In which we showcase the cover second book in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress. Both books are coming later this year from tor.com!
Without further ado, behold! The smugglerific cover!
About the Book:
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress is the second book in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, a fabulous historical fantasy based on the lives of the Romanov sisters.
With the Crescent Empress dead, a civil war has torn the empire asunder. No one seems able to stop the ruthless Gagargi Prataslav. The five Daughters of the Moon are where he wants them to be, held captive in an isolated house in the far north.
Little Alina senses that the rooms that have fallen in disrepair have a sad tale to tell. Indeed, she soon meets two elderly ladies, the ghosts of the house’s former inhabitants.
Merile finds the ghosts suspiciously friendly and too interested in her sisters. She resolves to uncover their agenda with the help of her two dogs.
Sibilia isn’t terribly interested in her younger sisters’ imaginary friends, for she has other concerns. If they don’t leave the house by spring, she’ll miss her debut. And while reading through the holy scriptures, she stumbles upon a mystery that reeks of power.
Elise struggles to come to terms with her relationship with Captain Janlav. Her former lover now serves the gagargi, and it’s his duty to keep the daughters confined in the house. But if the opportunity were to arise, she might be able sway him into helping them flee.
Celestia is perfectly aware of the gagargi coming to claim her rather sooner than later. She’s resolved to come up with a plan to keep her sisters safe at any cost. For she knows what tends to happen to the sisters of the Crescent Empress.
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. You can visit her online at www.leenalikitalo.com.
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress will be released on November 7. In the meantime, The Five Daughters of the Moon, the first book in the duology will be released in July and we have an exclusive excerpt to whet your appetite!
Excerpt: The Five Daughters of the Moon
Chapter 1 – Alina
“The Great Thinking Machine can answer every question,” Gagargi Prataslav says as he steps forth from the shadows cast by the huge machine. Everyone in the audience, me included, shrinks back in the wicker chairs, for the gagargi is an intimidating sight in his black robes, with the hood half concealing his heavily bearded face. His dark eyes glow with the secrets from the world beyond this one, and not even Mama, the Crescent Empress, can endure his gaze for long. “It can find an answer to questions that no one has even thought to ask yet.”
There is something wrong, so very wrong, in the way he speaks, the way Mama, my sisters, the guards, and the assembled nobles all listen to him. I don’t want him to utter a single word more, but I’m two months shy of my sixth birthday. I don’t yet have a name, no right for an opinion, even though my father is the Moon.
“Being built to do so”—Gagargi Prataslav motions at the machine looming behind him. The horrendous mechanical creature is as tall as three men standing on each other’s shoulders, as wide as an imperial locomotive. With hundreds of pistons akin to sinewy, spindly legs pressed against its sides, it looks like a giant spider poised to strike. I don’t want to see what sort of web the machine might weave—“it can be said that the Great Thinking Machine can, if not tell, then at least estimate the future very accurately indeed.”
Light fades. The pavilion’s unwashed glass walls and ceiling reveal that thick, gray clouds have gathered in the summer sky. Nurse Nookes would chide me for thinking it an omen, but she’s back at the Summer Palace. Though two dozen guards in the blue and silver of the Moon protect me and my family, I suddenly feel very lonely and vulnerable.
I shift on my chair to nudge Merile, my favorite sister. She’s only five years older than me and remembers what it felt like to not have a name. But now she perches on her seat, brown fingers curled around the linen of her frilly dress. She nods at every word the gagargi says, and the black ringlets piled atop of her head bob with the movement. Only the beautiful dog on her lap, Rafa, turns to look at me. Her other companion, silver-gray Mufu, sleeps curled against her feet.
“Future,” Gagargi Prataslav says, stretching the pause between words as if he could control time, too, “can be pieced together from the clues of today.”
I reach out to pet Rafa’s head. She’s a small, lean dog with chocolate brown eyes and big floppy ears. She meets my gaze with a deep, serious look. In this crowd, she’s the only one who seems to understand my distress. Though gagargis have served the imperial family for a millennium, the way Gagargi Prataslav speaks implies that he wants something more. I have no idea what that might be.
