A superb, standalone adventure in Leanna Renee Hieber's groundbreaking, critically acclaimed Strangely Beautiful series, full of passion and power.
From childhood, Violet Rychman has dreamed of a coming war, of death and battle on an unimaginable scale. She has seen and heard ghosts, who have loved and guided her.
Now the future she dreamed has come to pass. World War I rages across Europe. Millions of people are dying; entire villages are disappearing.
A great and terrible vision sweeps over Violet, offering powers heralded by the Muses of antiquity. The ability to impact people’s memories, even shape their thoughts. To guide their souls. To pass between the world of the living and that of the dead and to bring others through that passage.
These and other gifts once belonged to people Violet loved. Now they are hers, and she must use them to attempt to stop death itself.
Strangely Beautiful series
Miss Violet and the Great War
The Eterna Files series
The Eterna Files
Eterna and Omega
The Eterna Solution
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London, England, 1897
Violet had to be dreaming. As far as she knew, one could not walk through a hail of bullets without being harmed. Though she often had odd experiences, she was fairly sure a body couldn't deflect a sword or fist or bullet. Yet hers did, as she walked numbly through an utter hellscape.
She was surrounded by gunshots, flashes of light, flying dirt, and unnatural shrieking sounds descending from the sky. Men in uniforms fell all around her, tumbling into the mud in a place she did not recognize. She walked in a body that was not her own — it was a tall, adult body, when she knew herself to be only eight years old.
She looked out upon a barren, alien landscape; all mud and gray light, posts, and wire with jagged edges ... and bodies ... A dark, plain skirt flared out as her boots descended an uneven set of wood-plank stairs, into what looked like a maze whose walls were, in some places, made of boards, and in others, made of bags stacked like bricks. The bottom seemed to be eight or ten feet below the surface of the earth.
The men around her were all young, all wearing uniforms and helmets; they appeared gaunt, grim, and even at death's door. Most of them held rifles. A horizon of mud shifted into new craters and peaks as heavy projectiles landed and changed the face of the soil.
Descending the last wooden stair, Violet tucked herself into a corner. Paltry boards laid down to serve as the maze floor hardly kept puddles and mud at bay and she felt her boots sink into the muck.
Even at eight, she had read of wars in some of her many books and knew she was in the middle of one. But what war was this, so waged in the ground? Nothing about her looked familiar in any way.
Along with the clatter and the screams, there came a faint strain of music, lovely and soothing, a sound that could heal all ...
Was it a waltz? She so loved waltzes.
Violet Rychman awoke. Bright moonlight filtering in through lace curtains illuminated her bedroom and bathed her face, making the strands of hair over her eyes the slight magical purple that had led to her name.
From far off in the opposite wing of her family's estate came the faint sound of a harpsichord. Mum was playing again, likely at her father's request, something she was hard pressed to ever turn down. Violet jumped out of bed, yearning to be closer to her parents' love and the sounds of sweet music to purge the terrible sounds of explosions and gunfire.
She knew she wasn't supposed to be awake, but the dream rattled her, and her mother was soothing; a marble angel come to life. Violet chose to think of her entirely colorless mother as angelic rather than ghostly, though she saw how people stared at her in a mixture of apprehension, fear, and fascination. Her mother, Persephone's, smooth cheek was as white as snow or bleached paper, her hair the very same, her eyes like pearls with slivers of ice-blue.
It was hard to see strange things and not be affected, Violet understood. But strange could be beautiful. Her father, Alexi, certainly thought so, and took every opportunity to praise their family as different, unique; special.
As she crept down the long hall that separated her room from her parents' set of rooms, her toes curling on the floral carpet runner, she saw her father standing by the instrument, his coat, vest, and cravat all undone. Locks of black hair tucked behind his ear made his expression visible. As usual, his hard, angular features were made soft when he looked at his wife.
The bounce of the waltz was inescapable. She'd seen her parents dancing at a party the month prior and squirmed out of the too-close grasp of Auntie Rebecca — who was decidedly not as much fun as Uncle Elijah and Auntie Josephine — to demand to be taught the steps. Now, in and out of shafts of moonlight shining through the beveled glass windows of the hallway, Violet practiced her new dance to the music she so craved. Whenever she was unnerved, music was the answer, any kind, any instrument. The phonograph downstairs could never be cranked too often. She was already adept at melodies on the keyboard herself, encouraged by her parents.
Enraptured by the music, her waltzing grew more and more grand, dramatic enough to attract attention ... "Violet! What are you doing awake?" Violet heard her mother call. She had a preternatural ability to sense where Violet was, which made making any mischief terribly difficult.
She stopped abruptly; momentum kept her swaying a bit on her feet before she stepped into the moonlight to make a calm reply. "Why, I was waltzing! What else is a girl to do when she hears a waltz?"
Her father peered out into the hallway, a long lock of black hair falling into his face, his sharp features scowling. But if Violet wasn't mistaken, he seemed to be trying to hold back a laugh. Violet loved that look. But it was hard to tell. While she had no doubt he loved her, he did not suffer her to be undisciplined. She froze at his tone:
"Violet Jane Rychman, what on earth are you doing waltzing after midnight?" He strode briskly toward her. Violet bit her lip and looked up at him a bit fearfully. "Without inviting your father?" he added, whisking her up into his arms.
