, and the tips of her fingers felt numb. Her feet, too, though that was the shoes and not the anxiety of being surrounded by an angry mob.
Tightening the strap on her satchel so that the leather sat snug against the small of her back, Rose kept to the edge of the throng, pushing toward the market square as carefully as she dared.
The shouts of the protesters rang loud in her ears. Cries for justice, nothing in unison, just the pulse of anger that wormed its way into Rose’s blood and quickened her heart and her feet and her breath.
Someone came pushing directly at her, torch in hand. Rose scrambled to her right ducking her head—and her loose black waves—away from the fire. Her shoulder met another protestor’s. Someone’s foot found hers. She stumbled. A hand caught her, and for one moment, Rose looked up into a pair of kind eyes the colour of the peat soil Great Aunt Aleis sent away for to tend her plants. Then the grip on her arm vanished, as did the kind eyes, and her hip ran into a fist. The sign grasped by the fist slapped her in the face. Panic gave a harsh leap in Rose’s belly. The blows—none seemingly out of malice or intent but blows nonetheless—kept coming. Rose stumbled forward as best she could, the kerosene that fed the torches stinging her eyes and nose. Her face felt at once tight from the passing heat of fire and slack from oozing sweat. Then the crowd shuddered around her, squirting her out onto the wide open plax and into the sun that had only just crested the tops of the sunset stone buildings, peeking around Market Tower as if it were apprehensive about what it might see.
Rose lurched, tripped, then managed to steady herself on a rubbish bin.
In the wake of the mob, the market square of Sanmarian felt still, silent. Even though Rose could still hear their shouts in the distance, they seemed muted as if she had walked through a wall of seawater instead of simply crossing the line between Carino Avenue and the square. Everything grew still, even the breeze. Fluttering pamphlets and bits of singed fabric fell to quiet repose on the cobblestones. Still. Too still.
Rose’s hand flew to her left pocket and encountered a dangling metal chain. The watch, that comforting lump of metal that she felt ticking against her hip every day. Her father’s watch.
It was gone.
Papa always smelled of wool and pipe tobacco. Sanmarian lay far closer to the sea than to the nearest sheep, but still Papa’s jumpers with their thick wooden buttons wore that ovine scent and the sweet, yet- unburned smell Rose could almost taste. When she pressed her face into the folds of knitted warmth, she heard his heartbeat, always, always with the faint ticking of his fob watch to accompany it. Left pocket. She felt it sometimes when her hug was crooked, and Papa would laugh and pull out the watch to show her.
The watch was crafted in that way that whispers gently that hands made every centimetre of it. Every edge of crystal beveled, every gear coaxed into order, every curve of brass celebrated. It felt like magic to Rose’s young fingers, smelled of brass and glass. Such things indeed have a smell, and forever to Rose, brass and glass together would smell of magic. The watch was in the book, in her book, in Red Sunrise, and when Rose would muster the courage some sleepy nights to ask after the why of it, her father would mould a mystery from the sly smile of his lips.
“Believe,” Andreas Abernethy would say, and it was all he would say, and Rose’s eyes would drift toward closing and she would try. And before sleep blanketed her view with the ticking of her father’s watch close beside her, she would try to believe if only to erase that always-accompanying ripple of pain from Papa’s eyes.
And always, always, before the ticking faded with his footsteps, she would fall to sleep before she could see if it worked.
Rose stood on the market square of Sanmarian, twenty years beyond the sharpest memories of those sleepy moments and fifteen past the day she had returned home from walking out with her best mate Amelie for ices and fizzy drinks to find Great Aunt Aleis with tears dripping down the wrinkles in her face and horror hiding behind her guarded eyes. Their errand had been thwarted by the shop closing early, and when Rose arrived home, she would wonder only for a moment at the plumes of smoke arising in the city outside the window before looking at Aunt Aleis’s face. Aunt Aleis had said nothing at first, only pressed the pocket watch into Rose’s trembling hand—it smelled of rubbing alcohol, something Rose would never forget— and grabbed her into a hug so tight it nearly made the front and back of her ribcage meet. When finally Aunt Aleis could make words with her grief- weighted tongue, all she could say was, “There has been an accident, child.”
Rose had fallen to her knees, gravity increasing so quickly she could not stand under the sudden weight. Her hand clasped the watch hard enough that the imprint of it would remain late into the night, the brass design of an exquisitely detailed rising sun branded on her palm, slightly askew.
That night, Sanmarian burned.
