Caitlin Starling’s 2019 debut novel, Bram Stoker Award nominee The Luminous Dead, introduced an exciting new voice in horror-infused speculative fiction. This year, she’ll be releasing a new novella in a similar vein, Yellow Jessamine—and we’ve got an exclusive excerpt to share, along with the full cover.
Here’s a brief description of Yellow Jessamine, if that gorgeously grim art up top didn’t already grab your interest:
In Yellow Jessamine, shipping magnate Evelyn Perdanu controls the dying city of Delphinium with trade deals and secrets. But when mysterious sickness sparks death and obsession, all leading back to her, Evelyn’s brittle existence is strained to breaking. She retreats to her estate, amidst paranoia and poisonous secrets, intent on rooting out this plague before it destroys everything she has built.
And here’s the full cover by artist Robin Ha, followed by the opening to the novella:
Out in the harbor, the ship’s masts burned. The fires had caught on the sails and tarred ropes first, then spread, taking root on the deck itself. From this distance, there was no sound, no heat. There was only the glinting of flame against the dark sheet of the water below, and five bodies standing on a balcony to mark its passing.
“A shame,” one of the watchers said, packing his pipe with an idle hand. “But at least it wasn’t one of the grain shipments, eh?”
The owner of the ship did not respond, eyes fixed only on the conflagration of two months of his income.
“We must hope,” said Lady Evelyn Perdanu, the only woman among their number, small and slight and draped in mourning black, “that your Orrery does not bring plague back with it as well, Mr. Danforth.”
The pipe-packer paled, almost imperceptibly in the dim light. “It certainly will not. My men—”
“Your men run a dismal ship, thanks to your stinginess,” the owner of the burning ship snapped. “And if it took my men, whom I keep generously supplied with clean water despite the mounting expense—”
“Gentlemen,” said the assembly’s oldest member, Weyland Sing. His grey hair was cut into a soft, short wave atop his head and the lines creasing his dark skin spoke to years at sea before his current wealth and comfort. “We must also consider the possibility that this is not a sickness of common provenance. There may be another hand at work.”
Evelyn watched him closely through the confines of her long veil. At night, with few lanterns set to light their balcony, it was hard to make out the sharper lines of facial features, but she could discern the set of every man’s shoulders well enough. Nobody spoke, because nobody wanted to acknowledge what they all knew, had all known for five years now.
Delphinium was dying. The city was as good as dead.
Even if The Orrery returned with its grain and its salted fish and its citrus, it would only stave off the inevitable. The military coup that had shattered the Cenanthe Empire had also cut off the capital from all but the closest of its farmland. Naval officers still patrolled the great sea beyond the harbor where once Delphinium had taken in riches beyond imagining, but now they were just as likely to torch a ship as to escort it.
Or to poison its crew, perhaps.
Delphinium had been left to rot, as the last old bones of the government refused to capitulate. Around them, in client cities and far-flung colonies, the empire continued under its new masters, prospering. But from her perch on the balcony, Evelyn could only smell the stench of decay, the sickly-sweet deliquescence of pride, of money, of men.
She turned her attention back out to the burning ship, now a column of flame.
“My lady,” Danforth said, at her elbow, hesitant but arrogant as he always was. “What word did your sailors aboard The Verity bring when they docked this afternoon?”
“Nothing of note,” she said, wishing he would leave her be. She should never have spoken. Often, the men forgot that she was there. She was only a wealthy wraith of a woman, unmarked, respected only in the way that small boys respected the monsters lurking beneath their beds at night. All of them would have preferred her gone, but her company owned too many ships, and her coffers were the second richest of all assembled. She was invited as a matter of duty.
“They saw military ships at least once a week on their voyage, just as all of our ships have. Do you have reason to expect different?” She looked over at Danforth, with his thick sideburns, his rakishly combed hair, his fine waistcoat.
“Of course not,” he said, jaw tight. Her eyes slid off of him easily, and she turned from them all and passed back into the club room.
She heard them follow, polished shoes cushioned by a plush rug , bought from Irula’s markets in the far west but made by Novuran hands up in the scattered mountain villages. They’d lost their berths in Irula two years ago. There would be no more fine rugs, not of this pattern, not of this make.
They were losing so much, but now that the burning ship was out of sight, the men arranged themselves about the room, fashionably at ease. Evelyn took up her customary position across from the sideboard, by the windows, where she would be forgotten for as long as she remained silent, and set apart when she did not. Mr. Urston, owner of the plagued clipper, still looked pinched and thin; he alone remained near her, gazing at the dark blankness of the glass.
“The only good thing to come out of all of this,” Mr. Sing said, pouring himself and Urston a brandy, “is that there are no more tariffs.”
There were no more tariffs because there would soon be no more money at all. Ship trade was the only thing keeping the wheezing lungs of Delphinium’s finances breathing. The factories were running low in raw materials and far-flung customers, the warehouses only receiving in new goods once every few weeks.
And yet it was enough for the next week, the next month, the next year if they were lucky; they would continue on pretending that everything would be fine. This group spoke around death, avoiding it assiduously. And so they would not see when at last it came for them.
She considered giving another easily-ignored warning, then abandoned the notion and moved to the door. “Gentlemen,” she said, softly. “I will see you next week.”
She left to half-hearted acknowledgments, descending a finely-hewn set of stairs nestled along the side of the restaurant that the club office sat atop of. Even six months ago, she would have heard the soft roar of conversation through the wooden paneling, but tonight the restaurant was quiet. Not empty, not yet, but growing thin and patchwork.
