Stones and Finger Bones (The Black Towers, #1) by Jessica Minyard - Read Online
Stones and Finger Bones (The Black Towers, #1)
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Summary

Aurelia Barone, Jewel of Starry Stone, harbors no illusions about the purpose of her life as heir to the throne. But after two failed betrothals, she starts to feel like nothing more than a pawn being moved aimlessly about a game board.

Until the night she loses everything.

Kidnapped by a wise-cracking mercenary with more than one identity, Aurelia embarks on a mission across land and sea to avenge her father's death.

But an evil is rising from the ashes of memory. Insidious magic is stirring. The dregs of a once-powerful nation are thirsty for blood and revenge.

They seek to harness Aurelia. To tempt her. To manipulate her.

And if necessary, to destroy her.

Published: Centurion Books on
ISBN: 9781502288684
List price: $4.99
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Stones and Finger Bones (The Black Towers, #1) - Jessica Minyard

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Centurion Books

For my mom – tireless supporter, role model, superstar, critic, inspiration, and biggest fan

And for Mr. Harris – for giving me the courage to use the semi-colon and for being the first person to tell me you loved stories like mine

"And then Ramache, the Most Beloved, said, ‘Behold, I have born you a son.’

And the Maker was most pleased with her offering.

He named the son Salin, in the Ancient Tongue.

‘And he shall be the First Son, favored above all men. And he shall be Blood of my Blood.’

And then Ramache, the Most Beloved, said, ‘Behold, I have born you a second son.’

And the Maker was again pleased by this offering from his Great Wife.

He named the child Salil.

‘Go wife, and raise my sons. Let the Second be a servant to the First. For he will rule the hearts of men and the world shall adore him.’"

"And Ramache, the Great Mother, tore at her hair and rent her clothes when she saw the blood on his hands.

‘Where is your brother?’

‘I know not,’ the Second son said. ‘I am not my brother’s keeper.’"

Stoyan the Godly, 1662

The Communion of Faith

He felt the pull of the magic acutely, as if a blade had been dragged across his skin.

Gooseflesh prickled along his pale, spindly limbs as Kostadin opened his eyes. He blinked rapidly in the darkness, waiting for feeling to return to his numb extremities. How long had he slept? The weight of immortality had driven him to find a safe, dark place to wait out the passing of time.

It was also an unfortunately foul-smelling place.

He must have been truly desperate for sleep to choose something so dismal. There was nothing but old stone and the rank of mold.

Kostadin almost regretted the return of his senses, but then he felt it again. Magic. It sparked through his blood like fire. Someone in this pitiful world was using soul-magic – a feat he hadn’t witnessed in decades.

He had to find them.

His unused lungs burned with the effort of drawing one ragged breath. Kostadin rolled over and immediately tumbled from a stone slab; the impact caused strange lights to dance in his eyes.

Desperate and delirious, indeed.

His whole body ached. He felt weak, like one of those pathetic humans. Kostadin forced himself to lie still on the cold ground amongst the shattered shells of insects and rotting corpses of rats. His delicate nose wrinkled. Strength would return, as it always had. He just had to be patient.

But Kostadin the Cruel was not known for patience. Three thousand years had taught that to the world.

His only consolation was knowing the path left by the mysterious magic-user would be easy enough to follow. Like a hound after a scent, Kostadin tracked it across one ocean to Myrinthia, a country settled centuries ago by one of his own kind. The trail eventually led to a nameless city – nameless only because Kostadin didn’t bother caring what the heathens had named their lands in their guttural, ugly tongue.

He wasn’t bothered to care about much, but he was doubly intrigued when the trail ended at a castle. Or, at least he thought it was a castle. It was pitifully small compared to the grandeur that had been his home in the golden city, so many lifetimes ago.

He was struck by a pang of regret, but it was fleeting, as all emotions were after so long.

On principle, Kostadin refused to sneak inside, but he cloaked himself so the eyes of any humans wandering around would fall away, as if he didn’t exist.

His curiosity grew the deeper into the castle he went. What if the magic-user was a member of the royal family? What a delicious twist that would be.

His search finally ended outside a large, ornate wooden door. Kostadin contemplated knocking, to make a proper introduction, but then he caught a whiff of the magic-user. The pulse of magic was faint and Kostadin could tell he – for it was a male – was new and untrained, his power still bound within the depths of his mind.

Kostadin broke the latch with one sharp gesture and slipped into the room like a shadow.

