Four sisters have become queens, rulers of all that Aerthlan’s two moons embrace. The last sister will forge her own path . . .
Signs and Seals
Raised on the magic-seeped Isle of Moon, Maeve is used to unusual powers—and the way they fuel the politics of her world. But when she discovers an ability to shape-shift at will, she knows who she wants to share it with first. Brody, the enigmatic, infuriating shifter-spy has always made time for Maeve. But it’s been almost two months since she’s seen him. And though no one else believes Brody is in danger, Maeve is more than ready to rescue him herself.
The rumors Brody’s investigating are terrifying: a secret army of magic-users, in the service of the cruel Circle of Five. But when he uncovers the identity of one of the Five, the mission becomes personal. Cursed as a boy by the Sea Witch, Brody can spend only two hours a day in his human form, a restriction that limits his future and muzzles his heart. Plus Maeve teases him for being such a pretty doggy instead of appreciating his manly charms. To win his freedom, he must take on a terrible disguise. And when Maeve finds out, she’ll unleash a tempest like no other . . .
In another time on another world called Aerthlan, there are five kingdoms. Four of the kingdoms extend across a vast continent. The fifth kingdom consists of two islands in the Great Western Ocean. These are the Isles of Moon and Mist. There is only one inhabitant on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer.
Twice a year, the two moons of Aerthlan eclipse each other, or as the people call it, embrace. Any child born when the moons embrace will be gifted with a magical power. These children are called the Embraced, and traditionally, the kings on the mainland have sought to kill them. Some of the Embraced infants are sent secretly to the Isle of Moon, where they will be safe.
For many years, the Seer predicted continuous war and destruction across the four mainland kingdoms. But not anymore. Now he claims a wave of change is sweeping across Aerthlan, change that will bring peace to a world that has known violence for too long. And it is happening because of five young women from the fifth kingdom: Luciana, Brigitta, Gwennore, Sorcha, and Maeve.
The women were hidden away as infants on the Isle of Moon, and there they grew up as sisters. They knew not where they had been born, nor if they had any family. They only knew each one of them was Embraced.
This is Maeve’s story.
Maeve glanced at her two eldest sisters as a startling realization popped into her mind. Luciana and Brigitta had everything a woman could wish for. They were queens. They were powerful, smart, and beautiful. They had lovely children and handsome husbands who were admirable rulers. So how on Aerthlan had they become so incredibly boring? Good goddesses, she was tempted to scream!
For the last two hours, Luciana and Brigitta had talked about nothing but babies. Feeding a baby, weaning a baby, bathing a baby, dressing a baby. Weren’t there more important things to discuss? For example, where the hell was their friend Brody? He’d been missing for almost two months. Why hadn’t he let anyone know where he was going?
It was so aggravating! The blasted man had a history of keeping secrets. At first, he’d led everyone to believe he was simply a dog shifter. But then they’d learned he could shift into any animal he liked. And recently, they’d discovered he was able to talk while in canine form. What other secrets was he hiding?
Unfortunately, all her thinking and worrying had not yielded any results other than to make her tired and weary. In frustration, Maeve let her gaze wander aimlessly about the elegant cabin of the Eberoni royal barge. It was decorated in the country’s official colors of red and black: a thick red carpet and big, comfy chairs and footstools upholstered in red velvet; a carved black table laden with cold meats, fruit, and pastries. It was the most comfortable way for her pregnant sisters and their young children to travel. The mothers’ soft droning voices and the gentle sway of the barge had caused the little ones to fall asleep on cushioned pallets.
Maeve stifled a yawn. After leaving Wyndelas Palace, they had traveled for three days to reach the town of Vorushka, where they had said good-bye to their sister Gwennore. Then they had crossed into Eberon so they could board this barge on the Ebe River. Maeve was exhausted but far too worried about Brody to take a nap.
