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A Rumor of Gems
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A Rumor of Gems

4.5 2
by Ellen Steiber
 

Enter the port city of Arcato: an old and magical town set somewhere in our modern world, a town where gemstones have begun to mysteriously appear . . . gemstones whose mystical powers aren't mere myth or legend but frighteningly real, casting their spells for good and ill. And the gemstones aren't all that's awry: gods and tricksters have also been loosed,

Overview

Enter the port city of Arcato: an old and magical town set somewhere in our modern world, a town where gemstones have begun to mysteriously appear . . . gemstones whose mystical powers aren't mere myth or legend but frighteningly real, casting their spells for good and ill. And the gemstones aren't all that's awry: gods and tricksters have also been loosed, sewing chaos in the streets of Arcato.

Caught in this maelstrom of magic and chance are four people whose lives become inextricably intertwined: Lucinda de Francesco, an embittered young woman who has no interest in falling under the influence of gods, gems, or any man; Alasdair, a shaman of sorts who can read and invoke the power of the stones; Sebastian Keane, an antiques dealer who pursues Lucinda with charm and persistence and other mysterious means; and Micheal Fortunato, an 11-year-old boy who—under the influence of gods and gems—may have become a killer.

A Rumor of Gems is a suspenseful, sexy story about the myths that linger in the shadows of our world. If you've ever been seduced by the beauty and power of gemstones, come find the magic at their heart.

Editorial Reviews

R.L. Stine
"What a mysterious, sexy, and startling world. This book passed my ultimate test— I didn't want it to end!"
Jacqueline Carey
"Fans of urban fantasy—and gem lovers everywhere—will enjoy it!"
Holly Black
"Steiber's prose is as multi-faceted, dazzling, and flawless as any gem."
Delia Sherman
"Shapeshifters and fashion designers, the gods of Love and of Thieves, intrigue and danger, A Rumor of Gems has them all."
Emma Bull
"Steiber's knowledge of gemstone lore makes for a rich and unusual fantasy background. I hope to see more of the city of Arcato!"
Publishers Weekly
The first adult novel by children's author Steiber is a somewhat prolix fantasy in a recognizably contemporary world, featuring an intriguing setting-the enchanted yet tawdry port city of Arcato, in which gods pose as mortals for unfathomable reasons and shape-shifters veer between human and animal forms. Different eras coexist, and residents reach hidden towns through underground passages. The one constant is the jewelry, exquisite gems that possess subtly sentient powers. Most notable is a piece of jade fashioned into a miniature dragon with a mind of its own. Alas, the human characters aren't nearly as interesting. Lucinda de Francesco, whose quest for true love drives the murky plot, tries the reader's patience with her vapid ruminations on life. Still, blurbs from such eminent fantasy writers as R.L. Stine, Jacqueline Carey and Gregory Frost should ensure a strong start for this ambitious tale of magic and romance. Agent, McIntosh & Otis. (June 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
VOYA
In Arcato, a port city in a world much like the current, gemstones with awesome powers have suddenly begun to appear-opals in a cash register, moonstones in an ashtray, garnets in a window box. With the gems arrive the old gods and tricksters-Hermes, Kali, Janus, Bastet, and others-sowing chaos in the city streets, playing incomprehensible games with human lives. Caught in this shifting web of magic and religion are the lifelines of four people whose fates become inextricably linked to gods and gems. Lucinda, bitter and streetwise, has no intention of falling under the influence of jewels, gods, or any man. Alasdair, the traveler of many names from another world, hears the gemstones speak and channels their powers. Sebastian poses as an antique dealer to mask both his true nature as a shape-shifter and his role as a seducer and manipulator. Michael is only eleven years old, but possessed by gods and gems, he is already a cold killer. These four characters move among several worlds in a sprawling saga of revenge, sacrifice, love, and hate. Vivid characters, including a tiny jade dragon with a huge personality, add to the reader's pleasure in this remarkable novel. Although more careful editing might have polished the occasionally unwieldy paragraphs and pruned the lengthy narrative, there is no doubt that the author has created believable alternate worlds peopled by fascinating, multidimensional characters. Part urban fantasy, part quest narrative, and wholly gripping, this book will appeal to mature readers. VOYA CODES: 4Q 5P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Every YA (who reads) was dying to read it yesterday; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12;Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2005, Tor, 496p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Jamie S. Hansen
Library Journal
The port town of Arcato, located in the modern world, experiences a rebirth of magic owing to the appearance of gemstones that confer the power of spells on those who find them. As gods and chaos-bringers throw the city into a panic, a few seemingly random individuals find their lives intertwined as they attempt to make sense of a world suddenly bereft of reason and logic. YA author Steiber's first novel for adults takes a fresh premise and adds to it a cast of unusual characters and a richly detailed "real world" setting that make the tale both credible and compelling. A good choice for most libraries. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312858797
Publisher:
Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
06/01/2005
Series:
Gemstone Series
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
464
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.17(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

