The Sisters of the Crescent Empress

Leena Likitalo

THE SISTERS OF THE CRESCENT EMPRESS

To Inka, the lady with two dogs, one brown in color, the other silver gray

Acknowledgments

Writing The Sisters of the Crescent Empress was a journey much different from crafting The Five Daughters of the Moon. Working against a deadline—even one that you’ve chosen for yourself after careful planning and calculations—is a rather different experience from perfecting one’s precious debut, and that’s when the importance of the people near and dear to you kicks in in full force.

I had a clear vision for the story and an extremely detailed outline—big thanks go to the Hunts family who welcomed me to stay at their farm in Australia and drove me to the nearest town to send it onward in time. That was a wonderful beginning!

Very big thanks are due to my friends and family who took it rather well when I disappeared off the face of the earth to finish The Sisters last autumn. Sorry about that. And thanks!

I was moving houses the week I’d promised to deliver the first version of the manuscript. Hence thanks of a massive magnitude go to my parents, my husband’s parents, and my very dear friend Inka, who pretty much cleaned the new place with my mother, unpacked the furniture, and put everything in the right places while I wrote and threw tantrums. As mentioned, these thanks are rather massive in nature, but still probably not quite enough.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, I can reveal this much: most of the events unfold in the same place, and thus getting the details right was of the utmost importance to me. Colossal thanks go to my friend Satu for helping me figure out which way shadows fold in north and what materials to use in the house to achieve the desired sensory details. Also, I want to thank my mother-in-law, whose encyclopedic knowledge in gardening came in handy indeed.

While writing, I cried through most of the chapters, and I still do so even after having read the novel through about a gazillion times. For this, I want to thank my agent, Cameron McClure, who pushed me to go deeper, still deeper until the daughters took over, until the end became almost too much to bear. And then my superb editor, Claire Eddy, hinted ever so gently how to make the story even better, just a touch more tragic, and voilá! I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together!

I’m extremely happy to work with the phenomenal people at Donald Maass Literary Agency, especially Donald Maass and Katie Boutillier.

And then there’s the Tor.com Publishing team, a group of absolutely fantastic people I had the honor of meeting this past summer. Thank you Carl Engle-Laird, Kristin Temple, Katharine Duckett, and Mordicai Knode! I loved-loved-loved the cover of The Five Daughters of the Moon, but I’m head over heels in love with the cover of The Sisters of The Crescent Empress, art by the Balbusso sisters, design by Christine Foltzer—this cover is the very definition of stunning!

Finally, I want to thank my darling, dear husband, Matti. Whenever I slip into the worlds of my own making for too long, he cooks me the most fantastic dishes you can ever imagine and pokes me with that famous squeaking stuffed toy shark until I realize I should probably take a break. What more could a girl hope for?

Chapter 1: Alina

It’s too dark outside. The world has been broken since the shadow of a swan brought the news of Mama’s death. There’s no Crescent Empress now, and it’s the time of the month Papa looks aside. My sisters are Daughters of the Moon, just like I am, but I fear they will grow even more worried about me if I mention this aloud. Yet I must say something, anything, for the train is already slowing speed.

“Merile…” The train rattles as though it, too, were unhappy about approaching Angefort. I cling to the thick, white curtains with both hands and force myself to face the night. Maybe I’m just imagining the wrongness. That used to happen often enough. “Why is it so dark here?”

Merile balances on her knees next to me on the divan that yellows more with each day. She looks out through the frost-dimmed window, but it’s as if she’s not seeing the things that are so obvious to me. Rafa and Mufu stir from their shallow sleep, from where our hems form a nest for them. My sister smiles at her beautiful dogs, then at me, and her expression turns wicked. “Weeks. There won’t be a day in weeks still.”

Is she teasing me or serious? I can’t tell. But I shiver when I think of how long the shadows will grow if the sun remains captive behind the horizon for much longer. To have no light… All the shadows I’ve met so far have been friendly, even the swan shadow. And yet, I don’t want to live amongst those who have lost their bodies and souls. I really don’t. My sisters would miss me terribly much! “Why?”

