L. Penelope's Song of Blood & Stone is a treacherous, thrilling, epic fantasy about an outcast drawn into a war between two powerful rulers.
The kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar have been separated for centuries by the Mantle, a magical veil that has enforced a tremulous peace between the two lands. But now, the Mantle is cracking and the True Father, ruler of Lagrimar and the most powerful Earthsinger in the world, finally sees a way into Elsira to seize power.
All Jasminda ever wanted was to live quietly on her farm, away from the prying eyes of those in the nearby town. Branded an outcast by the color of her skin and her gift of Earthsong, she’s been shunned all her life and has learned to steer clear from the townsfolk…until a group of Lagrimari soldiers wander into her valley with an Elsiran spy, believing they are still in Lagrimar.
Through Jack, the spy, Jasminda learns that the Mantle is weakening, allowing people to slip through without notice. And even more troubling: Lagrimar is mobilizing, and if no one finds a way to restore the Mantle, it might be too late for Elsira. Their only hope lies in uncovering the secrets of the Queen Who Sleeps and Jasminda’s Earthsong is the key to unravel them.
Thrust into a hostile society and a world she doesn’t know, Jasminda and Jack race to unveil an ancient mystery that might offer salvation.
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A young man beseeched the Mistress of Eagles, How may I best honor my ancestors?
Eagle replied, You could carve your history into the side of a mountain to hold the tale longer, but only those standing before it may read. Or you could write your history on the waves of the ocean so that it may carry your story to all the lands of the world.
— COLLECTED FOLKTALES
Jasminda had wished for invisibility many times, perhaps today she'd finally achieved it. To the best of her knowledge, Earthsong could not be used for such a thing. But when she'd walked into the post station ten minutes ago, the postmistress had promptly disappeared behind the curtain. Now, the clock on the shelf ticked on. Jasminda's fingers drummed in time on the scarred wood of the countertop.
The bell above the door interrupted the duet. Jasminda's back was to the newcomer. A sharp intake of breath greeted her, and she didn't bother to turn around.
Not invisible, then.
The open door let in the sounds of horses and carts rumbling down the tightly packed dirt road, before closing, leaving the shop in silence once again.
With the arrival of the new customer, the proprietress reappeared, smiling warmly, while at the same time shoving an envelope and a large parcel wrapped in brown paper to Jasminda without even looking in her direction.
According to the postmark, the letter had traveled all the way from Elsira's capital city of Rosira on the western coast. The return address was a solicitor's office. Not the piece of mail she was expecting.
"This is it?" Jasminda's voice pitched higher with each word. She held up the envelope. "Everything since last month?"
"It's all that came in," the postmistress said brusquely. Jasminda sighed, her body deflating.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the rigid way the new customer held herself, leaning her entire body away at an awkward angle. The woman was graying and stooped with age, which made the contortion act all the more laughable. She'd pressed herself into the corner of the small shop, carrying on as though she were sharing the space with a rabid animal and not a nineteen-year-old girl.
Unable to help herself, Jasminda closed her eyes and focused on the well of power within her. By itself, her Song was nothing but raw potential, a match waiting for a strike. But when the rush of Earthsong swept over her, the match caught fire, burning bright.
She extended her arms and scrutinized the deep, rich tone of her skin, so different than everyone else in the town, than just about everyone in the entire country of Elsira. The energy rippling through her gave her a deeper connection to her body. She became even more aware of her skin, how it knit together over muscle and bone. Silently, she sang a spell to shift its color to match the muted, less vibrant shade of the astonished women before her.
"Better?" She looked up, wearing a sweet smile as a mask.
The older woman made a sound like a cat struggling with a hairball and stumbled back, grabbing at the doorknob several times before catching hold.
"Grol witch," she muttered, then wrenched the door open and fled. The little bell jingled mercilessly.
The postmistress shot her a murderous glare and backed away, once again retreating behind the curtain separating the front area from the back.
Jasminda's brittle smile crumbled. She released her hold on Earthsong, and her skin changed back to its natural hue. She really shouldn't have wasted her power; she was weak enough as it was. There was no telling what she might meet on the journey home, and she couldn't afford to exhaust herself.
Frowning, she ripped open the unexpected letter from the unknown solicitor. She scanned the text, but the words inside were so formal she could barely make sense of them. A telephone exchange and number were printed on the letterhead. Jasminda had never phoned anyone before — hadn't had anyone to call — but the legal language on the page was gibberish, and she needed to have someone decipher it.
The letter and documents included must have something to do with the tax lien against the farm. Could this be the good news she'd been hoping for? Perhaps the tax bureau had turned the case over to the lawyers for her appeal. She didn't know how these things usually happened.
"How do I phone Rosira?" she called out. The post station had installed a public telephone kiosk six months before. Jasminda approached it warily.
The postmistress fought the dividing curtain in her rush to the front. "Who does someone like you have to call in the capital?" Her deep-set eyes narrowed.
"How. Is. It. Done?" Jasminda pressed her lips together, forming a barrier against other, harsher words she longed to say.
