Hello and a Happy Monday to all!
Today, we are happy to be hosting an exclusive excerpt from The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, the second book in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, a historical fantasy duology based on the lives of the Romanov sisters, coming out from Tor.com in November this year.
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.
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 doing, but it almost looks as if they’re taking things apart. Elise has shredded her sheets and now wraps the pieces around the chipped teacups and saucers. Celestia is . . . it almost looks as if she’s wrestling with the samovar perched on top of the cupboard by the door that leads to our cabins.
“Or then you don’t,” Sibilia mutters under her breath. She can’t quite reach the silver clips holding the curtains up. She steadies herself against the glass, leaving behind a wet handprint. “It’s because it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
But I still don’t understand what she means. The last time we were about to leave the train, we didn’t pack anything with us. Celestia had arranged her seed, General Monzanov, to meet with us at a town so tiny I can’t recall its name. But then something happened, and we had to board the train again, leave him and his troika behind.
“Sorry. Sorry lot,” Merile whispers to Rafa and Mufu. Her companions snuggle against her, heads pressed against the backs of her knees. Does she, too, ponder if we’re really going to depart the train this time around, if her seed will be there to meet us at Angefort? “That’s what we’ve been lately, haven’t we?”
Celestia says that at Angefort, we’ll be staying in a house that stands on a hill overlooking a lake. She says it’s a very nice house. But maybe there won’t be servants there either. Maybe that’s why we’re now packing.
“I want to be safe.” I force myself to meet the night with a steady gaze. With the glass between us, the darkness can’t touch me. I feel a bit better. “Will we be safe at the house?”
“Safe. You’ll be as safe as a porcelain cup wrapped in cotton sheets.” Merile grabs a corner of the white curtain.
Rafa and Mufu bounce against the divan, needlelike teeth bared, trying to do likewise. “Sibilia, what do you think, should we wrap up our precious little cup?”
There’s a pause as there always is when Sibilia considers something for longer than it should take her to make up her mind. She glances at Elise and Celestia, her plump lips pursing. Our older sisters are too busy to pay attention to us. “Yes.”
I yelp as Sibilia yanks the curtain loose. It falls over me, and . . .
It’s night now. I smell wet ground, rotting leaves, and it’s not the train that speeds across the empire. No, it’s me, running as fast as my four legs can carry me. And I’m not alone. I sense, if I were to glance over my shoulder, I would see who is with me. But I can’t. For I must run.
Run as fast as I can.
“Ha-haa. Ghost!” Merile laughs. “Alina, you look like a ghost!”
I fumble to lean on the windowsill. It’s cold. And someone is tugging at the curtains, lifting the edge. There’s a growl. It’s Rafa. No, it’s Mufu. The black dog jumps up onto the divan, into the low, soft cave. She licks my hands, her tongue wonderfully wet and warm and sticky. But even though I’m in the carriage with her and my sisters,
I’m still at the same time running.
“Sibilia.” Celestia doesn’t sound angry, but more like she’s disappointed. “Are you almost done with the curtains?”
If I were to close my eyes, I would be out of her reach, everyone’s reach. For my feet are the fastest, like lightning and gale. But why would I want to run away from my sisters? I force my eyes to stay open, as I’ve done on so many nights.
The curtain lifts as Sibilia speedily gathers it in her arms. Her round cheeks glow. She stammers apologetically at me, “Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”
“We’re not sorry,” Merile mutters, picking Mufu up from the divan. She hugs her companion fiercely. “Yes, my darling, we’re not sorry at all!”
I stare back at them, afraid to close my eyes for even half a second. The rattle of the train is the rhythm of my running feet. No, not feet, but paws, and I don’t know what it means.
“Alina, are you all right?” Sibilia sits down next to me. She cups my face between her palms. Her hands are sweaty.
“We didn’t frighten you, did we?”
I can no longer keep my eyes open. I blink rapidly. “No . . .”
The dream, or maybe it’s a nightmare, fades, and I decide I won’t tell my sisters about it, just as I don’t tell them about every shadow I see. Maybe I can simply dream when I’m awake. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. Though the shadows come and go as they please, they’ve never hurt me, just as the Witch at the End of the Lane promised. I haven’t seen her since we visited her cottage, but I do hope to meet her again. She’s the one who summoned me back when I spent too long with the shadows and almost forgot where my home is—here with my sisters. “It was nothing.”
“Right.” Sibilia lets out a deep breath, and the front of her dress strains in its seams. She still doesn’t seem convinced, but she takes it out on the curtain, vigorously bundling it. “Merile, will you help me fold this thing?”
