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.
We all think we know how the story ends...
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.
Read an Excerpt
It's too dark outside. The world has been broken since the shadow of a swan brought the news of Mama's death. There's no Crescent Empress now, and it's the time of the month Papa looks aside. My sisters are Daughters of the Moon, just like I am, but I fear they will grow even more worried about me if I mention this aloud. Yet I must say something, anything, for the train is already slowing speed.
"Merile ..." The train rattles as though it, too, were unhappy about approaching Angefort. I cling to the thick, white curtains with both hands and force myself to face the night. Maybe I'm just imagining the wrongness. That used to happen often enough. "Why is it so dark here?"
Merile balances on her knees next to me on the divan that yellows more with each day. She looks out through the frost-dimmed window, but it's as if she's not seeing the things that are so obvious to me. Rafa and Mufu stir from their shallow sleep, from where our hems form a nest for them. My sister smiles at her beautiful dogs, then at me, and her expression turns wicked. "Weeks. There won't be a day in weeks still."
Is she teasing me or serious? I can't tell. But I shiver when I think of how long the shadows will grow if the sun remains captive behind the horizon for much longer. To have no light ... All the shadows I've met so far have been friendly, even the swan shadow. And yet, I don't want to live amongst those who have lost their bodies and souls. I really don't. My sisters would miss me terribly much! "Why?"
Merile glances at her lounging companions, snaps her fingers. Rafa bounces up first and rises on her hind legs, to stare out with us. Her big, brown ears are perched, alert. She yaps once, and soon Mufu is there, too, black tail stiff between her legs. The dogs must think something important is about to happen outside. That is, something more important than what's happening in the day carriage. "Because. It's because we're so high up in the north ... Or was it south? In any case. It's because of that thing."
My sister sounds as if she's repeating a line she's read from a book or heard from Celestia or Elise. I don't think she's teasing me, but there's no way to be sure. Outside, the night droops against the hard snowfields. With Papa in hiding, there's no one left to protect the empire, and all sorts of creatures might lurk in the dark.
But evil things may come to pass even under our father's gaze. I don't want to even think of his name, but Celestia says that pretending that bad things didn't happen won't make them go away. Rather they will let the people who did the bad things get away with having done them, and so I force myself to think of the name of the man who ordered poor Mama shot.
Gagargi Prataslav is evil. He's built a monstrous machine that he claims can see into the future. His Great Thinking Machine consumes souls for fuel, and for reasons I don't understand he wants to feed it mine. Even though I'm no bird whose soul could light up a lamp or bring a mechanical creation to life, even though I'm six and a half years old and have spoken my name aloud so many times that it must be solidly anchored to my body already!
The gagargi also wants to rule the Crescent Empire and keep us, especially Celestia, as far away from him as possible. He has put many people under his spell, including Captain Janlav, who thinks he's tasked to protect me and my sisters. But when we get the chance, me and my sisters must flee so that Celestia can marry the Moon, become the Crescent Empress, and reclaim her empire. I hope she'll order the Great Thinking Machine torn apart and melted the first thing.
"Do you really not remember a word of what you've read?" Sibilia's sharp question yanks me back from my thoughts, and I've never been happier of her and Merile's squabbling. Even though not a day goes past without them arguing. "It's dark here because of the curvature of the world and because we're above the Arctic Circle. Honestly, if you paid a bit more attention to something else besides your rats, you wouldn't be making a fool out of yourself every single time someone asks you a trivial question!"
Merile sticks her tongue out at Sibilia. It's a dull, graying red, rather than the bright pink of Rafa's and Mufu's tongues. Though I often do as Merile does, this time I don't. Sibilia's words calm me. Maybe there's still hope that one day we'll run free.
"Alina, could you move just a bit?" Sibilia's tone is kinder than the one with which she spoke to Merile. Sometimes I think they're afraid of me breaking, as if I were sculpted from glass. "Merile, you too. We need to take down the curtains."
I shuffle aside. Lately, it's been easier to get lost in my thoughts. My breakfast and lunch no longer stink and taste of Nurse Nookes's potions. Maybe the two are related. Maybe not. I miss Nurse Nookes. I hope she's fine. I think she is — if something were to have happened to her, the shadow of the owl would no doubt have come to visit me. "Why?"
Sibilia wobbles up onto the divan even as Merile and her companions jump down. The sofa squeaks like a duck and shifts under me like a pony intent on tossing me off its back, not that that has ever happened. Sibilia seeks support from the wall, and manages to get up on her stockinged feet. Yet, I'm not at all sure she won't fall on top of me at any moment. Maybe that's why she sounds annoyed. "You know why."
But I'm not sure what she means. I'm dressed in the white travel dress, the winter coat, and the fur-lined boots that pinch my toes because I'm wearing two pairs of socks. I've already bundled up everything that has been given to me during this awful journey: the nightgown, the simple woolen dress, and the sabots. The pearl bracelet Celestia and Elise made for me. Even the sheets and blankets from my bed. Throughout the day, Celestia and Elise have been ... I'm not sure what they're doing, but it almost looks as if they're taking things apart. Elise has shredded her sheets and now wraps the pieces around the chipped teacups and saucers. Celestia is ... it almost looks as if she's wrestling with the samovar perched on top of the cupboard by the door that leads to our cabins.