At last Gagargi Prataslav bows. The hood of his black robes cascades to cover his face, and only the tip of his hawkish nose peeks out. Then he straightens his back with a flourish of his hand. His robes shift as though he were facing a storm, and the hood falls to rest against his back. His oiled black hair is braided tight against his skull. “Please let me present to you Engineer Alanov, the father of the Great Thinking Machine.”
As the audience’s focus shifts from the gagargi to a mere engineer, the awful spell lifts. Merile hugs Rafa, glaring at me for daring to pet her dog without permission. My older, even sillier sisters, Sibilia and Elise, resume gossiping. They look almost identical in their white dresses and plumes decorating their red-gold hair, but then again, they’re of the same seed. Celestia, the oldest of us, leans to whisper in Mama’s ear. Out of the Five Daughters of the Moon, she resembles Mama the most, and only she can glimpse the world beyond this one. Even now, the faraway look in her blue eyes reveals she’s seeing more. One day, she’ll be the Crescent Empress, the woman married to the Moon, and then she’ll see what he sees, too.
“Your Highness, I’m greatly honored by this opportunity.” Engineer Alanov’s voice bears a tremble of a man told “no” one too many times. He is gaunt, and his thinning brown hair seems to be running away from his pinkish forehead. He keeps gazing at the mossy floor tiles, and his round glasses hang too low on his narrow nose. Inevitably, he fails to capture the audience’s attention.
As polite chatter and court gossip fill the pavilion, I can’t help wondering if I just imagined what happened before. For surely Mama would never let Gagargi Prataslav address her if she thought there was even the slightest chance of foul play. No, she wouldn’t. Mama is wise and just. Under her rule, the Crescent Empire has only grown in size and prospered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams—we have won many glorious victories against the kings and queens and other persons with titles I can’t be bothered to remember because none of them are of heavenly descent like us.
Then I feel Gagargi Prataslav’s stare, searing hot like a bonfire ready to devour witches. My every muscle stiffens, stomach knots tight, and throat shrinks. I manage to keep my attention riveted to the engineer only barely. Nurse Nookes claims that whatever I find so frightening, it really doesn’t exist if I don’t acknowledge it. I bet she’s never met the gagargi up close.
“I have designed this machine to search for patterns in information and solve computational problems.” Engineer Alanov’s voice comes from far away, as if he were not really present. As if no one else but the gagargi and I existed.
Pretending to fan my face, I glance at Gagargi Prataslav from over the edge of my palm. There is something disturbingly hungry in the way he studies me. I’m neither foolish nor bold enough to meet his gaze, to find out if it’s just my imagination playing tricks on me. Nurse Nookes claims that that happens often enough.
“And what need would I have for this machine?” Mama’s question comes as a relief to me. Her gaze is bright blue, though this pavilion and everything it contains has fallen into disrepair. I don’t know why she agreed to the gagargi’s invitation in the first place or why I and my sisters were required to be present. Then again, there are many events where we must be seen but not heard.
Engineer Alanov glances at Gagargi Prataslav as if seeking encouragement or permission. The gagargi pats him on the shoulder, bony fingers coming to rest on the engineer’s simple gray coat. Engineer Alanov nudges his glasses up and continues with a newfound vigor. “Information . . . the machine can comb through and combine information from multiple sources. It can remember up to one thousand numbers at once, and it can perform the four main arithmetic operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The machine accepts numerical data and instructions as inputs, and it is capable of performing a multiplication of two numbers with up to twenty digits in less than three minutes.”
Engineer Alanov blushes with pride. Sibilia and Elise burst into giggles. They’re already old enough—Sibilia fifteen and Elise sixteen—that neither of them will ever have to worry about calculating anything. However, based on what they’ve told me about numbers, three minutes sounds like a short time to spend on pondering the possible results. They sure spent much longer agonizing over the tasks assigned to them.
Mama raises her right hand minutely at Elise and Sibilia, and my sisters manage to stifle their giggles. Mama nods, and for a moment I’m not sure whether she did so because she’s pleased with my sisters or because the engineer has caught her attention. At last she says, “I have plenty enough accountants already. They have the finest calculators and fastest fingers. What need would I have for this machine of yours?”