Merile lowers Mufu on the divan and picks Rafa up in her arms. The copper brown dog nuzzles her chin. My sister tilts her head back, and her black hair is wild and wonderful. She laughs. “You’re so silly! Oh, yes! You are!”
“I’ll do it,” I say before Sibilia can chastise my sister. Folding the curtains is no doubt important, but so is cuddling Rafa and Mufu. I think it might have been one of them in the waking dream. But why only one? Why not both?
The train suddenly slows speed. A lot. I grip the curtain, as does Sibilia. It stretches tight between us. I stay up on my feet only because of that.
“No,” Celestia commands.
Sibilia and I turn just in time to see the samovar teetering on the edge of the cupboard, then arch past our sister.
“Don’t you dare fall.” And for a moment I’m sure that Celestia has it within her power to affect the way the world works, that she will only have to say the words to change events to follow her will. But then she gracefully reaches toward the silver pot, and her shadow . . . It flaps her arms as if they were wings, the sleeves of her white dress tattered feathers.
“Oh,” I gasp, blinking. Am I imagining again?
A crash. Clatter of silver. When I next open my eyes, Celestia has caught the pot, but the rest of the samovar has come apart. The body and the base and the screws that held them together have scattered, landing every which way around the carriage.
Celestia folds gracefully on her knees on the carpet that’s not so white anymore. Elise, Sibilia, Merile, and I rush to her, for there can’t be much time left before we’re at the Angefort station and must leave the train with our bundles. Elise picks up the dented body of the samovar. Sibilia retrieves the base. I spot one of the small silver screws.
“How. How are we ever going to manage to put it together?” Merile asks, but it’s as if she’s not worried about the samovar but about something else altogether.
“Hush,” Celestia says, and in her blue eyes live the calm seas and the cloudless summer skies. “We will make do with what we have. And no matter what awaits us once we depart the train, as long as we remain composed and quiet, I promise to you, my sisters, that it is in my power to keep us safe. As long as we are together, everything will be all right.”
I purse my fingers around the silver screw, smiling. We’ll be safe, after all. Celestia is blessed by the Moon, the oldest of us, the empress-to-be, and she never lies.
I don’t know why I thought that Angefort would be a town. It’s not, and I’m not yet sure what it actually is.
As we step out of the train, we’re greeted by a gust thick with prickly flakes, but not even a tiniest hint of light. I’m still shivering, squinting to see beyond my own boots, when the guards flanking us switch on the duck soul lanterns that sway as the wind wills. Their serious faces are familiar to me now, though I don’t know their real names. My sisters have named them Beard, Boy, Belly, Boots, and Tabard.
Then we’re on the move already, and of that I’m happy, because I’m sure that if we’d stayed still for a moment longer, we would have turned into ice. Captain Janlav leads the way through the storm, his steps long and strong, toward the hut that acts as the station and the hunched shapes of . . . houses? Me and my sisters have to hold tight to our blankets, which is tricky because we also have to carry our own belongings. Celestia goes first, cradling the dented samovar against her chest. Elise is next with the bundles of wrapped-up porcelain. Sibilia wades with her head bent low, the curtains clutched against her sides. Merile has our sheets and pillows piled on her arms. I’m the last, and my load is the lightest and sweetest, but as the wind yanks at my blanket, I dread I’ll soon drop the wooden box that contains what’s left of the sugar and tea.
The silent guards accompanying us carry only their rifles and the lanterns, their coats buttoned all the way up. I think they might get to return to the train later. I envy them for both. I did feel safer on the move. This place doesn’t feel friendly in any way. I don’t think any of our seeds will be here to meet us.
“Welcome to Angefort,” Captain Janlav says when we reach the small hut, the wind pausing for just long enough for the words to reach us. He sounds the same as always, steadfast and steady, but he looks very different. No, it’s his coat that’s different, missing the epaulets and the silver buttons, the signs of his rank in Mama’s service.
My sisters stare past him, at our destination, and I do likewise. My bones rattle in the gale, or that’s how it feels, but finally I can make out what awaits us. It’s a square with low log buildings for three sides, the platform we stand on closing it. The windows are shuttered against the winter, the chimneys puff gray wisps. In the middle of the square is a flagpole, and there flaps angrily a scarlet flag that bears black shapes I don’t recognize from this far away. Then, three men in bulky coats, with the hoods drawn up, swarm out of the nearest house, armed with rifles, bearing dim lanterns. They must have heard the train arrive.