"Or then you don't," Sibilia mutters under her breath. She can't quite reach the silver clips holding the curtains up. She steadies herself against the glass, leaving behind a wet handprint. "It's because it's better to be safe than sorry."
But I still don't understand what she means. The last time we were about to leave the train, we didn't pack anything with us. Celestia had arranged her seed, General Monzanov, to meet with us at a town so tiny I can't recall its name. But then something happened, and we had to board the train again, leaving him and his troika behind.
"Sorry. Sorry lot," Merile whispers to Rafa and Mufu. Her companions snuggle against her, heads pressed against the backs of her knees. Does she, too, ponder if we're really going to depart the train this time around, if her seed will be there to meet us at Angefort? "That's what we've been lately, haven't we?"
Celestia says that at Angefort, we'll be staying in a house that stands on a hill overlooking a lake. She says it's a very nice house. But maybe there won't be servants there either. Maybe that's why we're now packing.
"I want to be safe." I force myself to meet the night with a steady gaze. With the glass between us, the darkness can't touch me. I feel a bit better. "Will we be safe at the house?"
"Safe. You'll be as safe as a porcelain cup wrapped in cotton sheets." Merile grabs a corner of the white curtain. Rafa and Mufu bounce against the divan, needlelike teeth bared, trying to do likewise. "Sibilia, what do you think, should we wrap up our precious little cup?"
There's a pause as there always is when Sibilia considers something for longer than it should take her to make up her mind. She glances at Elise and Celestia, her plump lips pursing. Our older sisters are too busy to pay attention to us. "Yes."
I yelp as Sibilia yanks the curtain loose. It falls over me, and ...
It's night now. I smell wet ground, rotting leaves, and it's not the train that speeds across the empire. No, it's me, running as fast as my four legs can carry me. And I'm not alone. I sense, if I were to glance over my shoulder, I would see who is with me. But I can't. For I must run.
Run as fast as I can.
"Ha-haa. Ghost!" Merile laughs. "Alina, you look like a ghost!"
I fumble to lean on the windowsill. It's cold. And someone is tugging at the curtains, lifting the edge. There's a growl. It's Rafa. No, it's Mufu. The black dog jumps up onto the divan, into the low, soft cave. She licks my hands, her tongue wonderfully wet and warm and sticky. But even though I'm in the carriage with her and my sisters, I'm still at the same time running.
"Sibilia." Celestia doesn't sound angry, but more like she's disappointed. "Are you almost done with the curtains?"
If I were to close my eyes, I would be out of her reach, everyone's reach. For my feet are the fastest, like lightning and gale. But why would I want to run away from my sisters? I force my eyes to stay open, as I've done on so many nights.
The curtain lifts as Sibilia speedily gathers it in her arms. Her round cheeks glow. She stammers apologetically at me, "Sorry. Couldn't resist."
"We're not sorry," Merile mutters, picking Mufu up from the divan. She hugs her companion fiercely. "Yes, my darling, we're not sorry at all!"
I stare back at them, afraid to close my eyes for even half a second. The rattle of the train is the rhythm of my running feet. No, not feet, but paws, and I don't know what it means.
"Alina, are you all right?" Sibilia sits down next to me. She cups my face between her palms. Her hands are sweaty. "We didn't frighten you, did we?"
I can no longer keep my eyes open. I blink rapidly. "No ..."
The dream, or maybe it's a nightmare, fades, and I decide I won't tell my sisters about it, just as I don't tell them about every shadow I see. Maybe I can simply dream when I'm awake. Maybe it's not a bad thing. Though the shadows come and go as they please, they've never hurt me, just as the Witch at the End of the Lane promised. I haven't seen her since we visited her cottage, but I do hope to meet her again. She's the one who summoned me back when I spent too long with the shadows and almost forgot where my home is — here with my sisters. "It was nothing."
"Right." Sibilia lets out a deep breath, and the front of her dress strains in its seams. She still doesn't seem convinced, but she takes it out on the curtain, vigorously bundling it. "Merile, will you help me fold this thing?"
Merile lowers Mufu on the divan and picks Rafa up in her arms. The copper brown dog nuzzles her chin. My sister tilts her head back, and her black hair is wild and wonderful. She laughs. "You're so silly! Oh, yes! You are!"
"I'll do it," I say before Sibilia can chastise my sister. Folding the curtains is no doubt important, but so is cuddling Rafa and Mufu. I think it might have been one of them in the waking dream. But why only one? Why not both?
The train suddenly slows speed. A lot. I grip the curtain, as does Sibilia. It stretches tight between us. I stay up on my feet only because of that.
"No," Celestia commands.
Sibilia and I turn just in time to see the samovar teetering on the edge of the cupboard, then arch past our sister.
"Don't you dare fall." And for a moment I'm sure that Celestia has it within her power to affect the way the world works, that she will only have to say the words to change events to follow her will. But then she gracefully reaches toward the silver pot, and her shadow ... It flaps her arms as if they were wings, the sleeves of her white dress tattered feathers.