Engineer Alanov sways as though Mama had just slapped him. The flush on his cheeks deepens to scarlet as he glances again at the gagargi. Gagargi Prataslav smiles. His teeth are white, but slightly crooked. They remind me of . . . Well, if a wolf’s fangs were filed even . . . But no, this is the sort of description that Nurse Nookes would chastise me for, or worse, force me to swallow another spoonful of her foul potions.
“For efficiency. People tire and make mistakes.” Gagargi Prataslav produces from inside his robes, from a hidden pocket, a pack of cards—ordinary playing cards? He picks one up and holds it so that the weak light can flow through the neat arrangement of holes. No images or words or numbers tarnish the surface. “These cards contain instructions for the machine, and the machine never disobeys.”
“It is full of holes,” Mama says in a tone that indicates that not even a blind person could have missed that. Or not even Elise and Sibilia, no matter what they’re gossiping about.
“Holes, yes!” Engineer Alanov claps, his fingers all knuckles and chipped nails. “The arrangement of these holes forms the language that the Great Thinking Machine can read . . . and write. Every one of these cards is a program, and every one of these programs has been written to solve a specific problem. But, note that one program can be run against unlimited sets of data. For example, I have here a program that simulates intelligent redistribution of resources . . .”
Mama flicks her forefinger to silence the engineer. Her crescent platinum ring gleams, but the shine is somehow dull. As is Mama’s voice. “Let us discuss more relevant cases. I assume you can write new programs to solve new problems.”
Gagargi Prataslav’s gaze darkens once more, and when he speaks his voice is veiled by a sweetness that reminds me of the honey Nurse Nookes uses to cover the bitter aftertaste of her potions. I hate honey. “The Great Thinking Machine can accomplish more than a mere human mind can ever even imagine.”
I can see people around me, Mama included, stiffening once more. It’s as if they were slowly turning into stone. The pavilion’s moss-laced glass panes dampen what remains of the light, and what little reaches us is not enough. Yet no one else seems to notice this.
I pinch myself. Twice, and hard enough to leave bruises. I must be imagining again. I know I am, and if I speak of this . . . I will only embarrass myself.
“I have looked into the past and present. But neither of them hold the solution for the problem we face.” Gagargi Prataslav strolls to brush the machine’s side as if it were a steed about to set foot on a racing track. He pats it two times in quick succession. The metallic echo is hollow. “In this changing world, with its more complex problems, to find the right solutions, one must look into the future or perish like the beasts of the olden times.”
I don’t like this future the gagargi describes. How dare he, how dare he speak as if Mama really needed him and the machine to rule her empire! She should tell him to say no more. But she doesn’t. She listens to him intently.
I can’t take it anymore. I push myself up from my chair and jump down, as nimbly and silently as only a girl of my age can. Rafa abandons Merile’s lap to accompany me. Only then does my sister stir.
“Where . . . where are you going?” Merile asks, drowsily as though she’d just woken up from a nap.
I nod toward the door at the far end of the pavilion. Let Merile think I’m feeling weak again. And maybe I am. That must be it.
“For the sake of the argument, let me pose a simple question,” the gagargi says, turning to face Mama and Mama alone. “Who fights the hardest: a soldier with his stomach full of rye bread or one starving because promised supplies never arrived? Who works the hardest: an unfed or nourished peasant?”
Rafa and Mufu trot past me, to the door, nails scratching the cracked tiles. They halt there and glance over their shoulders. Their eyes, so big and soulful, glint with concern and caring for their mistress and maybe for me, too. They want us to leave this place.
“Trivial questions, are they not?” From the corner of my eye, I catch the gagargi studying me. He must have heard the dogs moving. “The key to the door that stands between us and the luminous future is the intelligent redistribution of resources.”
“Fine.” Merile gets up slowly. She brushes her white hem straight, runs a hand over her hair to ensure the pins still hold her ringlets in place. They don’t, but she merely shrugs. “I’ll come with you.”
“Engineer Alanov, if you will?” Gagargi Prataslav pats the engineer on the shoulder, much like he patted the machine. His pleasant smile bears a hint of cruel amusement, and I know, just know, that that smile is targeted to me. It says: Run, run if you want to, but you can never flee from me.