“Garrison. This is a garrison,” Merile mutters even as Rafa and Mufu dive under the hem of her white cloak. Her companions must be scared. Or then, though coated, they’re freezing. Or both. “Here, at the end of the railway! Curious that . . .”
Celestia shakes her head very, very lightly. Even as the wind scrapes our cheeks, as the snow turns us white-haired and piles up on our shoulders, Merile—we all—should be silent, simply watch, but not be seen. Akin to shadows, no matter what.
Captain Janlav waves at the soldiers. He doesn’t seem cold or concerned at all as he marches through the snow to greet them. He calls over his shoulder, “Come.”
We do as he commands, though this means that poor Rafa and Mufu can no longer shelter under Merile’s hem.
When we’re but ten steps away from the soldiers, a frightening thought occurs to me. The sky is gray with clouds. Papa can’t see us now. Anything might come to pass without him learning about it until much later. Though I’ve decided to remain brave, I tremble as we meet the garrison men. The pinprick snowflakes sting my eyes, and tears soon follow. But I mustn’t make a sound. I must be as my shadow should be.
Captain Janlav salutes the soldiers, bringing his fist against his chest. He’s wearing red gloves, just as they are—they’re all on the same side. “Captain Janlav,” he introduces himself, his voice barely loud enough to carry over the howling wind. He glances at each of the men in turn, frosted brows furrowing. “Where’s Captain Ansalov?”
The garrison men shrug back at him, bearded chins clenched against their furry collars, cheeks already burning red. In the light of the swinging lanterns, their shadows are scattered, uncertain of which way to fold. But I know for sure they don’t want to be out either. I know this sort of thing because I’m friends with many a shadow.
“Well?” Captain Janlav tilts his rifle toward the heavy clouds.
A gust sharper than any before swipes against my back, against my sisters. Our hair comes loose from the braids, and light snow flees before us like a hundred translucent snakes. I hold on to my blanket, though my fingers are so numb that I don’t feel them at all anymore. But I won’t say a word. I’m my own shadow.
“Waiting inside.” The shortest of the garrison men motions in the direction from which he and the others came. I realize it then, they don’t know who we are. Is this Celestia’s doing? Can Papa help us even when he can’t see us?
“Well, how about you take us to him?” Even I can tell that Captain Janlav doesn’t want to reveal more of his mission to these men, only their leader. Is he concerned about our safety? Or is he, too, simply weary of standing out here in the storm?
“Friend, we’ve been waiting for you for weeks.” The man reaches up to brush snow off Captain Janlav’s shoulder, a gesture too amiable. He reeks of smoke and sweat and something pungent. My teeth clatter, and so do Merile’s, and I can do nothing to stop it.
“And now we are here.” Captain Janlav doesn’t sling his rifle over his shoulder, but glances at me and my sisters, speckled white from head to toe. Celestia looks back at him as if she were the one giving him the permission. Maybe it’s that way. “Lead the way to your captain.”
The garrison men guide us the rest of the way across the square, through the thickening snowfall. It hurts to move, more than it hurt to stand still. Every step feels too long, but I must keep up with my sisters. Though they wouldn’t leave me behind. They’d come looking for me, even if they might never find me.
I’m so intent on wading onward, warding off my own thoughts, that I don’t even notice it when we at last reach the buildings. But that we do.
Despite there being three houses, I don’t see one that would match with what Celestia has told us about our destination. But when we climb up the clean-brushed stairs leading to a narrow porch, I hear the faintest notes of . . .
Music! It’s definitely music, and I’ve heard this tune before! Rafa and Mufu yap as they, too, recognize the song. It’s from an opera that Elise at one time couldn’t stop humming. A love story with an unhappy ending, I think. And yet the tune warms me more than my blanket does—we haven’t heard music since . . . Not since we boarded the train.
The short soldier halts by the closed door, in the light leaking out through the small windowpanes. He rubs his hands together. “Yesaul Ansalov is inside. Go ahead. Have a look.”
Captain Janlav lifts his left fist—it’s some sort of signal for Beard and Tabard, who guard the rear. Both men cock their rifles up, to rest against their shoulders. The garrison men chuckle, as if nothing had happened here in ages. Or if something did, they don’t think it likely that that something would come to pass again anytime soon. Captain Janlav peeks in through the window and then, without further ceremony, pulls the door open and enters the room.
It must be so very warm inside, with the fire blazing under the brick arc, behind the simple iron grille. But I can’t enter yet. Not before Celestia does, and she won’t before she knows it’s safe. I do shuffle closer to her, to stare inside through the narrow gap between her and the doorframe.