Grinning, a giggle turned into a roaring laugh as he began to grandly waltz her about the foyer, holding her, one arm out, the other grasping her against him as she threw her arm around his neck and smelled the familiar mixture of clove tea, leather-bound books, and his evening bit of sherry.
"Carry on, Percy, my dove," he cried, "carry on! We must have music!"
Violet heard her mother's soft laugh as she sat back down at the keyboard, playing and watching them over her shoulder. She beamed whenever they twirled by, and blew them a kiss.
The waltz ended, and her mother moved to join them. Violet was returned to her room, ever filled, at her own request, with potted flowers. Both she and her mother had a particular way with plant life.
Alexi tucked Violet under her white lace covers, and her parents sat on either side of the bed. As had become their custom, they clasped hands together over her. Violet placed her hands atop theirs. She should tell them.
"The truth is, I couldn't sleep for a nightmare," she stated.
"Would you like to tell us about it?" her mother asked.
"It was a war. In the ground. It was very strange."
Violet watched intently as her mother turned to her father, perhaps trying to hide the sudden and sharp unease on her face. Seeming unruffled, her father placed his free hand fully atop all their entwined fingers. "Don't worry about any nightmares. Your mother and I are always here to protect you."
"Oh, yes, your father has protected me against the worst of nightmares indeed."
"Because you're a nightmare, Father? And you can fight those best?" Violet asked. Alexi furrowed his brow, prompting Violet to explain; "Will Page told me all the children at the Academy think you breathe fire and steal the souls of naughty children! I haven't dissuaded them, should I?" Here, Violet grinned, taking great pride in the idea of a mythical beast of a parent. Her mother stifled a laugh.
"If their being scared of me makes them behave, then," her father began carefully, "I suppose their overactive imagination has its uses ..." He leaned closer to Violet. "If I am a famed and frightening nightmare, then I can frighten away your dreams." He snarled, a low growl, and Violet squealed in delight. This made him smile, a dancing light in his dark eyes. His tone grew soft and earnest as he added, "The darkness won't find you. Not while I'm here." He turned to his wife. "We're here. You've warriors on your side, my dear, don't ever forget it. None of us battle alone."
Violet found this greatly comforting and was glad they had not dismissed her dream as nonsense, as she'd feared.
"We promise," they chorused.
"Are there people who go through walls?" Violet asked. "Pale ones, much like Mum, but ... transparent?" She looked first into her mother's ice-white eyes, then her father's burning dark ones.
A shudder seemed to collectively course through her parents.
Her mother swallowed once, placing her white hands upon the folds of her skirts and squeezing. Her father's angular features remained impassive.
"Yes," her father replied. "Ghosts. You've read about ghosts in books."
Violet made a face. "They're not like in books."
"Where have you seen them, Violet?" her mother asked carefully.
"Around and about. Home, the times I've been to Athens, in your office. The city streets. Sometimes the Heath. I used to think they were just sunbeams, or tricks of light, but they've begun to look like people now. Can you see them?" There was a long pause. The Rychmans glanced at one another, then back at Violet, as if they were measuring something.
"Yes," her parents chorused.
"Don't worry," her mother assured, "they won't hurt you."
"I know they won't. Are you upset?" Violet said, seeing the unease in their faces.
"No, of course not." Persephone clutched her daughter's hands. "We ... simply hoped you wouldn't be troubled by them is all. You're not frightened, are you?" Violet shook her head.
"Not everyone can see ghosts, Violet, and not everyone wants to talk about them. They can be a contentious subject," Professor Rychman explained. "So, we'll not discuss ghosts with anyone else, all right? It's a unique gift the rest of the world has difficulty understanding or appreciating."
"Like how everyone looks at Mum?" Violet asked.
Persephone sighed. "Precisely so, my dear."
Violet nodded. Seemed simple enough. It was all a part of their being a special, unusual family.
Violet closed her eyes, murmuring. "I'll dream of angels, then. I think Auntie Jane's not a ghost but an angel, looking after me between here and heaven ..."
* * *
Having left their daughter to rest, Percy paced in the room where she had been playing and Alexi closed the door.
"What of the dream?" Alexi asked. "And the ghosts?"
"I'm not surprised about Jane. I've seen her look in on Violet, I just wasn't sure if Violet looked back." She sighed. "As for the dream, I've no idea what to make of it," she replied, crossing toward the harpsichord, her dainty step making an old floorboard creak. When she moved back, something fell to the floor from behind the music stand.
Percy bent to find a sealed envelope. "That's odd."
"What is it?" Alexi asked, coming closer, moonlight filtering through the window and over his shoulder, casting the paper in half shadow.
"A letter. Addressed to 'the Rychmans.' How in the world would that get tucked all the way back there ...?" Percy lifted the missive and opened it, pulling Alexi next to her as she sat on the piano bench to read.
The first of the pages was a note from Alexi's father, a departure note, leaving him the house at too young an age.
