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Red as blood. Black as death.
The thoughts jumped into Luciana’s mind the instant she spotted the red and black colored pebbles in her hand. Even the third pebble, marked with the number two, suddenly struck her as ominous. Two deaths? She quickly closed her fist around the Telling Stones to keep her companions from seeing them.
“Come now.” Gwennore, who sat to her right, gave her a sympathetic smile. “It cannot be that bad.”
“For sure,” Brigitta agreed. “’Tis naught but a game. Remember last week when I picked the stone with the number seven, and ye said I would have seven suitors vying for my hand? ’Twas nonsense, but I still enjoyed the sound of it.”
“Aye.” Sorcha smirked. “Ye liked it better than the prophecy I gave yerself.”
“That I would sprout seven whiskers on my chin?” Brigitta shuddered. “Thank the goddesses that hasn’t happened.”
“Neither have the seven suitors.” Sorcha’s eyes glinted with humor when Brigitta huffed and swatted at her arm.
“It doesn’t matter,” Maeve chimed in. “Why would any of us wish for seven suitors when we have one another?”
Gwennore patted Maeve on the knee. “Ye’re only fifteen. In a year or so, ye could be changing yer mind.”
“And there ye go again, treating me like a baby. I’ll be sixteen in a few weeks, and then I’ll be only one year younger than yerself.” She lifted her chin. “Besides, I wouldn’t care if I had a hundred suitors. I’m staying here at the convent with all of you till the end of my days.”
“Aye,” Sorcha muttered. “And we may reach the end of our days afore Luciana shows us the stones she has picked.”
Luciana sighed, still reluctant to open her hand. Out of the forty pebbles contained in the wooden bowl, only one had been painted black. And only two red. She and her friends had painted most of the pebbles with pretty rainbow colors or simple numbers. Since the pebbles were supposed to tell their future, they’d been clever enough to stack the odds in their own favor.
“Why the worried face?” Gwennore asked. “Have any of our predictions e’er come true?”
“Yers have,” Maeve reminded her. “One time I picked the pink, yellow, and number three stones. Then ye said I would find three pink seashells on a sunny day, and it happened the very next morn.”
Gwennore snorted. “Because ye went to the beach to look for them. ’Tis the same as I have always said. We make our own futures.”
“That’s not always true.” Sorcha frowned. “Did any of us ask to be left here as babes, rejected by our families?”
Luciana winced at the harsh reminder. Like the other girls, she’d been an infant when she’d been dropped off at the convent. According to Mother Ginessa, they were all orphans. But did that mean they had no family at all?
Gwennore’s white-blond hair, lavender-blue eyes, and slightly pointed ears could only mean that she possessed some elfin blood. Did she have family in the elfin kingdom of Woodwyn? Sorcha had fiery red hair like the fierce warriors from Norveshka. And Brigitta looked similar to the people from the coastal kingdom of Tourin.
Luciana suspected they had been abandoned because they were Embraced. But whether they had family or not, they still had each other, so at a young age they had declared themselves sisters. They were their own family, and the one prophecy they had all agreed upon was that the Convent of the Two Moons would always be their home.
Each day, there was an hour before dinner that the nuns had set aside for quiet meditation. Luciana and her sisters had tried when they were young, but whenever they had formed a circle on the floor in their room, attempting to meditate, invariably someone made a funny face and the others started giggling. It didn’t take long before pillows started flying and the air was thick with goose feathers.
Luciana, the oldest and eight years old at the time, was told that she and her sisters should invent a quiet game that would leave their room neat and tidy and not disturb the nuns, who were meditating nearby.
Since the convent was located on the Isle of Moon, there were several beaches close by. Early one morn, the girls had accompanied a few nuns to the nearest beach, where they had dug for clams. And while they had worked, the nuns had talked about the latest prophecy from the Seer. He had predicted more wars on the mainland. More death and destruction.
Not surprising, Luciana had thought. In her eight years of life, she had never heard of peace on the mainland. Fortunately, the four mainland kingdoms were so busy fighting one another that the island kingdom was mostly forgotten. And the two islands, Moon and Mist, never fought each other. What would be the point? There was only one inhabitant on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer.
And that was when the idea had struck. Why not invent a game where she and her younger sisters could pretend to be Seers? After collecting forty pebbles, they had decorated them with colors or numbers. Since most of the nuns spent their days in the workroom translating and illustrating books, there was always a supply of colored paints on hand.