The man surely must be a high lord or royalty, for the sumptuous quarters could belong to no one of lower class. Kostadin could taste the remains of magic in the air. He licked his lips. Ancient magic, a secret not known to many.

He found the man in a heap beside the scattered accoutrements of a ritual. There was a scorch mark in the carpet where a lit candle had toppled over. Crouching down, Kostadin felt for the man’s heartbeat with deft fingers. It was a dangerous thing for an unreleased mind to wield such power. He must have been unconscious for hours.

Kostadin laid a hand on the man’s chest and sent a light pulse of power straight to his heart. The man jolted awake and immediately attempted to scramble away, but Kostadin grasped his wrist. He pulled his mouth into a grin. Fear not.

Kostadin could read the emotions scrawled across the man’s face as easily as if he’d been speaking them aloud: fear, confusion, indecision, and ultimately curiosity. He knew what the man saw: a slight adolescent boy in ragged clothes with dirty hair. Hardly intimidating.

Your name, Kostadin rasped, voice still harsh from disuse.

Ma – Marel, the man stuttered.

You summoned something, Marel. To what purpose?

The man licked his lips, his eyes flickering rapidly around the room. He was clearly up to no good.

Do not lie to me, human, Kostadin growled.

I needed . . . it. The man gulped, fear and indecision once again contorting his features. This yellow-bellied pawn would need to grow a spine if Kostadin were to use him.

Yes? Kostadin prodded, shaking his arm.

To kill . . . my brother.

Kostadin could have crowed with joy. How perfectly devious! His fingers tightened around the man’s wrist, causing him to flinch. Kostadin felt more alive than he had in centuries. He had a special fondness for murder.

He grabbed the man’s face in two hands. The man tried to wriggle away, but Kostadin held tight. You shall be of great use to me, Marel.

And then he laughed.

The Heir Apparent’s betrothed was dead, and she couldn’t breathe.

Aurelia struggled against the suffocating fabric of her black mourning gown and veil. She wished her lady’s maids had not insisted on lacing her bodice so tightly. Between the stays and the heavy funeral incense, Aurelia’s vision swam.

And into His waiting arms we commend you. The Holy High Father’s raspy voice cut across the silence of the sanctuary, reminding Aurelia she should be paying more attention.

And into His waiting arms we commend you, the gathered mass droned.

Aurelia glanced over at her maids, each similarly garbed. Her more dramatic maid, Jadzia, was dabbing red-rimmed eyes with a lace cloth.

Aurelia returned her gaze to the High Father, who was resplendent in white robes and a gold-linked belt. He relentlessly continued the recitation of the death rites, while acolytes swung bejeweled balls of incense and splashed holy water on the front row of mourners. The cool droplets sunk through Aurelia’s veil and provided small relief for her flushed cheeks.

She found it hard to muster such a show of emotion for a boy she had never met. Lord Filip had been the first son of one of the noblest families – a suitable match – but had taken ill shortly after their betrothal was formalized. She’d heard rumors of him, of course. Her maids gossiped about his pretty face and coal-black hair, kept polished and curled like a high-born lady’s. About how tragic it was to watch it fall out, piece by piece, as he wasted away in his family’s estate.

His status as her intended had afforded him a state funeral and all the accompanying trappings. Hours standing and praying in the church sanctuary. Service overseen by the Holy High Father himself. Attendance by the royal family. Honor march through the capital city. Armed escort back to his family’s crypt. Her father was sparing no expense to honor the boy’s family.

Filip’s mother and father sat with King Aurelien on a dais adjacent to the High Father. Each was swathed in black, and her father wore no adornment except for his jewels of state. He was a big man, barrel-chested and thick-limbed, and handsome, with soft brown eyes and hair, and strong features that were appropriately solemn.

The High Father finished the ceremony by blessing Filip’s body – his corpse, Aurelia had to remind herself – with holy water and covering the faded linen wrappings with a pristine white sheet, the Broken Star of the Triad stitched in gold. He motioned for the Weepers. They took the body from the sanctuary to prepare it for a parade through the city.

Filip’s parents followed what was left of their son, while King Aurelien strode down the center aisle, Aurelia falling into step behind him. She could feel eyes following her and forced her expression into something resembling stoic grief instead of bored indifference. The mourners would ride in carriages or on horseback behind the elaborate wagon carrying Filip in a winding circle that ended at the castle gates.

