“I cannot play,” Brigitta told her sisters as she cast a wary look at the linen bag filled with Telling Stones. Quickly she shifted on the window seat to gaze at the Great West- ern Ocean. The rolling waves went on for as far as she could see, but her mind was elsewhere. Calm yerself. The prediction will ne’er happen.
At dawn they had boarded this ship, accompanied by Mother Ginessa and Sister Fallyn, who were now resting in the cabin next door. This was the smallest vessel in the Eberoni Royal Navy, the captain had explained, sturdy enough to cross the ocean, but small enough to travel up the Ebe River to the palace at Ebton. There, they would see their oldest sister, who was now the queen of Eberon.
According to the captain, Queen Luciana had intended to send more than one ship to safeguard their journey, but at the last minute the other naval ships had been diverted south to fight the Tourinian pirates who were raiding vil- lages along the Eberoni shore. But not to worry, the cap- tain had assured Brigitta and her companions. Since the royal navy was keeping the pirates occupied to the south, their crossing would be perfectly safe.
Indeed, after a few hours, it seemed perfectly boring. “If we don’t play, how will we pass the time?” Gwen- nore asked from her seat at the round table. “ ’Twill be
close to sunset afore we reach Ebton.”
“I wish we could wander about on deck,” Maeve grumbled from her chair next to Gwennore. “ ’Tis a lovely spring day, and we’re stuck down here.”
Sorcha huffed in annoyance as she paced about the cabin. “Mother Ginessa insisted we remain here. I swear she acts as if she’s afraid to let anyone see us.”
“Perhaps she fears for our safety because we are Em- braced,” Gwennore said.
Sorcha shook her head. “We’re safe now in Eberon.”
But only in Eberon, Brigitta thought as she studied the deep-blue waves. Being Embraced was a death sentence anywhere else on the mainland. The other kings abhorred the fact that each of the Embraced possessed some sort of magical power that the kings, themselves, could never have.
When Brigitta and her adopted sisters were born, the only safe haven had been the Isle of Moon. They’d grown up there in the Convent of the Two Moons, believing they were orphans. But almost a year ago, they’d discovered a shocking truth. Luciana had never been an orphan.
Since then, Brigitta had wondered if she had family somewhere, too. Had they hidden her away or, worse, abandoned her? She feared it was the latter. For in all her nineteen years of life, no one from the mainland had ever bothered to contact her.
You are loved, she reminded herself. She’d grown up in a loving home at the convent. Her sisters loved her, and she loved them. That was enough.
It had to be enough. Didn’t it?
Sorcha lowered her voice. “I still believe Mother Ginessa knows things about us that she won’t tell.”
Brigitta silently agreed. She knew from her special gift that almost everyone was hiding something.
“Let’s play the game and let the stones tell us,” Maeve said. “I need to do something. This cabin is feeling smaller by the minute.”
Brigitta sighed. Sadly enough, this was the largest cabin on board. Captain Shaw had lent them his quarters, which had a large window overlooking the back of the vessel.
The ship creaked as it rolled to the side, and Sorcha grabbed the sideboard to steady herself.
“Have a seat afore ye fall,” Gwennore warned her. “Fine.” Sorcha emptied the oranges from a brass bowl
on the sideboard, then plunked the bowl onto the table as she took a seat. “Let’s play.”
Brigitta’s sisters gave her a questioning look, but she shook her head and turned to gaze out the window once again. It had been twelve years ago, when she was seven, that Luciana had invented the game where they could each pretend to be the Seer from the Isle of Mist. They’d gathered up forty pebbles from the nearby beach, then painted them with colors and numbers. After the stones were deposited in a bowl and covered with a cloth, each sister would grab a small handful of pebbles and what- ever colors or numbers she’d chosen would indicate her future.
“We’ll just have to play without her,” Sorcha grum- bled. A clattering noise filled the cabin as the bag of Telling Stones was emptied into the brass bowl, a noise not quite loud enough to cover Sorcha’s hushed voice. “Ye know why she won’t play. She’s spooked.”
Brigitta winced. That was too close to the truth.
She could no longer see the Isle of Moon on the hori- zon. As the island had faded from sight, a wave of appre- hension had washed over her, slowly growing until it had
sucked her down into an undertow of fear and dread. For deep in her heart, she believed that leaving the safety of the convent would trigger the set of events that Luciana had predicted.
But how could she have refused this voyage? Luciana would be giving birth soon, and she wanted her sisters with her. She also needed Mother Ginessa, who was an excellent midwife.
“I’m going first,” Sorcha declared, and the stones rat- tled about the bowl as she mixed them up.
“O Great Seer,” Maeve said, repeating the line they spoke before each prediction. “Reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
“What the hell?” Sorcha muttered, and Maeve gasped. “Ye mustn’t let Mother Ginessa hear ye curse like
that,” Gwennore warned her.
“These stones are ridiculous!” Sorcha slammed them on the table, and out of curiosity Brigitta turned to see what her sister had selected.
Nine, pink, and lavender.