The nuns had given them an old wooden bowl from the kitchen. After the paint had dried, the girls deposited the pebbles in the bowl, then draped a cloth on top. To play the game, each girl would reach into the bowl, grab a few Telling Stones, and then her future would be told.
And now, eleven years later, Luciana clutched three of the stones in her hand as a chill shuddered down her spine. Why would three harmless pebbles unnerve her? Prophecy was not her gift. Or curse, as she was more apt to put it.
“Hurry,” Sorcha told her. “I want to have my turn afore the dinner bell rings.”
“O Great Seer”—Brigitta repeated the line they spoke before each prediction—“reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
Luciana opened her hand to show the pebbles. Two of her companions frowned. The other two winced.
Like the others, Maeve quickly adopted a hopeful expression. “Perhaps the black stone refers to yer lovely black hair.”
“I think ’tis sadly obvious what the stones foretell,” Luciana began, her words causing apprehension to steal over her sisters’ faces. She affected a bright, cheery smile. “The number two means that in two weeks I will meet a tall and handsome stranger.”
“Of course!” Brigitta clapped her hands.
Luciana pointed at the red stone. Not blood. “He will have red…”
“Freckles?” Sorcha wrinkled her nose. “Like me self?”
“Hair. Beautiful hair like yers.” Luciana motioned to the black stone. “And he will have a black…” Heart? She shoved that thought aside as she set the stones on the floor. “A black horse.”
“Excellent!” Gwennore nodded. “Whose turn is next?”
“Mine.” Sorcha slipped her hand under the cloth. The pebbles clattered against one another as she rummaged through them. When she withdrew her hand, fisted tightly around some stones, the wind picked up outside.
Maeve closed her eyes briefly. “A storm is brewing over the Great Western Ocean and headed our way.”
This was one prediction that Luciana felt sure would come to pass, for Maeve was somehow connected to the sea. “We should close the shutters.”
“But first ye must tell my fortune,” Sorcha insisted, opening her hand to reveal four pebbles. “O Great Seer, reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
Yellow, green, one, and three.
“In one year ye will meet a tall and handsome stranger,” Luciana began.
Maeve groaned. “Why do ye always have us meet tall and handsome strangers?”
“Would ye prefer a short and ugly one?” Gwennore asked.
Maeve huffed. “Why must we meet a man at all?”
“Because I’m not keen on marrying a squirrel,” Sorcha muttered.
“We’re not marrying,” Maeve argued. “We’re staying here forever as sisters.”
“I know,” Luciana admitted. “I just like to pretend we’ll experience exciting adventures and true love.”
Sorcha lifted her hand with the four pebbles. “And?”
“He’ll have blond hair and green eyes,” Luciana said.
Sorcha nodded. “Very good. And the number three?”
Luciana bit her lip, considering. “He’ll have three…”
“Teeth,” Gwennore said, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
Sorcha glared at her, while everyone else grinned.
“He’ll give yerself a necklace of three precious stones to demonstrate his love and devotion,” Luciana finished.
Sorcha smiled. “Ye always give the best predict—” A blast of wind shot through the windows, whisking the cloth off the bowl of Telling Stones. Drops of rain blew in and splattered onto the wooden floor.
“I’ll get the shutters.” Luciana scrambled to her feet.
“I’ll help ye.” Sorcha dropped her pebbles back into the bowl as she stood.
When Luciana unlatched the door, a gust of wind whisked it open. Sorcha helped her pull it shut as they stepped onto the covered portico that bordered the eastern side of the courtyard. The wind whipped at their braided hair and tangled their long skirts about their legs.
Luciana stepped into the courtyard to peer up at the thick gray clouds. Even though there should be a few hours of sunlight left, the sky was rapidly growing dark. A fat drop of rain plopped onto her cheek, then suddenly the clouds released a deluge.
“Hurry!” She jumped back beneath the portico while Sorcha ran to the window on the right side of the door.
A clap of thunder sounded in the distance as Luciana rushed to the window on the left. She caught a glimpse of her sisters inside, lighting candles and drying the floor.
The bell outside the convent clanged wildly, distracting her from her task. At first she assumed the noise was caused by the wind, but then a male voice shouted beyond the thick wooden gate. A visitor, now? Perhaps he was a poor traveler who sought refuge from the storm.
Two nuns scurried across the stone-paved courtyard to meet the stranger, their cream-colored woolen gowns soaked by the time they reached the grated lookout hole in the gate. Luciana couldn’t make out their words over the howling of the wind. When the nuns opened the gate, a man tromped into the large courtyard, leading a horse.