There were rumors of gems appearing in the city: topaz turning up in the sneaker of a three-year-old; discarded emeralds found glittering on a restaurant dish that a waiter was about to clear; a convenience store cash register filled with opals instead of dimes; the dark soil in a window box suddenly shining with bits of polished lapis and garnet—-enough to make necklaces for every woman in the tenement where the window box sprouted pink and yellow sweet peas.

There was no confirmation of the rumors. No one came forward with a coffee cup filled with rubies, and who could blame them? Except for a woman who'd won the local lottery, no one displayed sudden wealth. No one reported stolen jewels. No one fenced them through the underground. And yet the rumors continued—-a girl in the park spilling out a sack of marbles and watching spheres of aquamarine and moonstone roll out in their stead; a punk pulling a knife on a onetime friend only to find he held a small, obelisk quartz crystal in which the image of an even smaller tiger roamed. (He kept the crystal and the tiger. The onetime friend fled.) Not all such appearances were welcome. An old man opened his cigar box to find no cigars but a rod of dark green tourmaline. He junked the stone and brought himself another box of cigars.

They were just rumors. And yet they persisted. Winter was finally releasing its hold, the sky held more light, and the people of Arcato began to walk with a sense of hope that had not been present for years. Although few admitted to believing the tales, there was hardly a soul who did not secretly hope that he would open his refrigerator door and see a topaz in place of a tomato, or that she might pour from a bag of cat food and have a cache of diamonds tumble out. The promise of riches was in the air.

Riches, however, were not what the appearance of the gems betokened. They were messages of a sort, calling cards. They were left by one who could not help himself. Alasdair scattered gems wherever he went, even when trying to be discreet. They fell from his pockets, trailed from his sleeves, hid in the brim of his hat, and brushed his eyelashes as they fell. He knew this for a problem and so he did not move about much during the day. When he did he wore layer upon layer of clothing to keep the showy little things concealed. And still the gems came. They had a penchant for escape. They liked the light of the sun. They liked to be seen. They were impossible to contain.

To the people of Arcato the rumors of the stones were an infusion of hope, a promise that what was desired might one day be met. To Alasdair the stones in their irrefutable reality were a sign that he could not stay long in the city, even under the cover of darkness. He would have to return to the place he had come from though he had left, swearing up and down that he would have nothing to do with it again. Even then he'd known his words for a lie. He was as bound to the place as the moon to the earth. He could feel its pull moving along his skin, streaming through his blood like a tide, whispering to him when he slept. He would have to go home. But the rumors were still considered the stuff of children's stories. No one took them seriously. He still had time.

In an apartment on a granite ridge near the top of the city, he closed thick velvet curtains and shed the layers of clothing for a simple robe. He pretended not to notice as the gemstones tumbled to the carpet. He turned on a lamp, knowing its narrow spectrum would annoy them. Their reaction was predictable. As if to show him just how inadequate lamplight was, the diamonds arranged themselves on his desk, sending out streams of rainbow-colored light, inviting him in their most dazzling fashion to be seated. And write a letter home, of course. The rubies took themselves off to the kitchen where they sorted themselves into various corners so that the white appliances glowed with the warmth of high mountain sunsets. The sapphires gathered in the bedroom, darting deep blue fire against the wood-paneled walls, reminding him of rooms he'd grown up in, of the chamber where he'd first made love.

For Alasdair the stones outdid themselves. They went beyond reflecting available light. They drew energy from their very centers, sent out colors beyond those normally seen by the human eye—-colors he would recognize, colors he would long for. They were determined to please him. They were bound to seduce him. They were his only to lead him back. He turned on the old TV set, welcoming the black-and-white screen.

Beside him a tiny jade dragon climbed from the end table to his shoulder, its claws sinking into his robe as it climbed. It settled contentedly on his collarbone, where it blinked its eyes once and then watched the sitcom. Although he did not find the show funny, the dragon did. He could tell by the occasional amused flutter of its pale green wings.