A thickset man with curly brown hair leans back on a chair, feet lifted on a desk covered with tidy but tall heaps of paper. He has his eyes closed, and his somehow short fingers tap the rhythm sleepily against his lap. There are shadows in the room, but none of them belong to living animals. Or people other than him.
But it’s not the sight of Captain Ansalov as such or the shadows or the lack of them that has Captain Janlav unexpectedly chuckling. On the desk, behind the tallest pile of papers, there’s a gramophone, one with a brass horn and a black disc spinning under the needle. The music has lulled Captain Ansalov to dreams so pleasant that he doesn’t wake up when the warm air flees the room, not even when Celestia finally nods and one by one me and my sisters let the train guards claim our bundles, and then enter the room, stomping snow at the threshold.
The garrison man clears his throat with a ragged, wet cough, then shouts, “Yesaul Ansalov! Visitors.”
Captain Ansalov jolts in his chair, a man shaken awake. “Compeer Vasal, what have I said about . . .”
For a moment, I’m sure he’ll lose his balance, fall over, and bump his head. But with a surprising grace, he swings his boots down and reaches to flick the gramophone’s needle up. He leans toward us, beady green eyes glinting with interest. “Visitors. So, it was true after all. Very well then, Compeer Vasal, close the door and depart, if you’d be so kind.”
But there’s nothing kind in Captain Ansalov’s voice, even though it’s mellow and round. I feel cold, colder than I was outside, despite the fireplace.
“I have been tasked by Gagargi Prataslav himself,” Captain Janlav says after Vasal is gone and the door is closed with both the garrison soldiers and the train guards on the other side. Following Celestia’s lead, me and my sisters settle into a crescent behind Captain Janlav. He thinks it’s his duty to keep us safe, and for once I’m happy about that.
“By the great gagargi himself? Of course you are.” Captain Ansalov slowly gets up and crosses the floor that creaks under his leather boots that have seen many years and miles. The shape of his shadow is uneven. And it’s not only his shadow that’s restless. There are animal heads hung on the wall, glass-eyed deer, elks, even wolves, and the parts of the shadows that remain shift as if the animals, too, wanted to leave the room, but cannot.
“One, two”—Captain Ansalov points at me and Merile with his thick stub of a finger as he nears Captain Janlav—“Three. Four.”
His finger halts, pointing at Celestia. He must know who she is, who we are, even though no names have been mentioned, though the blankets, heavy with snow, hide our white dresses, though our braids have come undone. He was waiting for us, though he wasn’t sure we’d ever come, and now he can’t make himself believe we truly stand here before him. “Five Daughters of the Moon. Well, this I didn’t expect at all.”
From the corner of my eye, I spy Celestia and what she makes of this. My oldest sister might as well be sculpted from stone. I’m still so very cold, but I don’t dare to sneak to warm before the fireplace. For it’s as if my sister wants us to pretend that we don’t exist. Are things still going according to her plan?
“There was a change of plan.” Captain Janlav tugs off his red gloves and unbuttons his coat, scattering small piles of snow on the floor. He produces a folded, red-sealed letter from inside his breast pocket and hands it over to Captain Ansalov.
Captain Ansalov turns the letter in his hands, grunting as if he’s not entirely pleased. He runs his too-short forefinger slowly against the seal as if to check that Captain Janlav is really telling the truth. I realize he’s missing the tips of all his fingers but his thumbs. “What now, I wonder.”
My fingers, still squeezing the blanket, throb as if to remind me that I didn’t lose them anywhere, even if they went numb for a while.
“How about you read it?” Captain Janlav suggests. There are words he doesn’t want to say before me and my sisters. But he doesn’t want to leave us out of his sight either.
As I stare at Captain Ansalov’s stumpy fingers, I can’t stop thinking about mine. I should stay very still, but my hand aches worse with each heartbeat. I need to move my fingers because if I don’t, the tips might fall off on their own. They really might, and then there would be no sticking them back!
“A fine suggestion.” Captain Ansalov’s tone is flat and joyless. As he reads, his chafed lips moving with the words, I slowly bring up my free hand, to hold the blanket closed. I make sure my shadow doesn’t shift an inch.
I dare to uncurl my fingers only when he rereads the letter. And it hurts, it hurts so bad that I almost cry out! But I won’t because that would draw his attention, and that would be a bad thing.
“Is the house ready?” Captain Janlav asks, accepting the letter back.
“Liberated and cleaned.” That voice, so soft, but hard still . . . Captain Ansalov glances at me and my sisters and then again at me, and it’s almost as if he knew how much my hand aches. He smiles in the smug sort of way. My older sisters remain completely still, unaffected by his smile, his words, by any pain they might feel. But I . . .