He was a tall man with a large floppy hat pulled low against the storm. With the dim light and heavy rain, Luciana couldn’t see him well, but he moved like an older man who carried a heavy weight on his broad shoulders. While he tethered his horse to the nearby post, a covered wagon slowly rolled through the gate.
After closing the gate, the two nuns rushed down the portico on the western side of the courtyard till they reached the last door that led to the office of Mother Ginessa, the leader of the convent.
This was strange, Luciana thought. The merchants who came to collect finished books usually did so in the morning, and they would never come in the rain, when the water could destroy the beautifully copied and illustrated books that the sisters were famous for. Their books, transcribed in all four mainland languages, were considered treasures throughout the known world, and the money earned kept the convent well maintained and the nuns well fed and clothed.
Two men descended from the driver’s bench of the covered wagon, and the man with the floppy hat talked to them as they circled to the back of the wagon.
A flurry of movement brought Luciana’s attention back to Mother Ginessa’s room. The two nuns had exited and were dashing south, apparently headed for the kitchens that lay beyond the chapel and graveyard.
Mother Ginessa left her room and hurried down the portico to where the man was waiting. He removed his hat in greeting, and to Luciana’s surprise, Mother Ginessa curtsied. Not a merchant then. The man must be a noble.
A flash of lightning lit up the sky, allowing Luciana a better look at the man. He was dressed all in black.
Black. A clap of thunder broke overhead, and the wind blasted more rain at Luciana. She turned her back. Think nothing of it, she admonished herself. Many men wore black.
She closed the shutters, then held them still with one hand while she turned the sharp hook into place to latch them shut. It was normally an easy task, but the wind was rattling the shutters so badly that she rammed the hook down with too much force and pricked her thumb.
With a wince, she stepped back and looked at the blossoming dot of blood. Red.
A sudden noise made her spin around. Her heart stilled as she realized what the two men had just removed from the wagon and dropped onto the courtyard. A black coffin.
Red as blood. Black as death.
“Come on!” Sorcha unlatched the door to their room, and the wind whipped it open with enough force that it banged against the inner wall.
Luciana followed her inside, and together they pushed the door shut and shot the bolt. The room was darker now with the shutters closed. The light of four candlesticks cast flickering shadows on the whitewashed walls.
“Whew.” Sorcha brushed damp red curls back from her face, and Brigitta handed her and Luciana towels.
Luciana dried her face, then winced at the splotches of blood she’d left on the cream-colored linen.
“Ye’re injured?” Gwennore asked.
“Only a prick of my thumb.” Luciana pressed the towel against the small puncture.
A crack of lightning sounded outside, followed quickly by the rumble of thunder.
Sorcha patted her hair dry. “I wonder if the visitors will be joining us for dinner.”
The three girls who had remained inside stared at her.
“Visitors?” Gwennore asked. “Who are they?”
Sorcha shrugged. “I haven’t seen them afore. There was a man in charge and two servants.”
Maeve frowned. “He’d better not be one of yer tall and handsome strangers.”
“He’s a nobleman,” Luciana said. “Mother Ginessa curtsied to himself.”
The other girls gaped. Usually, only book merchants came to the convent.
“The servants were driving a covered wagon,” Sorcha continued, then dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper. “And ye won’t believe what was inside. A coffin!”
The other girls gasped just as a booming crack of thunder sounded overhead.
“May Luna and Lessa protect us.” Brigitta lifted her hands to her chest, thumbs pressed against forefingers to form two circles, a gesture of supplication to the twin moon goddesses.
As the other girls made the sign of the moons, Luciana peered at her injured thumb. The bleeding had stopped, thank the goddesses, but her nerves were becoming increasingly tense. The arrival of a coffin did not bode well. It had been three years since one of the nuns had died. Three years of peace from her accursed gift.
A pounding on the door made them all spin around.
“Open the door, please,” the voice outside called. “This is Sister Fallyn.”
Sorcha pulled back the bolt, then unlatched the door, carefully jumping back as the wind slammed the door open.
Sister Fallyn’s gown of cream-colored wool was soaked and smelled like a wet sheep.
“Please come in from the rain,” Brigitta urged her.
The young nun shook her head. “I must not tarry. I’m to take Luciana to Mother Ginessa’s office.”
Luciana’s breath caught. The nobleman was there.
Sister Fallyn looked her over and clucked her tongue. “Heavenly goddesses, yer hair is a wild and tangled mess. Ye should braid it again afore ye meet—” She winced.
“Meet…?” Luciana gripped the bloodstained towel as a sense of foreboding pressed down on her. Something was about to happen, something she wasn’t sure she wanted.