Luciana and Brigitta’s conversation took a sudden turn for the worse as they delved into the pitfalls of training a child to use a chamber pot. With a groan, Maeve lurched to her feet. I can’t bear it any longer!
“Sweetie, are you all right?” Luciana asked.
“Ye look a bit flushed,” Brigitta added.
“I’m fine.” Maeve wandered over to the table, but nothing looked appealing to her. She’d hardly eaten at all the last few days.
“You’ll feel better once we’re back home at Ebton Palace,” Luciana announced. “No doubt there will be a dozen suitors waiting for you at the pier.”
Maeve winced. Why were her sisters so eager for her to marry?
Luciana leaned close to Brigitta and whispered in a voice loud enough to be heard, “Maeve has become extremely popular of late.”
“I’m not surprised,” Brigitta whispered back. “She’s grown into such a beauty.”
Maeve rolled her eyes. Right. As if all those suitors were interested only in her appearance, not the fact that all four of her sisters were now queens.
“I know of at least one duke, three earls, and a dozen or so barons who claim to be smitten with her,” Luciana continued.
“Oh, my!” Brigitta clasped her hands together. “A duke would be perfect!”
Maeve sighed. She didn’t want a duke. She wanted a dog.
Luciana chuckled. “I wonder if the duke will be dressed in purple or green?”
Maeve stiffened at the reference to the Telling Stones. The number three; the colors purple and green. Those were the stones that had predicted her future.
And she hated it. She hadn’t wanted to play the Game of Stones. In fact, the stones had only fallen out of the chalice because of her refusal to play. So maybe they didn’t count?
But the pebble marked with the number three seemed too fitting to discount. There were only three members left in the Circle of Five, a murderous group intent on taking over the world. No one knew who the first two members were, but no doubt the Chameleon was the third. And three also matched the number of kings the evil shifter had killed: Frederic of Eberon, Gunther of Tourin, and Petras of Norveshka.
The Chameleon had caused trouble in Woodwyn, too, shifting into a dragon to kidnap their sister Sorcha. Whoever he was, he had proven impossible to catch since no one knew what he really looked like. Only Brody could identify him by his scent.
But what had happened to Brody?
“Excuse me.” Maeve headed toward the door. “I think I’ll take a turn on the deck.”
“No doubt the fresh air will do you good,” Luciana said as Maeve slipped out the door on the barge’s port side.
Closing her eyes, she lifted her face to the warm sun and took a deep breath. A summer breeze feathered her cheeks and brought several scents to her nose: the sweat of hardworking sailors, the earthy smell of nearby farmland, and most importantly, the familiar scent of the Ebe River.
All her life, she’d felt a strange connection to bodies of water. She’d always known whenever a storm was brewing over the Great Western Ocean. And she’d been able to communicate with seals and other creatures of the sea.
Now that she was able to actually shift into a seal, she was even more attuned to water. With just a sniff, she knew which ocean, which river, which lake, even which well a sample of water came from. More than that, water had become a second home to her, as comforting as her bedchamber at Ebton Palace.
The river called to her, inviting her to jump in and shift. Let the water carry her weight, buoy her burdens, and wash away her worries. Not now. She opened her eyes and glanced up at the sun. It was high in the sky, so it had to be almost noon.
She wandered toward the bow of the barge, passing by the sailors who stood at the railing, using poles to keep the vessel floating down the deepest channel of the Ebe River. Eberoni soldiers, under the command of Colonel Nevis Harden, stood watch every few feet. Nevis and his troop had met the women and children this morning in Vorushka and would see them safely down the river. Once they arrived at Ebton, a troop of Tourinian soldiers would be waiting to escort Brigitta north to the capital of Tourin, where she ruled with her husband.
For the last three years, Maeve had been living at Ebton Palace. Although she was happy to be with her eldest sister, she always missed the other three something terrible. And so, she’d been delighted when they had all been reunited for three weeks at Wyndelas Palace in the elfin kingdom of Woodwyn. There, the fourth sister, Sorcha, had married Brennan the elfin king and become his queen. The three elder sisters had stayed for the entire three weeks, but their husbands had returned to their countries and royal duties after a few days. It hadn’t taken long for Luciana, Brigitta, and Gwennore to complain about how much they missed their mates.