Captain Janlav strolls past the older captain to lightly tap the brass horn of the gramophone. He runs his fingers that are just as long as fingers should be along the lacquered sides of its body, the shapes of swans carved into the shiny wood. When he speaks, he sounds as if he’s disappointed to find the musical instrument in this room.
“Seems like you did a thorough job.”
Captain Ansalov turns sharply on his heels, and the floor squeals like a wounded pig, not that I’ve ever heard an actual pig squealing, and marches to the desk. With his back turned to me, he can’t see me shuffling closer to Merile. And now that I look at my sister, she’s not as still as I thought she was. Her chin trembles, though Rafa and Mufu shift under her hem, to warm her. Maybe she’s feeling nervous, too. Maybe all my sisters are, but we’re the only ones showing it.
The two captains hold gazes for a long while, and it’s a very good thing that the desk stands between them. Neither of them wants to back off before the other. I’m counting on Captain Janlav, because I know he’ll protect us, even if he’s under the gagargi’s spell. And maybe it’s that which in the end plays in his favor. And that’s terrifying.
“Shall we sort out the details, then?” Captain Ansalov’s question is more like a statement than any sort of suggestion. He sits down and lowers the gramophone’s needle. The song continues where it last ended.
“Please do.” Celestia says the first word she’s said since we left the train. She doesn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she glides to the fireplace, and motions me and my sisters to follow her. We brush the melting snow off the blankets, from our wind-whipped braids. Elise takes tiny dance steps as she holds her palms toward the flames. Sibilia looks as if she’s tempted to do likewise. Merile cuddles Rafa and Mufu in turns. With the warmth and my sisters around me, I feel a little bit better. Maybe we haven’t come to a really, really bad place. But we’re not yet where we should be either.
The two captains make arrangements, voices so low that I can’t make them out, but I keep on trying. I shouldn’t forget for even a moment that we’re not free to come and go as we please. Celestia doesn’t have to tell me that now we can but wait and see what will happen next. Any attempt to resist wouldn’t end well. It’s too cold and dark outside, and we have no friends here. Even those who have our best interests in mind only obey the gagargi.
Both familiar and unfamiliar men enter and leave the room as summoned by both the familiar and unfamiliar captain. Me and my sisters listen to the same song a dozen times or more. Celestia stares intently at the flames as though she could hear the words hiding behind the music. Maybe she can—she’s the oldest and she sees into the world beyond this one. But even though I try, I still can’t do either.
Eventually the song ends once more, and the door opens for what I guess might be for the last time. I think we’ve waited for hours already. That is, my fingers no longer hurt, though my hair is still a bit damp, not to mention my blanket. There are small puddles on the floor at our feet.
“The troikas are ready,” the short soldier, Vasal, calls out from the doorway. He has a lit cigarette sticking out from the corner of his mouth. The wind herds the stink in.
Celestia stirs. She turns around to face Captain Ansalov and Captain Janlav. The men shake hands, a sign they’ve agreed on something, even if both still seem tense. I don’t think they’ll ever become friends.
“Come, then.” Captain Janlav waves curtly toward the door. I can see Boy and Tabard waiting outside. They must be cold if they’ve stayed out the whole time. But I don’t feel sorry for them. Why would I, when me and my sisters are the ones who have no say in where we’re going?
“Wait.” Celestia’s voice is soft and shiny, the words almost visible. “Captain Ansalov . . .”
And curiously enough, Captain Ansalov strolls past his desk, toward Celestia, his expression blank. He bows his head. He reaches out for my sister’s pale, slender hands. She lets him touch her fingers. His chapped lips part, but not a word comes out.
“You are still a good man.” Celestia’s eyes grow very blue. The pale hair braided around her head glistens silvery. Though she has a gray blanket around her shoulders, like all of us, for a moment it almost looks as if she were wearing white. “You only did your duty, what you thought was right.”
“Come, then,” Captain Janlav repeats. Or is this the first time he says the words?
Celestia casts Captain Ansalov one last look, and somehow, it’s ripe with understanding. He gazes back at her, confused, even as my sister glides past him, toward the doorway, into the darkness.
The storm has died while we were inside, leaving behind snowbanks and a calm that I know won’t last. One of the buildings must be a stable, for troikas and soldiers astride furry horses wait for us on the other side of the square. As we plod toward them, I can’t stop thinking of Celestia and what she said to Captain Ansalov. When I’m tired, I sometimes I imagine things, like earlier today. I’m not sure which was the case now, and it feels important to me to know for sure. But pinching the underside of my arm doesn’t help, and so I turn to Merile. “What was that about?”