Aurelia stepped into the controlled chaos of the sanctuary steps. She was immediately jostled away from her father and lady’s maids by well-wishers pressing flowers into her arms and servants attempting to get their lords and ladies into carriages.

My sincerest condolences, my lady. A soft hand politely grasped her elbow and Kilian Rudeny manifested by her side, his dark face somber. He clasped her hand and touched it to his forehead.

You’re very gracious, my lord.

Rudeny was the newest Flaygornian ambassador, new and young as far as politicians went. He was enthusiastic and handsome and had been spending copious amounts of time seeking out her company since her betrothed’s incurable sickness had been announced. He was extremely diverting, indeed.

A high-pitched shriek broke over the heads of the crowd. Aurelia turned to see one of her ladies running down the marble steps, skirts flying.

Jadzia clasped her side and flipped a strand of dark hair over her shoulder. My lady, she gasped for breath, we must get you to your carriage. Jadzia glared at Aurelia and then turned her angry stare at everyone around them, respectfully dispersing with the aid of the guards. Praise god I found you. We’re going to be at the back of the procession. Your father will be displeased. You’re going to get us all hanged!

Aurelia stuffed her array of flowers into Jaz’s hands. Stop being so theatrical. Nobody is getting hanged.

Aurelia was her father’s only child, and Jadzia’s father was one of the most successful businessmen in the country, which meant he was very rich, very powerful, and had friends in high places. No, there would be no hangings any time soon.

"Still, I do not understand why you insist on mingling with the commoners." Jaz eyed the gathering of gardeners and stable boys – still slow to leave – as if they were going to pounce on Aurelia at any second.

Aurelia hooked her arm through Rudeny’s, who continued to hover nearby, and began walking. I was not mingling, Jadzia. Join me in my carriage, Ambassador? She glanced sideways and smiled.

Rudeny dropped a series of quick, spastic bows. It would be an honor, my lady!

Jadzia ushered them around the back of the elaborate Church of the Triad, to where the carriages waited with much huffing and flapping of worried hands. Aurelia’s bouquet of forgotten flowers littered the ground in their wake like bones.

It was full midnight when Aurelia was awoken with a rough shake. Jadzia’s round, plump face loomed like a rising moon. She was pulling nervously on her hair. You’ve been summoned.

By who?

The busy fingers stilled. His grace, of course.

Aurelia rubbed the sleep from her eyes. What? Why?

No time.

Jaz grabbed Aurelia’s arm and hauled her bodily from bed. Her other maids, Carramyne and Mica, were gathered in the room in nightclothes with wide eyes. She was quickly stuffed into a blue linen gown, thick copper hair left wild, unbound, uncovered. She was not fit for an audience with the king, but Jaz left no room for protest as she dragged Aurelia from her chambers.

Her father’s private audience chamber was a large, spacious room, and all the furniture was arranged around a miniature dais, housing a smaller version of her father’s great throne. The room was surprisingly cozy, with plush carpets and thick tapestries covering almost every inch of bare wall and floor. Aurelia had barely seated herself on one of the chaise couches before Aurelien burst in, followed closely by her uncle.

Leave us. Everyone, her father barked, looking pointedly at Aurelia’s ladies. They curtsied and made a hurried exit.

Aurelia smoothed her simple skirt, waiting for someone to speak. Both men appeared weary, with matching dark circles under their eyes.

Instead of taking his seat on the throne, her father sat on the edge of a sturdy oak desk, normally reserved for a secretary or other official. My jewel, I have chosen for your husband Duke Josier’s son, Noakalo Faraldo.

Aurelia’s gaze flicked to her uncle Marel. His resemblance to her father was so striking, there was no mistaking they were brothers; they could almost be twins. Except Marel was several years younger and long and lean compared to her father’s width. His face betrayed nothing.

Father, may I speak to you in private?

Nonsense. Secretary!

There’s already a contract?

A gangly man swathed in crimson robes, the tips of his fingers stained black, entered the room with an elaborate mass of parchment and spread it out on the desk beside the king. Aurelia saw it only lacked one key signature: her own. The ink was hardly dry; sand still covered the writing.

Please, Father, may I speak with you? she implored.

She was not about to be betrothed to Josier’s son. Josier himself was a grossly rotund man with greasy hair and not one redeeming quality. She could not even begin to imagine giving that man’s son the throne and herself as his daughter-in-law, or opening her home to his family.