But did no one miss Brody? Maeve stopped at the bow of the barge and searched the sky. Sometimes, Brody took the shape of an eagle. But not today. The sky was clear.
She shifted her gaze to the river to see if she could spot any otters. While living at Ebton Palace, she’d used this river as her place to shift into a seal, and every month on the night of the full moons, a river otter had come to play with her. It was Brody, of course, although the fool had never realized that she knew. She’d kept waiting for him to admit what he was doing, but he never did. It was another one of his blasted secrets.
Even when she’d shifted for the first few times on the Isle of Moon, he had come to keep her company in the form of a seal. He’d always been there for her. Every month.
Except the last one. Where the hell was he?
And why was this stupid barge going so terribly slowly? She needed to do something to find Brody. But what?
Once again the water called to her, and she was tempted to shift. If she swam really fast, she could beat the barge to Ebton Palace. Wouldn’t that give her sisters a shock! They thought she could shift only when the moons were full.
It had bothered her for years that Brody could shift whenever he wanted while she couldn’t. So, in the privacy of her bedchamber, she’d used her bath time every evening to train herself. For the first week, she’d only succeeded in getting her feet to morph into flippers, but now, she could become a seal whenever and wherever she wanted.
She hadn’t told anyone yet. She had wanted Brody to be the first to know.
With a groan, she turned and paced toward the back of the barge. Why had the purple and green stones tumbled from the chalice when it had tipped over? Those colors meant nothing to her. Now a blue stone--that she would have liked. Brody had the prettiest blue eyes she’d ever seen. Or at least she could have picked black and white, since he spent most of his time as a furry black-and-white dog with a black patch surrounding his left eye.
She stopped at the rear end of the barge and planted her hands on the railing. Instead of worrying over a few silly stones, she should deal with reality and figure out what to do. She wasn’t a child anymore, in spite of what her sisters thought. In a few months, at the Autumn Embrace, she would be twenty years old.
Something bumped against her skirt, and with a jump she glanced down at the furry black-and-white cat rubbing against her legs.
“Oh, you gave me a start.” Her eyes narrowed on the cat’s face as it looked up at her. Blue eyes. Just like Brody’s. Her heart leaped up her throat. “Brody, is that you?”
“It’s called a cat,” a wry voice announced, and she glanced up to see Colonel Nevis Harden approaching. He smiled at her. “The sailors keep her onboard to catch mice.”
“I see.” To hide her embarrassment, Maeve leaned down to rub the cat behind its ears.
“I heard something interesting this morning.” Nevis stopped beside her at the railing. “Apparently, on the way to Vorushka, you asked several farm animals if they were Brody.”
Maeve straightened, her face growing warm. “I had good reason to suspect the cow. He was black and white spotted.”
Nevis’s mouth twitched. “So are a lot of cows. I take it the pig was black and white, too?”
She gritted her teeth. “Yes. But I fail to see why this is so amusing. Brody has been missing for almost two months, and no one seems the least bit concerned.”
Nevis’s smile faded. “We are concerned.”
“Then do something!”
“Such as?” Nevis gave her a frustrated look. “Brody can shift into a bird or beast. He can fly over mountains and swim across oceans. How on Aerthlan would we ever find him?”
“But he could be in trouble. He might need help.”
“If he’s in trouble, he can shift into some sort of creature and escape.” Nevis folded his arms as he leaned against the railing. “Try not to worry. I’ve known Brody a long time. It’s not uncommon for him to disappear for a few months.”
“But he-—” Maeve stopped herself before saying that he’d always made time to see her on the night of the full moons. That was their secret time together, and she didn’t want anyone else to know.