Lucinda de Francesco had never had patience for stories of the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, or gemstones appearing in teacups. She took the rumors for mass hallucination, a phenomenon that she believed explained a great deal of the stupidity around her. It was the only thing that could account for the enduring popularity of certain politicians, religions, and hairstyles. Then again, odd and inexplicable things had been happening in Arcato for some time now. Quite a number of people claimed to see things that simply weren't there—-a full crew loading an old steamboat that had been dry-docked for years, a busker in a doorway where a building no longer stood, a line of stilt walkers striding across the surface of the river's grey-green waters. Lucinda gave no real credence to any of these claims. She trusted that what she saw was real and that the gems were not. She refused to look for the glitter of sapphires beneath streetcars or pearls pouring out of vending machines. So when she found a piece of pale green jade, carved to look like a small, perfect dragon—-complete with wings, scales, claws, and a long, curled tail—-she thought only that someone had been fool enough to lose something valuable. She tucked it in the pocket of her shirt, wondering if she should advertise it, deciding immediately that she didn't want to be bothered with the phone calls or letters that would come in response. Besides, it was a pretty thing.

At home she put the dragon on top of her bookcase. The carving was so small, she couldn't see it up there unless she walked right up to it. This bothered her. Before she went to sleep she took the dragon down and set it beneath the Chinese lamp on her bedside table. In the glow of the electric light the jade was translucent. It made her think of early spring, of clouds and water, of things that flowed.

Lucinda stripped off her clothing, leaving on silver bracelets and rings, anklets and earrings, necklaces strung with lockets and beads, milagros and charms. She hated sleeping in clothing and couldn't sleep without jewelry. Her last lover had complained that her earrings kept sticking him in the jaw. She'd shrugged and told him she didn't see why she was the only one who should be penetrated. They'd had angry sex and she'd left his bed before dawn, vowing he'd never see her again.

She got into bed and opened the book she'd been reading for the last three months, a novel about a man and a city and how the two wore each other down. She never could seem to get very far into it. She read another page, too tired to stay with the story, too restless to stay in bed. Going to her bookshelves, she began to skim through books of poetry—-Millay for her astringent sonnets, Shelley because Lucinda had always felt at home in his drugged visions, and Keats and Neruda because their poems were just so astoundingly gorgeous—-but tonight none of them soothed.

She got dressed again and though it was nearly midnight, she left the apartment and went down to the streets. A light rain had fallen, and the sidewalks smelled damp and chalky. Shallow pools of water, coated with a film of rainbow oil, caught the reflections of the streetlamps. In one she thought she saw the image of a small green dragon.

She wound up on Consolación Street, walking past the Teatro Descardo to Indigo, one of the smaller clubs. It was a chilly weeknight and the street, usually crowded at this hour, was deserted. Indigo's bouncer barely glanced at her before opening the door; she wondered if there was anyone he refused tonight. "Maxine here?" she asked, before stepping over the threshold.

He nodded. "She'll find you."

Inside a band played half-heartedly and discordantly on the stage. Lucinda bought herself a shot of tequila at the bar and sat down in an empty banquette, her attention roving between the band and the audience. She couldn't remember ever seeing this place so empty. She could actually count the number of people dancing. The most noticeable were four young women dancing directly in front of the stage, seeming oblivious to the fact that the music barely had a beat.

Lucinda lifted her glass to a tall, gaunt woman, holding a drink in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other, who came toward her, hips swaying. Maxine, who owned Indigo, bent, kissed Lucinda's cheek, and took a seat at the table. "Lousy night to be out."

"Better than staying home."

"It's too subdued for my taste." Maxine wore rings on every finger, dark stones all. Faceted onyx, garnet, peridot, black tourmaline, and what she'd told Lucinda was an alexandrite glittered as she pointed her cigarette toward the sparsely populated dance floor. "I should have closed an hour ago. Don't know why I'm paying a band for this."

"You've got customers," Lucinda said, nodding to the girls.

"Those four don't count. The band comp'd them."

"They're sleeping with the band?"

"Or hoping to." Maxine took a drag on the cigarette. "Look at them. Can you remember when going home with the lead guitar player was everything?"

"I always had better luck with drummers." Lucinda swirled the tequila in her glass, her silver bracelets clinking together softly. "Drummers do lovely things with their hands."

Maxine gazed at her through heavy-lidded eyes, and Lucinda wondered how old Maxine was. She wore her hair in the same glossy black bob she'd worn twelve years ago when Lucinda first met her. And she still had the slouched, decadent silhouette that reminded Lucinda of the women in Aubrey Beardsley drawings—-thin, beautiful, elegant creatures who seemed somehow hollow inside.