It has been decided. Her father’s voice had acquired a sharp edge. He dismissed the scribe with a wave. The scribe quickly gathered the contract into his arms and retreated, clearly afraid Aurelia might rip it to shreds. You will wed Lord Faraldo come Bolvadur.

Filip’s body is not even in the ground!

Have you forgotten your place? I am your king and lord, and you will do as I command. He spit the directive from tight lips.

Aurelia’s hands curled into fists and her jaw clenched. Any other sane person would have trembled at the venom in his voice. Aurelia just glared. I apologize for my presumptuousness, Father.

He met her look with tired fortitude. Speak your objections, girl.

She had spent seventeen years learning to read his moods and attitudes so she would know when it was safe to be truthful and when silence suited her best. Her father did not appear angry. Conversely, he was patiently awaiting her answer.

Gracefully as possible, Aurelia stood and swept closer to him. I was taken aback, that’s all. I was under the impression that we were negotiating with Prince Teodor Pell.

I changed my mind.

And what will Teodor’s father think of this? You must know Rudeny will rush to send word of your . . . second thoughts.

I would expect nothing less. I’ve already sent word with my sincerest apologies. Her father grinned. Hoping he can understand a father’s wish not to part with his only child.

How many fiancées shall I have, Father?

As many as I like.

Aurelia fought to keep her hands from balling into fists, burying them in her skirt instead. Whose idea was this?

For the first time, he appeared thrown off by her question. Pardon?

I meant what I said, whose idea was it? Who put you up to it, Father?

For a split second, Aurelia thought she had gone too far. Her father’s face grew red, and his mouth narrowed into a tight line. But the dark mood quickly passed, and his face relaxed. Marel merely brought the pitfalls of that union to my attention. I acted accordingly.

Aurelia looked again to her uncle. He still sat silent and impassive on the first step of the dais. But we’ve been waiting decades for a chance to unite our kingdoms.

Hermanus has many children, Aurelia. There will be other opportunities.

But–

But you wanted to be empress of an empire, sweetling? Where would you live, here? I’m not sending my only heir into Flaygorn. Our family has ruled Myrinthia for over seven hundred years. I will not be the king who sees her lost.

So why Noakalo? You know how I feel about Josier.

I heard Noakalo has his mother’s disposition. He’s soft-spoken and top of his class at the university. I think you will like him.

As long as he was handsome and easily manipulated, Aurelia had no doubt she would like him. She had no illusions about the purpose of her marriage, but she had not been raised to be a puppet wife. She would be a queen. A queen like no one had yet seen.

Besides, it’s Kalgar’s turn. They haven’t had a king in years.

Aurelia sneered. What an incestuous little country we are. She smoothed the front of her bodice. So when do I get to meet my lord husband-to-be?

He’s touring the family vineyards at present, but he will attend you as soon as that is finished. Her father stood and walked around to the back of the desk. Noakalo sent a gift for you.

Aurelia perked up. A gift?

Her father reached into one of the drawers and pulled out a leather-wrapped parcel tied with a silk ribbon. He walked back round the desk and laid the present in Aurelia’s hands. It felt like jewelry. Carefully unwrapping the package, Aurelia exposed an exquisitely wrought collar of silver, pearls, and drops of moonstone.

It is exquisite, Father.

Good. You’ll wear it to the ceremony tomorrow. He rose and made to leave.

What ceremony? Aurelia clutched the package to her chest, afraid she already knew the answer.

You’ll pledge yourself to Noakalo by proxy. I will not have you acting like a widow. The door snicked shut upon his exit.

There was a rustle of silk as her uncle rose and came to stand by her side. He took her hand and pecked it with dry lips. We all do what we must for the benefit of the realm.

And with a small smile, he followed his brother.

Three betrothed in two days. She could hear the gossipmongers branding her the Indecisive Princess in every province.

Aurelia stood before the magnificent arched entrance to the throne room, waiting to be admitted. Two chamberlains and two guards flanked the door. She tried not to fidget with her heavy skirt. Her lady’s maids had tied her into a thick, gold and red brocade gown with a deep neckline that showcased the crimson kirtle underneath. Mica had arranged her hair into an elaborate knot and secured a small, gossamer veil with jeweled pins. It was a far cry from the funeral garb of yesterday. After all, her father had forbidden mourning. Lord Noakalo Faraldo’s gift lay heavy around her neck.