Merile glances at her lounging companions, snaps her fingers. Rafa bounces up first and rises on her hind legs, to stare out with us. Her big, brown ears are perched, alert. She yaps once, and soon Mufu is there, too, black tail stiff between her legs. The dogs must think something important is about to happen outside. That is, something more important than what’s happening in the day carriage. “Because. It’s because we’re so high up in the north… Or was it south? In any case. It’s because of that thing.”

My sister sounds as if she’s repeating a line she’s read from a book or heard from Celestia or Elise. I don’t think she’s teasing me, but there’s no way to be sure. Outside, the night droops against the hard snowfields. With Papa in hiding, there’s no one left to protect the empire, and all sorts of creatures might lurk in the dark.

But evil things may come to pass even under our father’s gaze. I don’t want to even think of his name, but Celestia says that pretending that bad things didn’t happen won’t make them go away. Rather they will let the people who did the bad things get away with having done them, and so I force myself to think of the name of the man who ordered poor Mama shot.

Gagargi Prataslav is evil. He’s built a monstrous machine that he claims can see into the future. His Great Thinking Machine consumes souls for fuel, and for reasons I don’t understand he wants to feed it mine. Even though I’m no bird whose soul could light up a lamp or bring a mechanical creation to life, even though I’m six and a half years old and have spoken my name aloud so many times that it must be solidly anchored to my body already!

The gagargi also wants to rule the Crescent Empire and keep us, especially Celestia, as far away from him as possible. He has put many people under his spell, including Captain Janlav, who thinks he’s tasked to protect me and my sisters. But when we get the chance, me and my sisters must flee so that Celestia can marry the Moon, become the Crescent Empress, and reclaim her empire. I hope she’ll order the Great Thinking Machine torn apart and melted the first thing.

“Do you really not remember a word of what you’ve read?” Sibilia’s sharp question yanks me back from my thoughts, and I’ve never been happier of her and Merile’s squabbling. Even though not a day goes past without them arguing. “It’s dark here because of the curvature of the world and because we’re above the Arctic Circle. Honestly, if you paid a bit more attention to something else besides your rats, you wouldn’t be making a fool out of yourself every single time someone asks you a trivial question!”

Merile sticks her tongue out at Sibilia. It’s a dull, graying red, rather than the bright pink of Rafa’s and Mufu’s tongues. Though I often do as Merile does, this time I don’t. Sibilia’s words calm me. Maybe there’s still hope that one day we’ll run free.

“Alina, could you move just a bit?” Sibilia’s tone is kinder than the one with which she spoke to Merile. Sometimes I think they’re afraid of me breaking, as if I were sculpted from glass. “Merile, you too. We need to take down the curtains.”

I shuffle aside. Lately, it’s been easier to get lost in my thoughts. My breakfast and lunch no longer stink and taste of Nurse Nookes’s potions. Maybe the two are related. Maybe not. I miss Nurse Nookes. I hope she’s fine. I think she is—if something were to have happened to her, the shadow of the owl would no doubt have come to visit me. “Why?”

Sibilia wobbles up onto the divan even as Merile and her companions jump down. The sofa squeaks like a duck and shifts under me like a pony intent on tossing me off its back, not that that has ever happened. Sibilia seeks support from the wall, and manages to get up on her stockinged feet. Yet, I’m not at all sure she won’t fall on top of me at any moment. Maybe that’s why she sounds annoyed. “You know why.”

But I’m not sure what she means. I’m dressed in the white travel dress, the winter coat, and the fur-lined boots that pinch my toes because I’m wearing two pairs of socks. I’ve already bundled up everything that has been given to me during this awful journey: the nightgown, the simple woolen dress, and the sabots. The pearl bracelet Celestia and Elise made for me. Even the sheets and blankets from my bed. Throughout the day, Celestia and Elise have been… I’m not sure what they’re doin ...

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