The woman paused, hands on her hips, before relenting. "Pick up the handle and click the lever a few times until the operator comes on. She'll tell you how much it'll be."
"Thank you." Jasminda smiled tightly and followed the postmistress's instructions. The operator's staticky voice announced that the call would be five tenthpieces. Jasminda dumped her change in the slot then waited long minutes for the call to be connected.
Once through to the solicitor's office, she had to wait again to be directed to the man named on the letter she'd received, a Mr. Niqolas Keen.
"It's really very simple, miss." His tone was clipped as if he was in a great hurry. "You sign the paperwork in front of a witness, alert us, and forty thousand pieces will be wired into your bank account."
"But why? What's the money for?"
"Your discretion. Your maternal grandfather, Marvus Zinadeel, has recently decided to act on long-held aspirations of running for public office. He's a wealthy merchant with good prospects, you know." Jasminda did not know.
"However, if news of his late daughter's ... er, unfortunate marriage were to be discovered, that would substantially harm his chances of electoral success."
Jasminda swallowed the rage building inside her. "So you want me to sign these papers which say that my mother was not my mother, and then be discreet for how long?" "Forever. You would not be able to reveal your maternal parentage for the rest of your natural life."
A cold emptiness spread inside her. Forever? Tell no one of her mother's kind eyes and gentle touch? It wasn't as if she had anyone to tell anyway, but the idea chafed. "And the price my grandfather is willing to pay for changing history is forty thousand pieces?"
"That is correct."
Jasminda stared at a spot on the wall, a crack in the paint, just an insignificant blemish. At least for now. Things like this started small, like a cough or a bout of dizziness easily hidden. Then they grew, expanding without warning, narrowing vision, causing periodic vertigo. All of which you assure your loved ones is nothing, a mere inconvenience. Until one day you are caught with such an attack while on the second floor of the barn loft, doing an activity you've done for many years, and fall to your death before anything can be done to save you.
The paint on the wall wasn't ruined yet, but it could be, just as easily as a mother's life.
"Miss, are you still there? Have we been disconnected?"
Jasminda nodded, knowing he couldn't see her. Her voice was small when she spoke. "And if I don't?"
Papers shuffled around on his end. "I understand that you owe a substantial amount in back taxes on the property that is still deeded in your mother's name. Mr. Zinadeel's funds would certainly take care of that expense, would they not?"
The icy sensation seeped through her pores to numb her skin. If her appeal had been rejected, her only option was to petition the board in person — in Rosira. Impossible. This offer could be her last chance. She owed twenty thousand pieces she did not have. "Yes," she said through gritted teeth. "But —"
"Very well then. Once we have word the paperwork is in the post, the money can be yours the same day. An easy way to solve your problem, true?"
Easy? To sign a paper and suddenly, as if by magic, have no mother. At least not legally. Jasminda didn't know all the implications of such an action, but her heart told her it was wrong. And yet how could she face losing the farm?
She told the solicitor she would consider signing the papers and ended the call. As soon as she stepped out of the booth, the postmistress was there, wiping down the handset and receiver with a cloth smelling of cleaning solution.
Jasminda wanted to smear her handprints on every surface, daring the woman to scrub her presence away. Instead, she scooped up the wrapped package on the counter, cradling it to her chest. The books inside were precious, an escape from the drudgery and loneliness of farm life and the affronts of her rare visits to town. They were her only way to experience the world.
While the postmistress was busy cleaning, Jasminda left coins on the counter to pay for her delivery. The only crime she'd committed thus far was being born, she would not add thievery to the imaginary list the townsfolk had created.
With a silent curse at the jolly bell, she left the shop, exiting onto the main street.
* * *
Her steps were heavy as she approached the blacksmith, whose shop was at the end of the short row of buildings in the tiny town. She entered the warm space and rested her parcel on the counter. Old smith Bindeen turned from his forge, wiping his wrinkled brow, and smiled at her. Against her wishes, her heart unclenched. Bindeen had been the closest thing to a friend her papa had made in town and was the only one who didn't make her feel like a five-legged dog.
"Miss Jasminda, it's been a long time."
"As long as I can make it," she said with a crooked grin. She gave him her order, and he gathered the supplies she needed: nails, an axe head, shotgun shells, door hinges.
"Weather's turned a bit cool, hasn't it?" he asked.
"You feel the storm coming?"
He patted his bad hip. "Old bones speak mouthfuls."
She nodded, peering out the shop's front window at the rocky peaks standing guard over the town. "A bad one's brewing. Should hit the mountain tonight. It probably won't make it down here at all, but best be careful."
"How bad d'ya reckon it'll be?" He avoided her eyes as he spoke, but his limbs held as much tension as hers did.
"As bad as two years ago." Her voice was quiet and steady, but her hands clenched into fists involuntarily. She didn't want to get lost in the memory of that last terrible storm. Of searching the mountain paths for Papa and her brothers. Of never finding any trace of them. Mama had been gone for nearly seven years. Papa and the twins for two.