"The boys in the bands, they're all bastards," Maxine said without rancor. "Not that they mean to be. But they're young and self-involved and they've got all the energy of the music streaming through them so they think they're golden."

"We thought so, too," Lucinda reminded her.

Maxine blew a smoke ring. "Illusions, darling. Illusions who can give you the clap."

"Speaking of illusions..." Lucinda realized that she'd come up here seeking out Maxine because Maxine was too cynical to be taken in by rumors, too hard-headed to give anything but a straight answer. She was also notoriously well-connected; very little went on in Arcato that Maxine didn't know about. "You haven't found any of these gems everyone's talking about, have you?"

"Yeah, I've heard about those." Maxine tilted her head toward the stage. "But they're as close as I come to diamonds—-in the rough, that is. I know it doesn't sound that way tonight, but they actually have talent."

"So...nothing...strange has happened to you recently?" Lucinda asked, finding that she didn't want to mention the jade dragon.

"There's always something strange going down at a club," Maxine corrected her. "This afternoon I came in to find that painted Japanese screen in my office—-the one my grandmother left me—-and the ivory brocade on the love seat slashed." Maxine's tone was cool and detached, as always, but Lucinda caught a flash of pain in her dark eyes. "Oh, and the stack of handbills I'd copied, advertising these sweet young things, was shredded like confetti. That's why no one's here tonight." She ground out her cigarette in a glass ashtray. "Think someone's trying to shut me down?"

"I don't know," Lucinda said, envisioning the damage. Maxine, despite her aversion to sentimentality, had filled her office with eclectic, graceful antiques. Lucinda had always loved the contrast between the rough club space and Maxine's elegant office.

"Nothing else in the club was touched, nothing missing or broken. Cops weren't even interested enough to show up. But someone hurt the things I loved."

"Who would want to—-"

"Probably the same lunatic who took a knife to the old velvet stage curtain at the theater next door. Now the Teatro's gotta buy a new curtain and they have less of a budget than I do. Who knows, maybe some sicko's trying to shut down the whole street." Maxine ran a hand through her glossy hair. "It seems pointless to me. I figure, if you're going to go out of your way to vandalize a place, you ought to at least get something for your trouble."

"Yeah, well, you've always had a larcenous heart."

Maxine lifted her glass, gave a toast, "To larceny," then put the glass down without drinking. Her hand was shaking violently.

Lucinda clasped Maxine's hand between her own but couldn't still the tremor. "Hey," she said softly. "What's going on? Are you all right?"

Maxine pulled her hand back. "Things are changing, 'Cinda," she said. "No one's ever broken into my club before." Her hand still trembling, she lifted the glass and downed the drink. "I'll tell you something. Soon no place is gonna be a haven anymore."

Hours later Lucinda returned to her rooms and slept. She dreamed she'd left Arcato. She was traveling into the mountains that bordered the city. Standing on one rugged peak, looking out into an apron of others, she saw dwellings cut into the surface of the rock, entire towns she'd never known existed. Then she was on a steep granite slope, climbing surely and steadily. Following a vein of pale green jade.

She awoke disturbed by the fact that she remembered the dream. Normally, her dreams went through her like a train boring through a tunnel. They took her into a racing darkness whose rhythm shook her to her core. She never knew what happened in her dreams, who peopled them, what their landscapes looked like. Only the rhythm of the dream stayed with her through the day, leaving her waking body jarred and confused. There'd been a time when she'd thought she had some say in the matter, when she told herself that the rhythm was like the breath, a variable that could be controlled. She'd tried yoga. She'd tried hypnosis. She'd tried downers. Nothing worked. The dreams themselves vanished with the dawn, but their pace sped through her for hours on end.

And now she'd dreamed of a granite mountain striped with a vein of jade. The mountain had been serene, the skies above it a tranquil, luminous blue. She could still taste the air of that place. It tasted like something that could wash her soul clean, a possibility that had never occurred to her before. She sat up in bed and closed her eyes, letting the images return, seeing them vividly in her mind. She opened her eyes, alarmed. The dream had been so clear it didn't feel like one of hers at all.

Lucinda's hand went instinctively to the tiny jade dragon, still resting beneath her lamp. What occurred to her was absurd and yet self-evident. "That was your dream," she told the dragon.