"Oh," I gasp, blinking. Am I imagining again?
A crash. Clatter of silver. When I next open my eyes, Celestia has caught the pot, but the rest of the samovar has come apart. The body and the base and the screws that held them together have scattered, landing every which way around the carriage.
Celestia folds gracefully on her knees on the carpet that's not so white anymore. Elise, Sibilia, Merile, and I rush to her, for there can't be much time left before we're at the Angefort station and must leave the train with our bundles. Elise picks up the dented body of the samovar. Sibilia retrieves the base. I spot one of the small silver screws.
"How. How are we ever going to manage to put it together?" Merile asks, but it's as if she's not worried about the samovar but about something else altogether.
"Hush," Celestia says, and in her blue eyes live the calm seas and the cloudless summer skies. "We will make do with what we have. And no matter what awaits us once we depart the train, as long as we remain composed and quiet, I promise to you, my sisters, that it is in my power to keep us safe. As long as we are together, everything will be all right."
I purse my fingers around the silver screw, smiling. We'll be safe, after all. Celestia is blessed by the Moon, the oldest of us, the empress-to- be, and she never lies.
I don't know why I thought that Angefort would be a town. It's not, and I'm not yet sure what it actually is.
As we step out of the train, we're greeted by a gust thick with prickly flakes, but not even a tiniest hint of light. I'm still shivering, squinting to see beyond my own boots, when the guards flanking us switch on the duck soul lanterns that sway as the wind wills. Their serious faces are familiar to me now, though I don't know their real names. My sisters have named them Beard, Boy, Belly, Boots, and Tabard.
Then we're on the move already, and of that I'm happy, because I'm sure that if we'd stayed still for a moment longer, we would have turned into ice. Captain Janlav leads the way through the storm, his steps long and strong, toward the hut that acts as the station and the hunched shapes of ... houses? Me and my sisters have to hold tight to our blankets, which is tricky because we also have to carry our own belongings. Celestia goes first, cradling the dented samovar against her chest. Elise is next with the bundles of wrapped-up porcelain. Sibilia wades with her head bent low, the curtains clutched against her sides. Merile has our sheets and pillows piled on her arms. I'm the last, and my load is the lightest and sweetest, but as the wind yanks at my blanket, I dread I'll soon drop the wooden box that contains what's left of the sugar and tea.
The silent guards accompanying us carry only their rifles and the lanterns, their coats buttoned all the way up. I think they might get to return to the train later. I envy them for both. I did feel safer on the move. This place doesn't feel friendly in any way. I don't think any of our seeds will be here to meet us.
"Welcome to Angefort," Captain Janlav says when we reach the small hut, the wind pausing just long enough for the words to reach us. He sounds the same as always, steadfast and steady, but he looks very different. No, it's his coat that's different, missing the epaulets and the silver buttons, the signs of his rank in Mama's service.
My sisters stare past him, at our destination, and I do likewise. My bones rattle in the gale, or that's how it feels, but finally I can make out what awaits us. It's a square with low log buildings for three sides, the platform we stand on closing it. The windows are shuttered against the winter, the chimneys puff gray wisps. In the middle of the square is a flagpole, and there flaps angrily a scarlet flag that bears black shapes I don't recognize from this far away. Then, three men in bulky coats, with the hoods drawn up, swarm out of the nearest house, armed with rifles, bearing dim lanterns. They must have heard the train arrive.
"Garrison. This is a garrison," Merile mutters even as Rafa and Mufu dive under the hem of her white cloak. Her companions must be scared. Or then, though coated, they're freezing. Or both. "Here, at the end of the railway! Curious that ..."
Celestia shakes her head very, very lightly. Even as the wind scrapes our cheeks, as the snow turns us white-haired and piles up on our shoulders, Merile — we all — should be silent, simply watch, but not be seen. Akin to shadows, no matter what.
Captain Janlav waves at the soldiers. He doesn't seem cold or concerned at all as he marches through the snow to greet them. He calls over his shoulder, "Come."
We do as he commands, though this means that poor Rafa and Mufu can no longer shelter under Merile's hem.
When we're but ten steps away from the soldiers, a frightening thought occurs to me. The sky is gray with clouds. Papa can't see us now. Anything might come to pass without him learning about it until much later. Though I've decided to remain brave, I tremble as we meet the garrison men. The pinprick snowflakes sting my eyes, and tears soon follow. But I mustn't make a sound. I must be as my shadow should be.
Excerpted from "The Sisters Of The Crescent Empress"
Copyright © 2017 Leena Likitalo.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Alina,
Chapter 2: Merile,
Chapter 3: Sibilia,
Chapter 4: Elise,
Chapter 5: Celestia,
Chapter 6: Alina,
Chapter 7: Merile,
Chapter 8: Sibilia,
Chapter 9: Elise,
Chapter 10: Celestia,
Chapter 11: Alina,
Chapter 12: Merile,
Chapter 13: Sibilia,
Chapter 14: Elise,
Chapter 15: Celestia,
About the Author,
Also by Leena Likitalo,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Like the first book each sister narrates a chapter. Mostly, it deals with their imprisonment in far a part of the Empire.