The next morning, the city still coughed smoke and damp ash, and it seemed the whole of the population fell silent with some overbearing grief that, while separate from her own, Rose would never stop feeling was the city her father loved wailing for his loss. Fifteen-year-old Rose had clasped the watch’s chain to the belt loop on her trousers and tucked the watch into her left pocket, and there it had remained. Every day. For fifteen years.
And now it was gone.
Rose felt the sweat begin to chill on her brow as the breeze again picked up. She forgot about being late for work, forgot about the autocar parked five streets down the hill on Carino Avenue, and forgot about the state of her swiftly numbing feet. She turned round and darted away from the square, past the still-recovering passers-by whose faces were a series of blanks, not stopping until she reached the hat shop where the first of the protesters had run into her.
The distance between the hat shop and the square now seemed frightfully short. How had the distance been so stretched only moments before? Rose scoured the pavements and the cobbles of Carino Avenue, tracing and retracing and re-retracing her jagged path through the crowd. The ground wore litter like after a festival where only minutes before the streets had been swept clean and fresh for the dawning day. No matter how many crumpled papers Rose unfolded and gathered in a stack in her hand, no matter how she peered into cracks between the cobbles, no matter how many times she turned and backtracked only to go forward again, Rose could find no trace of the watch nor its remaining length of chain.
The bit of chain that dangled from the fob on her belt loop snapped against her hip with each step, an unfamiliar blip of sensation that made Rose feel as though the chain were electrified. Her breath lived high in her chest, close to the surface, never delving deep enough into her lungs to calm her. She felt lightheaded, feverish. The sun made its way past the tops of the buildings, rising alongside the tower. When the tower clock tolled out a heavy announcement of ninth bell—marking a full hour lateness for Rosenni Abernethy—she couldn’t make her feet leave the mouth of Carino Avenue.
When finally she stutter-stepped onto the square again, Rose looked around as if she’d never seen the city before. The buzz of the square’s hurried commuters was nonexistent; perhaps due to the protesters. She felt as if her hearing had taken leave of her, for the silence that fell. However it had come to be, Rose didn’t know or care.
She found a bench halfway between the avenue and the tower that housed Sanmarian’s library, her presence chasing a seagull from its perch on the end, where it squawked and winged into the air. Rose sat down and tried to remember how to breathe.
To an observer, the woman with perspiration-dampened waves and grey eyes reddened from smoke would look very sad indeed. But sadness was not uncommon in Sanmarian, not with the tensions so many in the city had simply grown accustomed to. To an astute observer, though, the sight of Rose Abernethy on that bench would show something else.
The ragged movement of her stomach and chest were very nearly a hiccough. The reddened eyes brightened the grey of her irises until they almost appeared silver with the sheen of yet-unshed tears. But it was the curve of her shoulders that really gave it away. They hunched inward as if maybe, just maybe, they could close the gap in her chest where grief had made its hole so long ago. An astute observer would likely recognise that look, the look of a body collapsing inward on itself. The look of a body that has lived so long with grief that it thinks the hole’s just part of the landscaping until one day the owner falls right in again.
Rose had fallen in that hole.
Papa used to say that time was not a line, for a line was only one dimension, and people existed in four. To a young Rose, his proclamation had sounded like pure magic. Papa said that people exist in all of the time they touch, past, present, and future. Perhaps that was why Rose froze just then.
As she sat, she felt the open air of Plax Rynka around her, the knowledge of the citizens whose faces so seldom left their public stoic masks. Rose warred with the weight inside her and the knowledge that she was stranded here, in the city centre, far from anywhere it would be acceptable to feel what she felt. She was fifteen again, a hole suddenly reft in the fabric of her life. She pushed at the edges of the thing that came shoving, pushing, wrestling up from the deepest well in her chest.
And it did no good.
A moment later, any observer, astute or not, could see what Rose felt, for without moving her clawed hands from her knees or the satchel from where it sat lodged between her back and the bench, her chest heaved with a violent sob, and she cried.
Look to the Sun Releases October 28th, 2021!
Preorder your copy at the links below:
About the Author:
Their bilingual work as M Evan MacGriogair can be found on Tor.com, Steall Magazine, and Uncanny Magazine along with poetry in The Poets’ Republic and elsewhere. Their novelette Seonag and the Sea-wolves was longlisted for a Hugo award in 2020.
An autistic queer author, singer, and artist who sings and writes in Gàidhlig and in English, they sing in two Gaelic choirs both in Scotland and internationally, and they are an award-winning Gaelic solo singer. They live in Partick with two cats and dreams gu leòr.