Alasdair didn't notice the dragon was gone until late one evening, and then he realized it had been several days since he saw it last. It could take care of itself, he knew. Though it frequently went off on forays of its own, it rarely stayed away long. He wondered briefly if it had somehow hurt itself or become trapped. No, he would have known if it were in trouble. He couldn't imagine not knowing; they'd been together too long.

When a week had passed and the dragon still had not appeared, he knew he had to search for it. For three nights he walked the streets of Arcato, sending out a call that could only be heard by ears of jade. Gems fell in his wake and he cursed the troublesome serpent. And yet the nights were not unpleasant. The city still amazed him. He was delighted by the movie marquees and brightly lit streetcars, by all-night markets and Laundromats, by the colored lights of the midway Ferris wheel, by clubs whose doors stayed open until dawn. There was so much in the city that nearly succeeded in lifting the cloak of night, a feat his people had never tried. It simply would not have occurred to them.

Three nights of searching told him that if the dragon were to be found, it would be found when it chose to show itself. Perhaps, he thought, it had returned home. He didn't blame it; he'd told it not to follow him. And it had not only followed him here but had kept him company on an ocean crossing and a desert sojourn before that, which was really far more than loyalty demanded. He knew the dragon longed for the mountains; it had sent him its wistful dreams often enough. The dragon would return to cool limestone caverns and pools of pale green water, and there it would happily mate with its kin. It was such a small dragon, he had not thought it would feel confined here. Once again, he'd been wrong.

The morning after she dreamed the dragon's dream, Lucinda did not go to work. She took whatever the inverse of a sick day was. She lay in bed for as long as she could keep the dream with her. It didn't stay long. Then she dressed in petticoats and a top she'd made from Belgian lace and she went down into the streets of the city, the tiny jade dragon pressed into her fist. She stopped as she passed the St. Agnes fair because it felt for a moment as if the dragon's wings had fluttered. She opened her hand. The dragon lay perfectly still. But she felt the fluttering sensation again as she reached the riverfront and a third time as she passed an outdoor cafe. This time when she opened her palm the dragon sat up, flexed its wings, and flew. It set down a few feet away from her on the shoulder of a man wearing a deep blue robe, who seemed not at all surprised to see it.

Lucinda studied the man curiously. He was tall, his black hair streaked with strands of silver. His face was unlined, tanned skin over high, chiseled cheekbones, a wide generous mouth, and a fine white scar that dropped in a straight diagonal from the outer corner of one eye to the corner of his mouth. Even to Lucinda, who'd been with many beautiful men and found their beauty quite beside the point, it was an interesting face. It was his eyes, she decided. The grey eyes looked as if they had seen their way through entire lifetimes, as if there was nothing that would ever surprise them.

Lucinda found that she wanted to know who he was. "What's your name?" she asked.

He'd had many. He debated a moment on which to use and then gave her the most recent. "Alasdair."

"Alasdair." She took that in. "How old are you?" she demanded, a little startled by her own question. Normally, she did not ask such things. Normally, she didn't give a damn.

One corner of the man's mouth curved up. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm no wiser than I was ten years ago."

"Just more evasive?" Lucinda guessed. She noticed that he wore a leather thong around his neck with a single oblong crystal on it. She didn't recognize the stone, couldn't even tell what color it was; the slightest shift in light or shadow seemed to change it from black to green to purple to deep blue.

He didn't answer her question. The jade dragon walked delicately to a point on his collarbone, flexed its wings, closed its eyes, then settled comfortably into what looked like a long-overdue nap.

"That's your dragon?" Lucinda asked.

"He often chooses to stay with me," the man answered carefully. "Though I suspect he's stayed with you lately."

Lucinda nodded, then ran a hand through her long, disordered hair. This man, whoever he was, seemed to find nothing odd in a creature that was inanimate stone one moment, a living, breathing being the next. "When I first saw it, it was just a carving," she said carefully.

The man removed the dragon from his collarbone, gently lifted her wrist with his other hand, and set the dragon on her palm. It was an intricately carved piece of translucent green rock. A tiny scaled serpent with wings, claws, and a curving tail. It lay on her hand, cool and still and no more alive than any other bit of rock.

She handed it back with a shudder. "I haven't been sleeping well lately," she said. "My dreams have...gotten all mixed up in my days. And—-"

"And you think the dragon was a dream?" he probed gently.

"Are you going to tell me it's alive?"

"Not if you're unwilling to hear it."

She was suddenly furious with him for standing there so calmly and asking her to believe that she was losing her mind. "Does it breathe fire?" she taunted.