The engineer clears his throat, maybe fearing that the rest of his audience might trickle out after Merile and me. Sibilia notices us leaving then. She whispers something to Elise, who then whispers the message onward to Celestia. My oldest sister turns her head so minutely that the ibis-bead tiara resting against her tall forehead doesn’t shift at all. Her gaze radiates the kindness she feels toward her every subject-to-be, including me.
Merile takes hold of my hand, and together we dash out. A pair of guards joins us at the doors. A Daughter of the Moon is never truly alone. Though, with my sisters to look after me, that’s not something I need to ever fear.
Merile hums under her breath as we walk along the gravel path circling the pavilion. Nobody else lives on the Gagargi Island apart from Gagargi Prataslav and his flock of apprentices. From this side of the island, with the pavilion blocking the view, I can’t see the Crescent Island or even one of the many towers of the Summer Palace.
The view to the ocean is unblocked. The sea breeze carries a hint of things rotting. Farther out in the sea, sheets of rain fall down from coal-black clouds. Seagulls screech as they swoop the skies, but they keep away from the shores of this island. Only a fearless magpie, the bird black and white, dares to prance on the rocks.
We turn a corner. Rafa and Mufu dash through the tall grass, all arched backs and slim limbs. But suddenly they halt, one forepaw in the air. Then I catch a glimpse of the peacock corrals and swan pens in the valley below.
“Go on, silly dogs,” Merile says to Rafa and Mufu. To me she says, “The wings of the pedigree birds have been clipped.”
As Rafa and Mufu run down the hill, toward the corrals and pens, I think of the poor birds. Of course I know where the soul beads come from and that the gagargis must practice their art somewhere. And yet . . . I shiver as I glance over my shoulder. Though the gagargi’s brick house with its massive round towers looms at the far end of the island, the shadow stretches longer than it should, almost far enough to touch me, though that’s impossible. And I’m not imagining it. “I don’t like this place.”
Merile tilts her head sideways, and the black ringlets bounce with the movement. Out of my four sisters, she’s the only one who takes my worries seriously. But as she’s grown, as I’ve grown, even she has changed. Maybe soon she, too, will report my words to Nurse Nookes or, even worse, directly to Mama.
“Why . . .” But before Merile can say whatever she was about to say, what I didn’t want to hear anyway, the barking of dogs, shrieking of birds, and flapping of broken wings distracts her. And me, too.
Merile grins, not old enough to be above mischief after all. She glances at the corrals, to catch a glimpse of dog tails and raised heads, clipped wingtips and curved necks. “I should call them back.”
But she doesn’t.
We stroll along the long side of the pavilion. Only the dirty glass separates us from the audience gathered in a semicircle to listen to the gagargi speak. We pass the guards, the audience, even the gagargi. The glass muffles his voice, for which I’m happy. His words are poison.
The machine looks as massive as ever. Merile runs her fingers against the pavilion’s wall, parting the thick, green moss to reveal the glass underneath. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together. Her white glove is ruined.
“Elise’s governess, she told her that this used to be a greenhouse. She says every gagargi has his own area of interest. Specialty of one sort or another.”
As we turn another corner, I think of the machine, less threatening now that the glass stands between us. Is the machine Gagargi Prataslav’s specialty? Or does he do something else, too, here on this island that no one in her right mind would want to visit?
“What is he doing now?” Merile wonders aloud. She tiptoes closer to the pavilion’s wall. I follow her through a bush of lupines, and so we both hover as close as we dare, squinting through the panes.
Engineer Alanov stands but meters away from us, his back against the wall. Before him is a sturdy table, on it a polished wooden box. He inserts a key into the heavy iron lock. As he props open the box, an amber glow lights up his weasel face.
“What is that?” I ask, even as the engineer lifts from the box a bead the size of my fist. He turns around swiftly and marches to the machine.
“It can’t. It can’t be . . .” Merile whispers. “Mama would never allow that!”
The engineer opens a hatch in the machine and lowers the bead in solemnly and carefully. He steps back, head bent down and arms crossed behind his back like a country gagargi retreating from the altar. A heartbeat later, the machine screeches, a high-pitched sound from an unoiled throat. The insect legs burst into a gallop. The pistons and wheels and cogs—I think that’s what they’re called—join the movement.