The chamberlain with thick, bushy eyebrows gave Aurelia a slight nod and rapped softly on the door. A muffled reply came from within. Apparently it was permission to enter, for the chamberlain opened the door and allowed her inside. The throne room was striking; windows along every wall, a gilded domed ceiling, marble floors, and fluted columns around the perimeter. Servants slid gracefully between the columns, bearing trays of food and wine for the guests.

Aurelia snagged a goblet from a passing servant and wandered leisurely around the outer circle, Jaz in tow. She instantly felt overdressed for the occasion. She had expected a formal ceremony, but her father was in the middle of a routine council meeting. He encouraged her attendance at these open meetings, but they bored her to death.

The hall was stuffed full of lords, chairmen, undersecretaries, and all manner of servants and lackeys. They sat around tables littered with loose parchment and ledgers, sipping wine, surrounding the dais where her father sat his throne. His command of a room was effortless. He was speaking of the horse trade from Endova when something from the back of the room – near the entrance – caught his attention. One of the chamberlains had gestured. Aurelien inclined his regal head.

A man stepped forward, clad in a blaringly white doublet and carrying an ornate staff. The Royal Speaker. He rapped his staff three times on the floor. The muttering that had begun with the speaker’s appearance quickly died.

The speaker puffed out his chest. Your Royal Highness. He bowed toward the king. Most esteemed lords and guests. An expansive bow to the assembly. Her grace, Heir Apparent, Princess Aurelia Barone. He finished with a flourish.

Aurelia froze with the wine goblet halfway to her lips. Jaz pried the cup gently from her clenched hand.

No one had the decency to prepare a straight walkway. Aurelia navigated her way through the mishmash of tables as gracefully as possible, acutely aware every eye was trained on her. She curtsied before ascending the dais and kissing her father’s signet ring. The band and setting were a strange black metal, while the stone was a unique fusion of emerald and sapphire, with the crossed hammers of their family etched in silver in the surface.

Aurelia placed herself at her father’s shoulder and surveyed the hall. All six of the province dukes were present, and the only figure of import missing was the orchestrator of this arrangement – her uncle. The dukes appeared displeased by her unexpected appearance, all except Josier, who was euphoric. There were so many solemn faces. Aurelia kept her face expressionless. Had her father told no one of his new plans to wed her off to Josier’s son?

Honored guests, I have an announcement to make, the king said, smiling up at Aurelia. His deep voice boomed around the hall so every ear could hear his next words. The Jewel of Starry Stone will wed our own Lord Noakalo Faraldo.

Apparently he had not. Aurelia’s gaze flicked up and met Kilian Rudeny’s. She imagined his bewildered expression matched her own when she’d first heard the news. After all, what had he been doing for the past three months but arranging a match between her and his prince?

Father, she said softly, inclining her head in compliance.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kilian shoulder his way out of the hall.

Do you accept? her father asked, as if it hadn’t already been decided.

Aurelia’s stomach squirmed with sudden anxiety. I do. She was surprised her answer could be heard at all.

Her father took one of her slender hands in one of his big ones. Lord Faraldo, will you stand as proxy?

A broad, wolfish grin spread across Josier’s sloppy features. His gaze made Aurelia’s skin crawl. He joined her on the dais, taking her hand with grubby, overenthusiastic fingers.

Secretary, the king called, the contract.

A different scribe, less disheveled than the first, carried the contract up the dais. He proffered a quill to Aurelia. She did not take it. In her moment of hesitation, the atmosphere in the hall shifted dramatically.

Aurelia. Her father’s lips barely moved. Her name was an admonishment, a we’ve-already-discussed-this reminder.

Still, she did not take the quill.

With a glare and a tight jaw, her father was forced to continue. In the sight of the Maker and these witnesses, do you pledge your life, love, and fealty to this man . . .

The words slipped through her like sand through cupped palms. She had heard it all before when Filip’s father stood proxy, with a bit more decorum than Josier stood now. The corpulent lord was practically bouncing with excitement. And why shouldn’t he? He’d just secured the greatest prize of all.

Aurelia knew her father had finished speaking because the hall was mumbling again. She glanced at the assembled dukes and found Filip’s uncle, Duke Rebhar, in the crowd. His face was unreadable. She stalled, waiting for some sign of protest, but none was forthcoming.

She snatched the pen from the scribe’s hand with more violence than intended and angrily scrawled her name – right next to Noakalo Faraldo’s.

You are dismissed, her father said, not looking at her.

Aurelia barely bent her knees in a curtsey and headed straight for the outer ring of the hall. She