“But he always comes back,” Nevis finished for her. “And he usually has some important information. He’s simply doing his job as a spy and investigator.”
Maeve knew what Brody did for a living, but not much more than that. “Do you know where he came from originally?”
“Not sure where he grew up.” Nevis dragged a hand through his hair, and for a few seconds, the scar on his forehead was visible, one he’d received years ago from his best friend Leo’s lightning power. “Brody told me once that he has a mother and a sister, but I don’t know where they live.”
“How did you meet him?”
“Hmm.” Nevis’s eyes narrowed as he thought back. “It was the summer of the year 691. Brody was sixteen. Leo and I, twenty-one. There was a severe drought that summer, and with no lightning storms, Leo’s power was completely depleted, leaving him vulnerable to attack. My father and I were extremely worried about him. Then, one day, this scraggly dog wandered into camp, looking half-starved. I gave him a bone from the commissary. Then he followed me into my tent and shifted. Scared the crap out of—oh, no offense, my lady.”
“Go on,” Maeve urged.
“He said his name was Brody, and that he’d just spent a month at Ebton Palace, listening in on King Frederic’s secret meetings. You know who that was?”
“Yes.” Maeve nodded. King Frederic had been Leo’s uncle, and he had feared Leo because of his Embraced powers. Feared him enough that he had tried his best to get his nephew killed. And when Luciana had been betrothed to Leo, she’d also become a target.
“So I gave Brody some clothes and took him to see Leo and my father, the general,” Nevis continued. “They hired him on the spot, and he’s been working hard ever since. Not just helping Leo, but the other kings on the mainland, too.”
“I knew about that last part.” As far as Maeve was concerned, Brody was the unsung hero of all the changes that had happened over the last few years. “It upsets me that no one seems to realize how valuable he is.”
Nevis scoffed. “If you value him so much, why do you keep calling him Julia whenever he’s a dog?”
She winced. “I-I had my reasons, but I’ll stop doing it.” At first, it had been an honest mistake. Brody made such a pretty dog with his long, silky fur and bright blue eyes, that she had assumed he was female. But later, after she knew the truth, she’d continued to call him Julia. For deep down inside, she’d wanted to annoy him.
The blasted man had a habit of ignoring her. Whenever there was a ball, he’d dance with her sisters but not her. He hardly even talked to her. She would have thought that he hated her, except for the fact that he always showed up on the night of the full moons as a seal or otter to play with her. That had to mean he liked her, didn’t it? So why did he avoid her when he was human?
“You seem to have lost most of your island accent,” Nevis observed.
She nodded. “While I was living at Ebton Palace, Luciana encouraged me to improve my diction.” No doubt so she could attract a noble suitor. “Where do you think Brody could be?”
Nevis shrugged. “My guess is he’s investigating the secret Embraced army that Lord Morris talked about before he died.”
She stiffened. “What? An Embraced army?”
Nevis’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. Oh, shit. I-I thought you knew. All your sisters know. I thought they...”
“No.” Maeve gripped the railing hard. “They didn’t tell me.”
Nevis winced. “Sorry.”
“What is this Embraced army?”
“I don’t think it’s my place to say anything.” He made a quick bow. “I should check on my soldiers. Good day, my lady.” He strode away, disappearing around the side of the cabin.
With a groan, Maeve propped her elbows on the railing. Of course her sisters hadn’t told her. She wasn’t a queen as they were. During the few days when all four kings and their queens had been in Wyndelas Palace, they had closeted themselves in the royal privy chamber for private discussions. Maeve hadn’t been invited. After all, she didn’t have a country to protect. She understood that, but even so, it was aggravating to feel left out.
It was a feeling she’d struggled with since childhood. Not that she was ignored. Her sisters had doted on her as the baby of the group. But it had always been clear that the eldest two, Luciana and Brigitta, were the best of friends. And the next two, Gwennore and Sorcha, were equally close to each other. Maeve was always the baby. The fifth wheel.