“What. What was what?” Merile whispers back at me, doesn’t want our older sisters to hear us. “Nothing. It was nothing.”
Which means that something definitely happened.
“Nothing . . .” But before I can say more, Rafa and Mufu suddenly halt before us, one paw up, ears tight against their delicate heads. They growl in turns, and then they start bouncing in place.
“Go on, sillies.” Merile holds her blanket against her chest with one hand, claps her thigh with the other, even as our older sisters wade farther away from us. “Go on.”
But her companions pay no heed to her. I glance over my shoulder. Boy, who keeps up the rear, is but a few steps away from us. He would never kick Merile’s companions, but who says what the garrison soldiers might do if they were to cause a delay.
And then I realize what Rafa and Mufu must have seen, smelled before we did.
“Hunting dogs,” I whisper. The soldiers by the troikas hold leashed great, gray-black hounds that from this far away more resemble wolves than dogs. The hounds lean against their collars as if they were intent on springing upon us. Yet, the horses harnessed before the sleds seem calm.
“Rats,” Boy laughs as he strides beside us. I stare at him in horror. What will he do to my sister’s companions?
Nothing evil. He picks up Rafa under one arm, Mufu under the other. He does so with ease, though my sister’s companions struggle and squirm. “Can’t stay here the whole night.”
Merile sniffs. She doesn’t want the guards touching her dogs. But I don’t see it as a bad thing that the guards we’ve traveled with for six weeks turn out to be . . . kind of nice. Or perhaps they seem nice only because now we can compare them to Captain Ansalov and his soldiers.
Boy escorts Merile and me the rest of the way to our sisters, and once more, we gather into a crescent, this time before the troikas. The hounds study us with hungry eyes, leashes taut. They’re brutes with clipped ears and clipped tails, their leather collars studded with spikes.
“Here you go.” Boy hands Mufu over to Merile and Rafa to me. I clutch the still-growling dog against my chest. Though her kin is much bigger, grimmer, she’d protect me against them with all her might.
“What?” Merile tilts her chin up. She pats Mufu repeatedly, but her companion won’t calm down. “What are we waiting for?”
Boy trots aside, avoiding the question. Maybe he has a soft spot for animals only, not for us. And then I see why he didn’t linger. Captain Ansalov is marching toward us, through the knee-deep snow, ice crackling under each step. He brings his ungloved hand to his lips and lets out a whistle so shrill I want to cover my ears, but can’t as then I’d have to let go of Rafa.
“Here, boys,” Captain Ansalov calls. The soldiers quickly unleash the hounds, and the horrid creatures dart to their master. I’m sure he doesn’t keep them for company, but for . . .
I glance at Celestia, at Elise and Sibilia, but they stand as still as ever, even as Captain Ansalov approaches us with his ugly dogs. If Captain Janlav and the train guards weren’t with us, I would run. That’s how threatened I feel. Rafa must sense this, for she nudges me, as if to tell me that everything will be all right.
“Your hunting dogs?” Captain Janlav notes, more for our benefit than for him to have doubted this for even a moment.
“Excellent dogs. Bred them myself. You can’t find a hound with a sharper nose anywhere in the whole empire.” Captain Ansalov pats one of the dogs on the side. No, it’s not a pat, but more like a slap. “There’s a good boy! There’s a good, smart boy.”
He straightens his back and faces me and my sisters. He smiles at us, but it’s a wicked sort of smile, then whistles a short note. The hounds scamper to form a neat line before him. He addresses us. “Attention. Stay still. Unless you want to lose a limb.”
He sets the dogs free with another shrill whistle.
I tremble as the hounds circle me and my sisters, their black nostrils flaring, yellowing fangs bared. If it weren’t for Rafa, her warm breath against my neck, her paws against my shoulder, I couldn’t remain unmoving as the hounds sniff my boots and hem. One of them, a dog leaner than the rest, seems particularly intelligent. As if it could count what it must keep track of.
“All right. That’s enough.” Captain Ansalov chuckles. He whistles once more, and the hounds scatter and regroup behind the last troika.
“You may board the sleds,” Captain Janlav says. He doesn’t have to tell us that Captain Ansalov’s hounds have our scent now. Even I realize that any attempt to run away would end up in their teeth.