I shriek back, stumbling on the lupine stems. I cling to Merile’s arm before I notice what I’m doing. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice our guards staring at us.
“The machine . . .” Merile’s mouth hangs slack. She looks around for her dogs, then at me. It’s almost as if she’s seeking someone to comfort her. But that can’t be. She’s eleven already! “The machine has come to life.”
I’ve seen things come to life before. But these things have been small and insignificant, toys created for our entertainment or novelty items meant to buy Mama’s favor. Nothing this big. Or threatening. Merile and I really should go. But I don’t dare to say a word for fear of alerting the guards. For that would lead to them reporting to Mama.
Behind the glass, Engineer Alanov inserts holed cards into the machine. He licks his fingers at regular intervals, presses each sheet down with great care. The machine looks hungry even after he finishes. I know for sure, no matter how many beads and sheets he’ll feed the machine, it can never be fully satisfied.
“Come.” Merile tugs my hand, and I’m overjoyed to obey her. My sister leads me down a path toward the shore. Rafa and Mufu appear from amidst thistles, run to us, bounce next to us, tongues lolling out from between tiny, sharp teeth. The guards tail us from a distance.
I can’t speak for as long as I hear the awful machine shrieking. Merile and I walk down a hill, toward the ocean. It might rain soon. If it does, we need to return. But . . .
“I don’t want to go back,” I say as we halt on the rocks polished smooth by wave after wave. From this side of the island, I can see home, but this does little to comfort me. Strange as it is, it’s the presence of the magpie, the same one I saw earlier, that gives me the courage to speak. “The machine . . . it looked so hungry.”
Merile squats before me and places her palms on my shoulders. Dove beads glitter around her neck, against her brown skin. They remind me of the amber bead the engineer fed to the machine. Which animal’s soul was that one?
“My dear sister, you have nothing to be afraid of.”
But I have. The machine looked so terribly, terribly hungry. The gagargi’s gaze was so dark. He has plans for me, I know that for sure.
Everyone knows that without a name a soul can’t anchor to the body, and I still have to wait two more months for my name. The gagargi, I’m sure of it now, he wants to feed me to the machine. That’s what his cruel smile meant.
“What is it?” Merile asks, brushing my cheek as I blink away tears.
The magpie studies me, head cocked to the side. The two guards pretend they don’t see me crying, though no doubt they took note of that. I’m once more ashamed of myself, my fears that I know are more than that. But how can I voice them without sounding ridiculous? How do I tell my sister without alarming her? I don’t want her to run and report to Nurse Nookes.
I whisper, “What if I lose my soul before my name day?”
Merile glances over my shoulder at the guards. They stand with their backs straight, rifles leaning against their shoulders. Dust doesn’t stain their midnight blue uniforms, nor does it mar their black boots. My sister flicks her finger at them, and they take ten steps back, just enough to give us privacy but still be able to protect us from whomever might want to hurt us. Though even they can’t protect me against the gagargi, not when his words turn people to stone.
“A secret,” Merile says. “If you tell me what name you’ve chosen, I will keep it a secret.”
What she is proposing is . . . My heart gallops like a three-legged wild pony. Nurse Nookes would definitely chastise me if she heard of this. And Mama wouldn’t approve, for it’s still two more months until the ceremony. I really should wait.
“I can’t . . .” It would be so very wrong. And yet, and yet I have known for months already what I want to be called when I finally turn six.
“I told my name to Sibilia. And she told hers to Elise. Who told hers to Celestia,” Merile reveals. She squats farther down and takes hold of my hands. Her fingers are so warm, even through the stained satin. “And nothing bad happened.”
The sea breeze is getting colder, heavy with the rain to come. I shiver as I stare up the hill, at the pavilion, and through the glass at the machine. I can hear it rumbling, puffing steam. I can’t see Mama, my sisters, or anyone else in the audience. But the machine can see me. And it still looks hungry.
“Alina,” I whisper in Merile’s ear, and it feels to me as if I were somehow, impossibly, sealing my fate. “My name will be Alina.”
Behind us, the machine screams a protest. But it can’t have my soul. My soul is now anchored to my body.