"Not this particular dragon, no," the man answered. "He has other abilities. For example, he led you to me."

"No," she said, stepping back from him. "No one leads me anywhere." She studied him again. If she knew nothing else, she knew men. She could see through any man's charms to his weakness. This one was different though. There was something inside him she'd never seen before, something she had no words for and whatever it was frightened her. "I think there's something wrong with you," she told him.

He smiled humorlessly and his reply was almost a whisper. "Most assuredly."

She was on the verge of telling him to fuck off but she didn't quite dare. Instead, she spun away from him, walking rapidly toward the fair, losing herself in the crowds.

Alasdair's eyes followed her until she was out of sight. He gazed down at the jade dragon curled up in his open palm. "You are causing trouble," he told it.

In his palm the dragon opened one golden eye and winked.

Lucinda strode beneath the wrought-iron arch whose lettering spelled out St. Agnes Fair, with barely a thought for the name that used to give her the willies. Her mother, who had taken up devout Catholicism after Lucinda's illegitimate birth, considered the martyred Agnes "a saint among saints" and had repeatedly told Lucinda about the young girl who "joyfully let the Romans cut off her beautiful little head rather than lose her virginity." Lucinda had always thought it one of the sickest stories she'd ever heard and concluded early on that virginity as a virtue was highly overrated. Then again, there was nothing about her mother's religious devotion that made sense; as far as Lucinda could tell, it hadn't ever done either one of them a shred of good. What, she couldn't help wondering, would her mother make of the man with the jade dragon? Paintings of St. George happily impaling dragons came to mind, and she decided it was better not to pursue that one.

Lucinda lost herself in the fair. It was easy. There were booths selling silks and silver. A small man with fair hair and a reddened nose hawked old glass bottles. A rumpled, heavyset woman who reminded her uncomfortably of her mother sat behind baskets of pastries and meat pies, their scents mingling with the aromas of honeyed nuts and popcorn. A teenage boy with bad skin and a killer smile caught her hand and asked her to dance to the band that played by the water. Lucinda gave him a dance, determined to banish the images of the man in the cloak and the jade carving that came to life. It was the dreams, she told herself. They left her weakened and confused, vulnerable to believing just about anything.

When the teenage boy offered to take Lucinda on the Ferris wheel, she told him he was crazy and left him standing in the middle of the dancers. She continued to wander through the fair, afraid for the first time to go home on her own. Her apartment would seem empty without the little dragon, she realized, and then further realized that that was the most absurd thought she'd ever had. She wound up at the Dome, a small bar with a dome-shaped ceiling, drinking apricot liqueur and eating dark chocolates she'd bought at the fair.

At nearly three in the morning she let herself into her apartment. She was safe—-too bleary and exhausted to dream or miss a small piece of jade.

In the middle of her unmade bed she found a rectangular cloisonné box, whose turquoise enamel work made her think of dragon scales. I am losing my mind, she thought as she stared at the unfamiliar box. She thought of Maxine, wondered briefly if someone had broken into her apartment, and found she didn't much care.

Lucinda stared at the box a long time before lifting it from the rumpled bedclothes. It was heavier than she'd expected, tarnished brass beneath the enamel. She lifted the lid, half-expecting one of those mysterious cascades of gems that everyone was talking about. Instead she found a single oval moonstone, glowing against a bed of midnight-blue velvet.

When he'd left his home in the mountains Alasdair had taken nothing but the clothes on his back and the small leather pouch he'd been given on the day he came of age. The pouch had been white then, soft white deerskin. Now after years of being carried, it was an unnamable shade, yellowed, with bits of grime rubbed into the finely creased skin—-oils from his hands, dust from the mountains, whatever the dark particles were that floated through the city air. Only what was within the pouch remained unchanged as they had been for millennia—-ten stones, the ones he'd been given to use and had called on ever since.

This night he returned to the apartment knowing there were only nine. He emptied the pouch, letting the stones roll into his palm: quartz, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, black opal, sapphire, emerald, golden topaz, and aquamarine. The moonstone was gone. It made him far more uncomfortable than he would have guessed, as if without it he could no longer be sure of its properties. His people believed that the stones you were given on the day you came of age were your life stones, companions of a lifetime. As far as he could tell, his people were wrong.