Gwennore tilted her head as she studied the stones. “In nine years ye will meet a tall and handsome—”
“Nine years?” Sorcha grimaced. “I would be so old!” “Twenty-seven.” Gwennore’s mouth twitched. “Practi-
“Exactly!” Sorcha huffed. “I’ll wait nine months for my tall and handsome stranger, and not a minute more.” She glared at the colored stones. “I hate pink. It looks ter- rible with my freckles and red hair.”
Maeve’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Who said ye would be wearing it? I think yer true love will look very pretty in pink.”
“He’s not wearing pink,” Sorcha growled.
“Aye, a lovely pink gown with a lavender sash,” Gwen- nore added with a grin.
“Nay, Gwennie.” Maeve shook her head. “The lavender means he’ll have lavender-blue eyes like you.”
“Ah.” Gwennore tucked a tendril of her white-blond hair behind a pointed ear. “Could be.”
“Are ye kidding me?” Sorcha gave them an incredu- lous look. “How on Aerthlan would I ever meet an elf?” “Ye met me,” Gwennore said. “And apparently, in nine months, ye’ll meet a tall and handsome elf in a pink gown.” She and Maeve laughed, and Sorcha reluctantly
Brigitta turned to peer out the window once again. Over the years, the Telling Stones had proven to be an entertaining game. But then, a year ago, something strange had happened. Luciana’s prediction for her own future had actually come to pass. She’d met and fallen in love with the tall and handsome stranger she’d foretold in specific detail, using the Telling Stones. And if that hadn’t been amazing enough, she’d become the queen of Eberon.
Eager to experience something equally romantic, Bri- gitta had begged her oldest sister to predict a similar future for her.
A mistake. Brigitta frowned at the churning ocean. Blue, gold, seven, and eight. Those had been the stones
Luciana had selected. Blue and gold, she’d explained, sig- nified the royal colors of the kingdom of Tourin. Seven meant there would be seven suitors to compete for her hand. And eight . . . in eight months, Brigitta would meet a tall and handsome stranger.
The eight months had now passed.
She pressed a hand against her roiling stomach. When they’d boarded this morning, she’d quickly as-
sessed the captain and his crew. None of them had struck her as particularly tall or handsome. Captain Shaw was portly, bald, and old enough to be her father.
As for the seven suitors vying for her hand, she had initially been thrilled, considering the idea wildly exciting. But when her sisters had likened it to her being a prize in a tourney, she’d had second thoughts.
Why would seven men compete for her? She had noth- ing special to offer. Even the gift she possessed for being Embraced was hardly special. And did this contest mean she would have no choice but to marry whichever man won her? The more she’d thought about this competition, the more it had made her cringe.
So, five months ago, she’d played the game again, hop- ing to achieve different results. But to her shock, there had been four stones in her hand.
Blue, gold, seven, and five.
Had some sort of mysterious countdown gone into ef- fect? Reluctant to believe that, she’d attempted the game again a month later. Blue, gold, seven, and four. Alarmed, she’d sworn never to play again.
But one month ago, Sorcha had dared her to play, taunt- ing her for being overly dramatic. Those words never failed to irk Brigitta, so she’d accepted the dare. With a silent prayer to the moon goddesses, she’d reached into the bowl, swished the pebbles around, and grabbed a hand- ful. And there, in her palm, four stones had stared up at her.
Blue, gold, seven, and one. A fate was shoving itself down her throat whether she liked it or not.
And she did not.
Brigitta had been raised on the Isle of Moon, where women were free to determine their own futures and everyone worshipped the moon goddesses, Luna and Lessa.
It was different on the mainland. Men were in charge there, and everyone worshipped a male god, the Light.
Luciana had been fortunate to find a good man who respected her independent nature. As king and queen, they had declared it safe to worship the moon goddesses in Eberon.
But it was not that way elsewhere. In the other main- land kingdoms, Brigitta would be executed for making the sign of the moons as she prayed. Executed for being Embraced. So why did she keep picking the blue and gold colors of Tourin?
And why would seven suitors compete for her? She glanced at her sisters. Sorcha had always seemed the stron- gest, with a fiery temperament that matched her fiery red hair. Gwennore had always been the smartest. Maeve, the youngest, had always been the sweetest. And Luciana— now married—had been their brave leader. Brigitta had never been quite sure where she fit in.
Gwennore, with her superior intellect, had always been the best at translating books into different languages. Maeve had excelled in penmanship, and Sorcha in artwork. Luciana had been good at everything.
But Brigitta . . . the nuns had despaired with her. When transcribing a book, she could never stay true to the text. A little embellishment here, a tweak there, and eventu- ally she would take a story so off course, it was no longer recognizable. This, of course, upset the nuns, for their male customers on the mainland were paying for an ex- act copy of an old tale, not the romantic fantasies of an overly dramatic young woman.
Whenever the nuns had fussed at her, her sisters had come to her defense, insisting that her story was much better than the original. And each time the nuns tried to use Brigitta’s overly dramatic mistakes for kindling, her sisters always managed to rescue the pages and give them to her. They’d even begged her to finish her stories
about dashing young heroes, so that they could read them.
Brigitta adored them for that. She’d do anything for her sisters, including this voyage to Eberon that she was so afraid would activate the events she’d been dread- ing.