Jasminda cleared her throat to loosen the hold of the past and peered at the old man. He'd lived in this town his whole life, perhaps he knew something she didn't. "Do you remember my mama ever talking about her people?"
Bindeen scratched his chin and squinted. "Not that I can recall, why?"
"No reason." Her voice sagged along with her shoulders.
Mama's family had disowned her for marrying Papa. Now they wanted Jasminda to disown them. People she hadn't even met. She hadn't thought she could get more alone than she had been the past couple of years. But she had been wrong.
The old smith pursed his lips and gathered her purchases. "That'll be fifty pieces."
Jasminda frowned. She'd always trusted Bindeen, unlike most in town.
"I'm not tryin' to cheat ya, young miss. The price of everything's gone up. Taxes, too, especially on what comes imported. It's the best price I can give."
She searched the man's face and found him sincere. Using Earthsong would have confirmed his intentions, letting her feel the truth in his heart, but she didn't bother, instead counting out the money and placing it in his hand.
"If ya have any of that magic cream of yours, ya can make some of this back, eh?" He flexed his empty hand, thick with muscle from working the forge for decades, but gnarled with arthritis.
"It's not magic — just goat's milk and herbs." She fished around in her bag and dug out a jar, handing it to him and pocketing the money he gave back to her.
"Works like that magic of yours is all I know."
She held the blacksmith's eye. "You're not afraid of Earthsong like everyone else. Why?"
Bindeen shrugged. "I fought in the Sixth Breach. I've seen the power of those grol witches." Jasminda flinched at the epithet, but Bindeen didn't appear to notice. "I've been in sandstorms in the middle of a wheat field, pelted with rocks and hail and fire. It's only by the Sovereign's sweet mercy it can't be used to kill directly. Even so, that Earthsong of yours ... there's plenty of reason to fear it. But I've also seen your father put a man's bone back in its socket and heal it up good as new without ever touching him."
Jasminda swallowed the lump in her throat. Her papa's Song was so strong. He'd been a good man, bearing the insults and scorn of the locals for decades with his head high.
Bindeen's eyes crinkled. He patted his good hip. "This joint he fixed is the only one on me that doesn't ache." His voice thickened. "Most folks hate easy and love hard. Should be the other way around, I reckon."
"Hmm." Jasminda placed her newest packages into her overstuffed bag, unwilling to dwell on what couldn't be.
"Get home safe now," the man called.
"Thank you. May She bless your dreams."
"And yours, as well." He bowed his head with the farewell as Jasminda left the shop.
The sun was hours away from setting, and the journey home would last straight through the night. She knew the steep mountain paths well enough to negotiate them in the dark; her main worry now was beating the brewing storm.
Something about the scent of snow in the air gave her an ominous foreboding. Had the bit of her axe not been worn to a nub, she wouldn't have risked a trip to town so close to the storm at all.
She'd reached the edge of the street and was just heading onto the path leading up into the foothills when approaching hoof-beats made her turn.
A huge, black Borderlands pony rode up to her, the county constable astride. "Jasminda, have you been causing trouble again? I just got an earful from that woman what runs the post station about you."
The constable was a jovial, red-faced man whose great belly laugh seemed to echo off the mountaintops. He treated Jasminda like a mischievous child, but at least on most days seemed to realize she was not a criminal.
"No trouble, sir. I just picked up my mail and made a phone call." She willed patience into her bones. She could not handle the opinions of one more Elsiran today.
The constable snorted, then raised his eyebrow. "I believe the magistrate wanted me to remind you about the auction next week. You'll need to be out of that cabin of yours by then. Make way for whoever the new buyer will be."
"I still have seven days to pay the taxes, sir." The wobble in her voice shamed her.
He straightened the bill of his cap, chuckling. "Well, that's right, missy. I suppose you can magic up twenty thousand just like that." He snapped his fingers, and his laugh deepened. "If that witchcraft can spin straw into gold, then we've been fighting on the wrong side of this war all these years." His sizable belly shook, and the pony tossed its head, appearing amused as well.
Jasminda narrowed her eyes. "Thank you for the reminder, sir. I really do need to be heading home now."
"We don't want things to get ugly now, missy. Just clear out like you're supposed to and everything will go real smooth-like."
She wanted to rage. Where exactly was she supposed to go? What was she supposed to do? But pride kept her lips sealed and good sense kept the fury out of her expression.
"Well, on with ya, then," he said, shooing her before turning the pony around. "The sooner you leave town, the sooner these old hens will stop worrying me to death with their nattering."
As horse and rider sauntered away, Jasminda took her first full breath. Once they were out of sight, she turned on her heel and marched up the path leading home.
Still her home, at least for a few more days.
She'd only been walking for a couple of hours when something laying in the path made her stop short. At first she thought a discarded pile of rags had somehow blown up the mountain.
Then she realized it was a man.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Song of Blood & Stone"
Copyright © 2018 L. Penelope.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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