"I dimly recall that note," Alexi said, examining it. "Mother and Father left this place because they were scared of me, the year I became the Leader of the Guard, the year my life became ghost-riddled." He scowled, his eyes flashing. "But this, I've never seen ..." Behind it was another letter, written in a beautiful, looping script.
Over his shoulder, Percy read aloud:
To the strangely beautiful woman I hope to become:
The hand that writes this is a hand that would take yours and hold it if I could. As I am, I will pass on to become you, you whom I see in my visions as a ghostly pale girl who stares at her prophesied husband with all the love he well deserves ...
She gasped. "It's from me?"
"The goddess," Alexi whispered, visibly taken again by old, blurred wounds. His shaking hand gestured for her to continue, and Percy took the letter and did. Her voice was true and clear.
"Some have called me goddess, some have called me our Lady, and some have called me angel. A force of nature, I answer to all. But of all my mortal names, I remain fondest of Persephone, which I hope you've accepted in my honor.
"What is built between you and Alexi is strong. I have seen it, seen this very moment in a vision — the Liminal and fate willing — and so I leave this note for you. You are meant to hear it from me, a herald from your past affirming your present. I made a promise to Alexi, a promise he likely only remembers as an echo in his heart, but a promise that he will be loved, supported, adored. I believe that he is.
"He comes from a lineage of Guard Leaders, via the grandfather he never knew. He was intended for this destiny, though he had to walk it blindly. I see now that this must always be the way, for only through honest human choices can any power or destiny be effective. Only through mutually earned love is the old vendetta truly healed. Without that, the vendetta lives on.
"I die. My form fails me; the last drops of my life force are bled into the Whisper-world to set the Guard free. But you, dear girl, will set me free. You must live on, live well and love. No matter the storms, no matter the nightmares. You are my eyes, my heart, and the whole of my light. You are the future I would wish for myself.
"Goodbye, my beloveds. I give my light unto you and pray for Peace.
"One final thing: Ahmed, the Heart of the Guard before yours, warned of a war in the ground. "Do not close every door," he said. The dead must pass. I trust that you will know what that means when the time comes. Love unto you."
Finished, there was a long silence before Percy registered that she was aglow. Light shone at her bosom, a reactive luminosity in times of danger or extreme emotion, the power borrowed from a goddess but sustained by her passionate, mortal heart.
She gripped her husband's arm, thinking again of the goddess that was both her and not her. No matter how things had come to pass, this whole family was her greatest gift.
"I was left so in the dark," he murmured. "We both were left in the dark." Alexi took the letter from Percy's trembling hand and put it down. "If we'd just been told, all the trauma of our coming together could have been avoided. All the danger —"
Percy, aware that she was particularly luminous in the moonlight, placed a radiant hand upon her husband's cheek, cupping it gently. "You heard the goddess's words, and I have maintained — and will always maintain — that falling in love with you of my own accord was far better than being told to do so. How else can one gain sure footing but to stumble first along the way?"
He stared down at her; the weight of adoration in his eyes could have anchored a steamer. "Again, you prove wise beyond your years. My goddess." He bent to kiss her and she accepted eagerly.
"I have to wonder; will it ever end?" she murmured once she'd drawn away to tuck her head into his shoulder.
"We can't know," Alexi replied. "But I have you. Together we have a treasure." He reached out and combed his fingers through a lock of her pearlescent hair, pressing his lips to her temple and speaking softly against her ear. "And for you, for this family, I will suffer anything."
He smiled suddenly, pushing her away far enough to gaze at her, so she could see the conviction in his eyes. "I believe I've strength enough for one last fight, should Phoenix again come to call and the Grand Work press us back into service. We have our promises and I intend to keep them."
Percy loosed a weary chuckle. "I've been quite enjoying retirement. But perhaps our daughter will outshine us all."
Alexi nodded. "For she embodies our love. Darkness can never again ascend the same throne. Light crowned us the victors, and while we yet live, we shall walk in its promise. No matter what dreams — or nightmares — may come."
* * *
Hours later, behind the thick curtains of their bed, Alexi Rychman held his wife close. They'd been unable to sleep, discussing their daughter's dream, the echo in the letter.
"I say we tell her the whole of it. The goddess, Phoenix, the Muses, the Gorgon, Prophecy, everything. We should tell her that for over twenty years, ending just before she was born, we were the Guard; spectral arbiters guarding the barrier between this world and the Whisper-world," Alexi declared after a long silence. "If she is having nightmares and seeing ghosts, we ought to be honest about the fact we used to police them. If some sort of power lingers in her, she should be aware of where it came from."
Percy took a deep breath. "A normal life, Alexi. I want her to have a normal life." Her calm tone was belied by the way her hands shook. Her mind flooded with memories, and the murmurs of being called a freak while growing up were hot upon her ears.
"Can't we just ... wait to see if she asks? Wait to see if something actually needs our attention? I don't want to give her the pressure of an unsure fate; you and I both know that's maddening."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Miss Violet and the Great War"
Copyright © 2019 Leanna Renee Hieber.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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