And now she felt even more left out. Her sisters and their husbands had become an exclusive group she could never join. There was only one kingdom left on Aerthlan, the island kingdom of Moon and Mist, and it already had a queen and an heir. So Maeve would never be a queen like her sisters.
She closed her eyes briefly. There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself. Being a queen didn’t matter to her. What was important was that Nevis had given her a big clue. An Embraced army?
When she opened her eyes, she noticed the ripples coming from the barge and undulating their way to the riverbanks. Cause and effect. Lord Morris had claimed there was an Embraced army, and Brody had disappeared searching for it. Since he hadn’t returned, it seemed likely that he hadn’t found the army yet. Had Lord Morris been speaking the truth, or had he taunted them with lies before dying?
She recalled everything she knew about Lord Morris. Before Leo had become king, when King Frederic had ruled Eberon, Morris was his chief counsel and the head of the Church of Enlightenment. In those days, the kings on the mainland feared those who were born Embraced, so they had them hunted down and killed as infants. That way, the Embraced children could never grow up and use their magical powers to usurp the royal thrones. In Eberon, it had been Morris’s job to eliminate the children.
But once Morris had become a member of the Circle of Five, had he realized that keeping the Embraced children alive could help the Circle take over the world? Had he hidden the children away to train them as an army? Was the widely believed story that the Embraced children had all been murdered actually a lie?
It wouldn’t be the first time that Maeve and her sisters had come across that sort of falsehood. Growing up in the convent on the Isle of Moon, they had always believed that they’d been hidden away because they were Embraced. But in the last few years, they’d learned that this was only partially true. There had been other reasons. Luciana had been sent away because she was a twin. Brigitta’s father had gotten rid of her to make everyone believe she was dead. Gwennore had been taken away to punish her mother for giving birth to a half-breed, and Sorcha’s mother had been trying to protect her from the plague.
At the convent, Mother Ginessa had told the five young girls that they were orphans. For her elder sisters, that had also proven to be a lie. What other falsehoods would they discover?
As she did every day, Maeve wondered if she would ever know the truth about herself. She had no idea where she had come from. The nuns at the convent had estimated that she was nearly a year old when she’d been left in a basket by the front gate. That had been midsummer, so from then on, the nuns had celebrated her birthday in late summer. But no one knew why she had been abandoned, so they had assumed she was Embraced like her adopted sisters, and that her actual birthday must be when the moons embraced in autumn. That theory had proven correct when at a young age, Maeve had displayed the odd gift of being able to communicate with the seals that lounged about on the nearby beach. Then, at the age of sixteen, she’d shifted for the first time into a seal.
This was one of the reasons she’d always felt close to Brody. His past was mysterious, too, and he was also an Embraced shifter. Because of a witch’s curse, he could maintain human form for only two hours each day, and unfortunately, he spent most of that time in secret conferences with Leo or whichever king he was currently helping. So it was only on rare occasions that Maeve saw him as a human. When he wasn’t looking, she would study him intently, memorizing every bit of his handsome face and lean, strong body, so she could keep the image in her mind until she saw him again.
She wandered slowly back to the cabin and stopped by the door. When she’d left, the door hadn’t latched properly, and now the gentle sway of the boat had caused it to swing halfway open.
“I don’t think the Embraced army could be in Eberon.” Luciana’s soft voice filtered across the cabin. “The land is all cultivated. There would be no place to hide.”
“Rupert is having the mountains in northern Tourin checked,” Brigitta said, referring to her husband by his pirate name. “But I don’t think anyone could be hiding there. The lords in the highlands are very loyal, and they would have reported anything odd to us.”
“I suspect there are vast areas of wilderness in Norveshka,” Luciana continued. “But Silas is having his dragons survey every inch. And Aleksi is scanning the remote areas in Woodwyn.”
Maeve sighed. Her sisters were no longer talking of babies. Had they been waiting for her to leave so they could discuss business matters?