It was not the work of a thief, Alasdair reasoned. In Arcato, moonstones were not worth much money. Besides, a thief would have found more valuable baubles lying most anywhere in the apartment. The vacuum cleaner bag alone rattled with rubies. (They'd made themselves a little too plentiful the night before; he'd gotten annoyed and vacuumed them up.) The moonstone had not been vacuumed. And he had not lost it to carelessness. Alasdair could no more lose it unknowingly than he could lose an eye.

He examined the leather pouch a second time, still unwilling to believe that one of his life stones was gone. The moonstone's gifts were quiet ones, and yet there were times when he valued it more than the others combined. It was, among other things, the stone of tenderness. It scared Alasdair to think of himself bereft of its qualities.

A shift in the air made him look up. The dragon appeared on a window ledge. Extending one delicate clawed foot, it stepped into the room.

"You little thief," he said, understanding where the moonstone was and why. She had more need of it than he, and the dragon had always read needs very clearly. "Did you wrap it properly?" he inquired, unable to keep the anger out of his voice.

Though he'd come to Arcato with only the leather pouch and the clothing he wore, other objects had followed him from the mountains. One morning he returned to the apartment to find an oil lamp made of blown glass that had been in his mother's house. Another day he woke to see an iridescent crystal goblet given him by his first lover. He was grateful that it wasn't filled with her wine. A blue cloisonné box had followed the goblet, and that, too, was now missing he realized. The dragon had wrapped it properly indeed.

Lucinda took the moonstone from its bed of midnight-blue velvet. The cloisonné box was heavy. She could not even feel the weight of the moonstone on her palm. There were many things she had not been able to feel lately—-a bit of crystallized honey dissolving on her tongue, the last man who'd been inside her—-and she wondered curiously if her prayers were actually being answered. Not that she worshipped the gods, but for years now she'd sent up one devout wish on a daily basis to any entity that might listen: She'd prayed to feel nothing at all. She ran her other palm along her hip, somewhat reassured that she could still feel the worn cotton of her petticoat. Then she ran her thumb along the cool, smooth surface of the stone. She should have known. She had, after all, been born out of favor; from the day of her birth it had been ordained that the gods would be deaf to her prayers.

It was nearly four in the morning and she was exhausted and half-crazed and staring at a small piece of translucent rock. She held it up beneath her lamp. The moonstone had a slight blue tint, as if she were holding a drop of seawater perfectly contained. A narrow arc of light gleamed near the top of the stone. She glanced out through the glass doors of her bedroom and then, curious, opened them and stepped out onto the narrow wrought-iron balcony. Below her the lights of the fair still burned, casting lines of gold in the river's black waters. Above her the waning moon was more than halfway through the night sky, its pale sliver of light a twin to the arc in the stone.

So what? Lucinda asked herself. What did it matter if the stone reflected the moon, the stars, or tiny dancing giraffes? She was too tired to wonder about the implications or how the moonstone had appeared on her bed in the first place. Back inside, she shut the doors that led to the balcony and set the moonstone on its bed of midnight blue.

That night Lucinda dreamed of being held in a man's arms, of being carried, of rolling through the darkness, his body fitted to hers. He held her, caressed her, read her needs as if he knew her heart. She never saw his face or heard his voice. But she knew his scent and taste and the cool lines of his limbs. She was enveloped and yet there was infinite space surrounding her. He was different from any man she'd ever been with. No man had ever been that gentle with her. No man had ever made her feel as if she'd been taken up by the sea.

The wind chimes woke Lucinda. A dry storm was sweeping away the night. The winds came down from the granite foothills, tore at the sides of her building, and whipped down through the narrow, curved streets to the flat, broad stretch of the Candra River. In the city the wind always ran to the Candra, and Lucinda knew that when the storm had pulled the night after it and taken it into the river's depths, the people of the city would wake to a clear-washed morning.

But now the lavender glass in the fan-shaped window above her bed rattled in its frame, and on her balcony the thin metal cylinders of the wind chimes crashed against each other until she was sure they would shatter. She lay in bed listening to the storm, thinking that somehow it was a natural conclusion to her dream. She drifted again, going into one of the old dreams, its momentum driven by the winds.

At first she took the pounding on her door for more of the storm. The wind, they said, belonged to Boreas, and she had cursed him just last week when a milder storm had taken one of her scarves. It was not unheard of in the city for the gods to take their revenge in most direct ways. And while Lucinda had never had any sort of contact with the gods, she would not have been surprised if one of them materialized for the sole purpose of avenging himself on her.

She opened her eyes. It was still dark out, the winds still howling. Her clock read 6:17. The pounding on her door continued, then developed a neat, insistent, four-four rhythm. It had to be Tyrone.