I wake up to a wail so cruel that my stomach knots up. Rafa snaps awake on my lap, but Merile and Mufu continue snoring. Elise, who sits on my other side, stares blankly ahead, though maybe it’s because her lashes and eyebrows glitter with frost. As Celestia and Sibilia travel on the sled before us, I can only see their backs.
“What was that?” I ask. Amongst the sounds of the snow crunching under the runners, the horses’ heavy breathing, and the riders’ occasional muttering, my voice sounds terribly tiny and frail.
Another wail comes from the dark forest lining what might or mightn’t be a road. The guards gallop onward as though they’d heard nothing. I crane over my shoulder, only to glimpse Captain Ansalov’s hounds sprinting from one rider to the other as though all this was just a game for them.
“Wolves,” Elise says, wrapping an arm around me. My blanket makes a cracking sound. It’s frozen into a hard shell around me, but I know it’s not thick enough to ward off the hounds’ teeth. “But don’t worry about them, my dear Alina. They won’t dare to approach this many people.”
Even as she speaks, two of the hounds take off. They leap through the snowbanks with ease, clipped ears pulled back, and disappear amongst the white-cloaked firs. The next cruel howl comes from farther away. Even the wolves are afraid of Captain Ansalov’s hounds.
I pet Rafa both to warm my hands and remain calm. There are stars in the sky at last, so it must be night. The forest is dense and full of shadows. Though I can’t know for sure, I think most of them belong to living animals. Yet I don’t dare to close my eyes again. I’m afraid of Captain Ansalov. I don’t think he’ll ever turn out to be a nice man, any more than his hounds could turn out to be anyone’s companions. I’m sure he doesn’t have any friends, only enemies and those he commands.
Elise adjusts the gold-embroidered blanket that covers our laps. “We will be at the house soon.”
I don’t know how she can tell that. I’m pretty sure she’s never been this far up in the north or away from home either. To me, the firs with branches bent under snow and the rare white clearings that the winter wind has combed hard all look the same in the light that’s not our father’s.
The hounds return behind our troika, panting, yapping. Captain Ansalov barks praises at them. He sounds too cheerful.
I lean against Elise, because I don’t want him to hear what I have to say. “I don’t think he’s here to keep us safe.”
“That’s why you have sisters,” Elise replies. But then she suddenly leans forward and raises her arm to point straight ahead. The wind pushes its way under the blankets. Rafa shivers on my lap. “Now, look!”
The forest ends, and then I do see it, our destination still so far away. A house standing on a steep hill, with a walled garden facing what might be a frozen lake. It does look very pretty, but terribly lonely, all at the same time.
“The Angefort House,” Elise whispers, awed, but there’s a trace of something else in her voice, too. She’s heard of this place. But hers are grown-up secrets, and if she hasn’t chosen to share them with me before, I don’t think she’ll do so now either.
The guards and soldiers whip the horses to gallop faster on the last, long stretch, but when we reach the steep hill, they let them slow down to a walk. Merile stirs only when we curve onto the snowy yard flanked by two smaller houses, maybe a stable and servants’ quarters? Mufu twists her head to lick what’s visible of my sister’s face from under the gray blanket, the angry red cheeks and redder nose. “Are we there yet?”
Elise laughs, and it’s the most beautiful sound ever. She reaches past me to nudge Merile’s shoulder. “Yes, we are there.”
Even as she speaks, Captain Janlav and Captain Ansalov dismount their snorting horses. Frost immediately forms on the necks and flanks, where the animals sweated. The men stride with Beard and Tabard and two garrison soldiers through the untended yard to the wide stone steps leading to the white double doors. Captain Janlav and the guards have their rifles at hand. Captain Ansalov is more at ease as he reaches out for the ring-shaped knocker. The sound it makes is heavy and lonely. Then again, who would live in a place like this?
“What do we do next?” I ask Elise, hugging Rafa.
She tilts her head minutely and studies the door, the six men waiting before it, then the troikas and horses and soldiers and even the hounds. Celestia and Sibilia sit quiet in their sled. My sister says, “We wait.”
And that’s what we do.
At last, the door opens, but it does so hesitantly and slowly. Captain Janlav wagers a step back, just to give it space to fully open and not for any other reason. A pale, bony face that’s framed by a frilly cap peeks out. And there stands a woman as old as Nurse Nookes, in a servant’s simple black and white dress, her eyes wide and gaze darting from side to side, gripping an iron poker in her hand.
I immediately know this servant is afraid, not planning to harm us. Which is good.
In the other sled, Celestia whispers something to Sibilia. Merile fidgets with her blanket, as curious as I am. Elise notices this. She says in a low voice, “She wasn’t expecting company.”