She leaned against the cabin wall, thinking. If she had to hide somewhere, where would she go? The mainland kings would know if an army was hiding in their countries. Was there somewhere else? When Brigitta’s husband had been a pirate, he’d hidden on a secret isle he’d named after himself. Could there be other islands in the Great Western Ocean?
A faint memory stirred in her mind. Over a year ago, while searching for something new to read in the library at Ebton Palace, she’d come across an extremely old book written in a form of the Eberoni language that was so archaic, it had taken her over an hour to decipher it. But once she’d started to understand it, she’d become fascinated with the story it told.
According to the old book, an ancient continent had existed in the Great Western Ocean, and the culture there had flourished long before the primitive people of Eberon had learned to even count the years. It had been the year 699 when she’d found this book, so she figured that this ancient land had to date back over seven hundred years.
The continent, Aerland, had been a place of magic with sorcerers so powerful that the rest of Aerthlan had quaked in fear of them. The ancient race had worshipped the twin moon goddesses and that had made the sun god, the Light, seethe with anger and jealousy. In a fit of rage, the Light had struck several volcanoes on the continent, causing them to erupt all at once in a massive explosion. Earthquakes had added to the devastation and after a few days, most of the ancient continent had collapsed far below the sea, and most of the people had perished.
There had been a map in the book, and after studying it, Maeve had suspected that the Isles of Moon and Mist were all that was left of the ancient continent of Aerland.
Could there be other islands? As soon as she arrived back at Ebton Palace, she would search the library for this book. And then, tomorrow, she would travel to the Isle of Moon. The nuns at the convent transcribed books, so they had a huge library. She might find more information there. And she could ask the seals at the nearby beach if they knew of any other islands.
Her breath caught. She could also go to the Isle of Mist and ask the Seer if he knew where the Embraced army was hiding. He might even know where Brody was.
Finally. She took a deep, satisfying breath. Finally, she had a course of action to pursue. It was so much better than sitting around worrying.
She strode into the cabin.
Luciana spotted her. “Oh, the air must have done you good. You look much better.”
“I am better.” Maeve stopped by the table of food and began loading a plate. Now that she had a plan, her appetite had returned.
“Ye should try the cherry tarts,” Brigitta suggested. “We were just talking about how yummy they are.”
“I know what you were talking about.” Maeve gave them an annoyed look. “You should have told me about the Embraced army. And that Brody is gone because he’s looking for it.”
Luciana’s and Brigitta’s mouths fell open.
“Well...” Luciana winced. “We didn’t want you to worry—”
“I’ll worry more if I’m kept in the dark!” Maeve set her plate down with a thud. “Did it never occur to you that I hate being left out?”
Luciana and Brigitta exchanged looks, then turned to her with apologetic expressions on their faces.
“I know I’m not a queen, and I never will be,” Maeve continued. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you or your countries. I want to help.”
Luciana sighed. “I’m afraid there’s not much we can do.”
Brigitta nodded. “It’s frustrating for us, too.”
“I believe there is something I can do.” Maeve put a cherry tart on her plate. “I want to go back to the convent. Can you arrange passage for me to leave tomorrow morning?”
Luciana sat back with a shocked look. “Why? Are you not happy at Ebton Palace?”
Brigitta winced. “Are ye angry with us for not telling you everything?”
Maeve shook her head. “There’s something I want to check in the convent library.”
“Is it that urgent?” Luciana rose to her feet. “I was thinking of hosting a ball for you. And having my seamstresses make you a beautiful new gown. A sea-green color that would match your lovely eyes.”
“Chee-ana.” Maeve used her nickname for her eldest sister. “I don’t need a ball. Or a new gown. And I’m not angry.” She was determined. If the Embraced army was hiding somewhere in the Great Western Ocean, then there was no one better suited than she to track it down. She could finally put her Embraced gift of seal shifting to a good purpose.
And with any luck, she might find Brody, too.