The other merchant lords avoided death, but Evelyn knew its contours and its character intimately, marking its creeping progress day by day. It had been her sole companion since she was a girl of seven, her mother gasping for breath, scrabbling for her hand, dying. A few years later, she lost her father. Then her brothers. She lost her whole household, until she was the only one left standing before the edifice of her father’s business, draped in her black veil and her high-necked mourning dress, alone and called to the seat of power. Death had borne her out of the quiet servitude of girls and into trade deals, warehouses, a web of connections and strength.
“Ma’am?” came a voice from the bottom landing of the steps.
Evelyn slowed her descent, fingers twisted in her heavy skirts. The boy who handled the coats was missing, replaced by a girl maybe sixteen years old, her face scarred on her left cheek with pockmarks. She looked healthy, though, round-hipped and broad-faced. She also looked terrified.
Ah. The supplicant.
It was rare that girls came to her from the working masses; this one was Violetta’s doing. Evelyn descended the last few steps, coming abreast of the girl and peering into her eyes.
The girl recoiled. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean—”
“You are certain this is what you want?” Evelyn asked.
The girl was shaking, hard enough that her shoulders moved, that her dark hair piled on top of her head shivered in the lamplight.
“I… that is…”
Evelyn gestured impatiently, and the girl handed over Evelyn’s heavy, oil-coated cloak, and with it the small case Evelyn had brought with her. It wasn’t a fashionable thing, but inside it was cunningly divided into a warren of small chambers. Evelyn opened the clasp and drew out the small vial containing the boiled pulp of white bryony root.
The girl stared at it.
Evelyn glanced up the staircase, but none of the men had yet emerged. They wouldn’t, not for at least another hour. Her departure always had the same effect as the ladies of the house repairing to another room after a dinner party. The brandy would flow more heavily, the tobacco clouds grow larger overhead. They would tell themselves they deserved to relax, now that she was gone.
She didn’t mind that part of it. Tobacco was a noxious weed.
Evelyn leaned in, pressing the vial into the girl’s hand. “It will not be pleasant.”
“Real plague isn’t pleasant,” the girl responded, voice wavering. “It will be convincing enough? They’ll send me to one of the border hospitals?”
And from there to escape, no doubt. A bold plan, if a foolish one. She was just as likely to sicken for real inside those fetid buildings. “Take no more than two droplets every twelve hours, less if your body reacts strongly. You will need the rest periods. It will be very bitter, and is caustic to the skin, so make sure to take it with as much water as you can stand.”
Evelyn waited for the girl to ask for more: more help, advice on how best to smuggle it into the hospital, on what to do if she took too much.
Instead, she reached for the small coin purse hidden in the folds of her skirt.
Evelyn stepped back. “No need,” she said. “Just be gone from this place. You do this to yourself. I had no hand in it.”
“Of course, ma’am.” The girl curtsied. Evelyn closed up her case, drew her cloak over her shoulders, and stepped out of the building.
Her assistant, Violetta Fusain, waited in the high-wheeled carriage parked down at the corner. The footman opened up the carriage door for Evelyn, and provided the block to step up. She took her seat across from her white-clad attendant, so different from herself, but with no less quickness in her lowered eyes. Violetta’s pale hair was drawn back from her cherubic face. She looked like a delicate doll, except for the sharpness of her gaze.
The door shut behind her. “I have met with your girl,” Evelyn said. “It is done. I have delivered her poison.”
Violetta frowned at that. “Poison? She asked for medicine.”
“A medicine that sickens is poison. And she will be lucky if she does not die from it, but she seemed determined.”
Violetta grimaced, but did not argue. The carriage pulled out into the street, but did not take the first turning toward home. Instead, they made their way down the hillside, toward the harbor below.
Something had happened, then.
“Has encountered a problem, my lady.”
“A plaguing problem?” She thought of burning masts, great beacons of blazing failure upon the water. She could afford to lose a ship, but not her reputation. But when she searched Violetta’s face for pain or frustration, she found neither.
Instead, she found fear.
“No, my lady,” Violetta said. “Something else entirely.”
The ship rolled gently below her feet, wood creaking on all sides. With the sun long set, there were no calling gulls to hear, and on the first night in dock, there were few sailors aboard. She was left with only the wash of the water and the drum of the rain that had started up halfway to the harbor.
“Should we call for a doctor, my lady?” the captain asked.
Evelyn looked down into the staring eyes of the first mate of The Verity. Behind her, Violetta lifted the small oil lantern she carried a few inches higher. The light danced across the man’s pupils, but nothing in his face responded in the slightest. His eyes did not narrow, his jaw did not twitch.
And yet he breathed.
“How long has he been like this?” Evelyn asked, mind racing. She had heard of catatonias before, but none like this man’s. There was no limb rigidity, no rictus grin; nor was there any torpor, no deep and unceasing slumber. It was as if the soul of him had simply winked out, leaving an otherwise normal husk of a man who breathed, whose heart beat, but who could not move.
A fly landed on the man’s iris. He did not blink.
Excerpt from Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling reprinted by permission. Courtesy of Neon Hemlock Press.
Yellow Jessamine (due out in October 2020) is part of Neon Hemlock Press’ 2020 Novella Series, featuring novellas by Leigh Harlen, Anya Ow, Eboni Dunbar, and Caitlin Starling. The Kickstarter is already funded, but you can head to that page to learn about pre-ordering Yellow Jessamine as well as more information on all the other titles.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.