Beard brushes in past the servant. The two captains exchange hushed words with her. Or that is, the men speak.
The servant’s lips don’t move. She eyes the horses and hounds, doesn’t lower the poker. No, she does so only when she notices me and my sisters. Her expression draws blank as she stares at us in disbelief, as if she were seeing a gathering of ghosts.
Beard returns from inside the house. He nods curtly at Captain Janlav, who then turns to face me and my sisters and shouts, “Escort them in.”
“Now we get up.” Elise pulls the embroidered blanket aside from our laps. She eyes it longingly and then quickly bundles it up and pushes it atop of our other belongings. “It’s safe.”
It hurts so much to get up! My teeth chatter. My body is numb and useless once more. Even though the buildings shelter us from the wind, the cold claws at me worse now than before we boarded the sled, though I don’t know how that’s possible. Yet Elise seems unaffected. She climbs out first, then helps both me and Merile down. By the time we’re ready, Celestia and Sibilia have been so for a while.
Tabard points toward the open door. The guards don’t like talking to us when they can avoid doing so. Celestia and Sibilia obey the wordless command and go first, which is wrong, because we should be seen in the order of our ages!
“Elise . . .” I whisper, confused.
“Hush.” She holds my and Merile’s hand as we follow our sisters’ path. Rafa and Mufu trot beside us, lifting their paws high, but there’s no escaping the winter. “Don’t worry about that now.”
But it feels exactly the sort of thing that we should worry about. For us, the Daughters of the Moon, the right order is very important. Nurse Nookes always said that the very future of the Crescent Empire depends on it, though I never quite understood why and how.
We enter the house, and Belly closes the door behind us. Inside, the old servant studies us in the faint light of a very old duck soul lantern. Though me and my sisters are wrapped in gray blankets and ruffled by our long journey, it’s as if the servant knows already who we are, but not because someone has told her, but because she recognizes us as our father’s daughters. I like her, though still she doesn’t say a word. Is she mute? I try not to stare at her.
As we tramp snow from our sabots and boots and brush it off the blankets, I hear a snippet of conversation coming from a room next to the hall, from what might be a library. The door is ajar.
“Once your men have unpacked the sleds, we will not be requiring further assistance,” Captain Janlav says.
“Though do make sure nothing disappears in their pockets, will you?”
Captain Ansalov chuckles, and how I hate that sound! “We will try our very best.”
Captain Janlav grunts something under his breath. He may or may not have mentioned the gagargi’s name. Hrr! Thinking of him makes me shiver worse than the winter.
The two captains emerge from the room.
“Follow me,” Captain Janlav says. He takes us through the hall, past what indeed is a library, toward a wide, wooden stairway. I catch a glimpse of narrower stairs leading down, to the cellar. The simple, dark door gives me chills. Rafa and Mufu must have sensed the same, for they yap, but only once.
“Sillies,” Merile laughs, but the laugh is forced. “Up. Up we go!”
Though the stairs creak like a forest of hollow trees, I remind myself that I shouldn’t be afraid. Beard checked the house. Captain Janlav is tasked to protect us. He wouldn’t have brought us here, led us upstairs, if he weren’t sure.
And yet, with each step, I’m more terrified.
We don’t stop at the second floor, not in the big room that might be a dining room. We hurry along the long hallway. We continue onward to the third floor, there to at last enter a drawing room.
No curtains cover the tall, arching windows, and the night floods in unhindered. On the far side of the room, three doors hide what might be bedrooms. A grandfather clock strikes time, with a fireplace facing it from the opposite side. There’s no embers there, no flames, but the two chandeliers gleam silvery. I blink, and then I see more. In the light of the stars and the chandeliers, two elderly, pale ladies sit behind the oval table, facing the door, their faces sharp, eyes hungry.
“Olesia, you were right,” the older one says. “We have visitors, imagine that!”
I gasp and stumble back, straight into Elise’s arms. She looks around in alarm, and though she seems to be taking in everything in the room, her gaze slides right past the women. “What is it, Alina?”
I can’t reply to her. For it’s then that I realize, the light goes through the women. This house is haunted.
Copyright © 2017 by Leena Likitalo
About the Author
LEENA LIKITALO hails from Finland, the land of endless summer days and long, dark winter nights. She breaks computer games for a living and lives with her husband on an island at the outskirts of Helsinki, the capital. But regardless of her remote location, stories find their way to her and demand to be told. Leena is the author of The Waning Moon Duology, including The Five Daughters of the Moon and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress.
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress is out October 7 2017 from Tor.com.