Sister Fallyn peered over her shoulder at Mother Ginessa’s office and mumbled to herself, “Perhaps she should know afore, so it won’t come as such a shock…”
Luciana stepped back. Thunder rumbled overhead, making the air around her feel charged with tension. The skin on the back of her neck tingled.
Sister Fallyn turned to face her. “Aye, ’tis best to tell ye now. The man who just arrived is yer father. And he’s come to take ye away.”
Luciana gasped. The towel fell from her hands and fluttered to the floor. A father? She looked at her sisters, and her heart clenched at the sight of their stunned expressions. They must have heard the same thing she had. Even so, she didn’t want to believe it. “Nay. I don’t have a father.”
“That’s right!” Maeve latched on to Luciana’s right arm. “She’s an orphan. We all are. Mother Ginessa said so.”
Brigitta took hold of Luciana’s left arm. “She’s not going away. Her home is with us.”
Sister Fallyn sighed. “I know how close ye are to one another, but there is no help for it. Luciana’s father has the right to take her with himself.”
Luciana swallowed hard. “How can I have a father?”
With a grimace, Sorcha muttered under her breath, “Mother Ginessa lied to us.”
The other girls gasped, and Sister Fallyn quickly raised her hands. “Don’t judge her harshly. She was only doing what Luciana’s father asked her to do. He wanted Luciana to be raised as an orphan, so she wouldn’t wait her whole life for a reunion that would ne’er happen.”
Luciana stiffened as if she’d been slapped on the face. “Ye mean he didn’t plan to e’er come back for me self?”
Sister Fallyn winced. “I’m only making matters worse. Come along, so ye can hear what yer father has to say.”
And just like that, with a few words from her father, everything would be resolved? All these years her father had been alive. Nineteen years. How could nineteen years of being unwanted suddenly disappear as if they’d never happened? Anger swelled inside her. “Why should I see him? He abandoned me.”
“That’s right.” Maeve tightened her grip on Luciana’s arm. “She’s staying with us.”
“He’s yer father.” Sister Fallyn motioned impatiently with her hand. “Come now. Show some respect. Don’t leave himself waiting.”
Respect? Luciana’s anger twisted in her gut. How could she respect a father who had never planned to return for her? She should reject him, just as he had rejected her. He should feel the pain—
A twinge of shame pricked at her. Since when did she knowingly try to inflict pain on anyone? She’d been raised better than that. Even though it was not her parents who had raised her. “Is my mother alive, too?”
Sister Fallyn sighed. “I don’t know. Ye’ll have to ask yer father.”
“She’s not seeing him,” Brigitta cried. “She’s not leaving us.”
Luciana’s eyes filled with tears. How could she not remain with her sisters, as much as she loved them? But if she refused to see her father, he might leave and never come back. She might lose her only chance to meet him.
“Are ye not curious about himself?” Gwennore asked.
She was curious. But what would she say to a father she’d never known? Why did ye not want me? Was it because she was Embraced? Had he sent her here to protect her? But why make her believe she was an orphan? He could have come to visit her. He could still have been a father to her. But he had completely rejected her.
And why did he suddenly want to take her away? This was the only way of life she’d ever known. Her sisters were her family.
“Are the rest of us orphans?” Sorcha demanded. “Or was that a lie, too?”
Sister Fallyn turned pale as she hesitated. “I don’t know. But I do know this—if Mother Ginessa lied to us, then she had a very good reason for doing so.”
“Perhaps she was protecting us,” Gwennore suggested. “Because we’re Embraced.”
Sorcha huffed. “I don’t care what the excuse might be, I don’t like being lied to!”
Luciana took a deep breath, her decision made. “I would know the truth.” No matter how much it hurts.
As she stepped toward the door, Maeve and Brigitta reluctantly released their grip on her arms. She stopped at the door and looked back at her adopted sisters.
Sorcha still looked angry. Gwennore attempted to smile, while Brigitta sniffed. Maeve looked so young and lost with the tears streaming down her face that Luciana thought her heart would break in two. As the oldest, she’d been the one to dry Maeve’s tears when she’d scraped a knee or hold her in the middle of the night when she’d had a bad dream.
“Chee-ana,” Maeve whispered, using the shortened version she’d called Luciana when she’d been too young to manage her full name.
“I’ll come back,” she assured them. Somehow, she would convince her father not to take her with him. She needed to stay with the only family she’d ever known.
Copyright © 2017 by Kerrelyn Sparks
Teaser copyright © 2017 by Kerrelyn Sparks