Briefly, drowsily, she considered ignoring him. It would serve him right. She didn't like being awakened before dawn on two hours' sleep. But she knew Tyrone and she knew he wouldn't go away and she couldn't take much more of his infernal pounding.

She slipped on a robe and opened the door. Tyrone leaned casually against the door frame. He was wearing a tan linen suit, a pinstriped shirt, and a Panama hat. An ebony fica hung from a gold chain around his neck. As always, he looked as if he'd just returned from some tropical island where one did nothing but drink frothy drinks laced with rum. How, she wondered, had he managed to keep a hat on in the storm?

"I thought you had to be dead, girl," he told her, entering without invitation. He smelled of almonds today, a scent he varied with coconut.

Lucinda stepped out of his way. "Did you come to view the body?"

"I've already seen your body." Tyrone glanced around the untidy apartment and began tying back the heavy velvet curtains. "The storm's almost over and the sun is rising," he announced. "Time for you to greet the day."

Copyright © 2005 by Ellen Steiber

Meet the Author

Ellen Steiber is a consulting editor for the New York publishing industry and is also the author of many fine works of mythic fiction for children and adults.

Her stories make use of classic folk and fairy tale themes to explore distinctly modern concerns. Works in this vein include "The Fox Wife," based on Japanese myths (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears); "In the Season of the Rains," based on Lilith myths (Sirens); "In the Night Country," based on a Grimm's fairy tale (The Armless Maiden), "The Cats of San Martino" based on an Italian fairy tale (Black Heart, Ivory Bones), "Argentine," based on Mexican Day of the Dead legends (The Essential Bordertown); and "The Shape of Things to Come," based on a Guatemalan folktale (The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Vol. 14), and "Screaming for Faeries" (The Faery Reel). She is curently working on the sequel to A Rumor of Gems.

Ellen is also an accomplished writer of children's and Young Adult fiction, with numerous books to her credit, such as Shadow of the Fox, based on Japanese folklore, and The Raven Queen (in collaboration with Terri Windling), based on English faery lore. In addition, Ellen has written many popular series books over the years. She was a ghostwriter for a classic girls' mystery series (we're not allowed to tell you what it was due to the publisher's insistence on confidentiality), and she has written several X-Files novels for kids, based on the television program.

Raised in Newark and West Orange, New Jersey, Ellen attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; then moved to New York City where she worked in the publishing industry. As an editor of young-adult and middle-grade fantasy, she developed series by Bruce Coville, Sherwood Smith, Liz Rees, Suzanne Weyn, and Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. More recently she edited the illustrated novel, The Katurran Odyssey, by Terryl Whitlatch and David Michael Wieger. In 1991 she fulfilled a long-standing dream and moved to the American Southwest. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, where her interests include mythology and folklore, Anusara yoga, and ongoing research into the lore of gems and stones. For more information on A Rumor of Gems, please visit her website or her blog: Gemstone Cowgirl.

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A Rumor of Gems 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked how the author did all the background info on the gems, that was a nice touch. I must say my favorite characters were the dragon alasdair, though tyrone was also funny...lucinda was hard to stomach in places...the book definately kept you guessing...some passages were very beautifully written...warning: the ending is a downer...but worth a read!
harstan More than 1 year ago
The city of Arcato is under some sort of mystical siege. First magical gemstones began appearing with the potency to cast spells. On top of that the ancient port city has become a place teeming with gods and other mythological creatures pretending to be humans only to vent havoc on the locals while time is multiple with varying epochs coexisting in an interactive spiral. --- As chaos rules the city, human Lucinda de Francesco detests males whether they are god, shapeshifter or mortal as she wants no one to dictate to her how to live and yet she still thirsts for true love. She is especially wary of antiques dealer Sebastian Keane, who obsessively courts her in spite of her acrimonious rejections of him. At the same time eleven years old Michael Fortunato has apparently become a killer because someone seems to have used the power of a gem to control the lad. Could that have been a God, a rogue shaman like Alasdair or even the sentient miniature dragon gemstone? --- The weird city and its supernatural cast that includes the thinking gems and most humans are well rounded and solid so that the audience believes in what is going on inside of Arcato. However, the heroine on the other hand pontificates on her life slowing down an exhilarating plot that moves on all cylinders when Lucinda is not musing about the shortcomings. Fans of strange fantasy tales will appreciate this fine story wondering whether the preadolescent is a killer, a victim of a gem, or set up by one of the Gods.