A SEA OF PEARLS & LEAVES
Princess Ingrid of Norella Isle does not want to get married. Her priestess girlfriend, Lilura, devises a wicked plot to deter suitors with a nearly impossible marriage contract: should Ingrid die first, her husband must be buried at sea beside her.
The plan backfires when all seven suitors agree, and the king announces a competition for Ingrid’s hand. Ingrid must keep her head above water as she deals with the suitors, a jealous girlfriend, and the news of two murdered priestesses.
As the suitors are eliminated, one man stands out: the quirky and anxious Prince Soren who charms both Ingrid and Lilura. When Lilura goes missing, Ingrid and Soren must piece together who has murdered the priestesses and why before it’s too late.
CW: This novel contains violence, sexual situations, and adult language.
Meet Ingrid, the eccentric heir to Norella Isle. She loves sweets, sailing, and scouring tide pools for seashells.
Meet Lilura, priestess of Norella, sorceress, and Ingrid's girlfriend. She enjoys creating enchanting items and has a secret deep within.
Meet Soren, the anxious prince of Aegris Isle. He enjoys languages, puzzles, and helping others.
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER
It visits in murky waters. It visits in mirrors. It visits in windows. Storm clouds. Shadows. Even polished silverware. This time, though, is different.
I slink out of bed and tiptoe my way up the spiral stairs of the west tower. With a turn of the glass handle, I enter Lilura’s cluttered room. Moonlight spills through the sheer pink curtains, dusting plants, vials, and books in a rosy glow. Shadows hang along the walls and crawl across the floor, but I narrow my focus and step toward Lilura’s bed.
“It’s back,” I say.
A startled movement of limbs shifts under Lilura’s silky sheets.
“Again? Come here, my love.” Lilura yawns and opens her arms, letting me fall into them. “Are you well?”
“I am now.” I spoon my body against hers. Safe at last. “It appeared in a dream this time.”
“That’s never happened before.” She squeezes me tight. “Tell me more.”
“She—the thing that looks like me—was swimming toward me. Her eyes were milky, and her skin was translucent. I could see dark veins underneath. Barnacles encrusted her forehead, chest, and arms. Her tangled, white hair drifted all around. When she swam away, she had tail.”
“A tail? That’s new.”
“Yes, a fishtail or something.” I roll to gaze into her amber eyes. “What does it mean?”
Lilura swings her legs over the opposite side of the bed and pats her back, my cue. I knead and caress her muscles while she closes her eyes to meditate. Lilura’s short pink hair rises and falls like curled waves against her head, and her brown skin nearly shimmers in the moonlight. Her beauty could make Freyska, the goddess of love, jealous. I adjust the clasp on her chain, which holds a golden locket engraved with wings. She never takes it off.
Lilura wrings her hands together, fingers black and sooty from one experiment or other. “Sorcery takes a toll,” she always says. She’s often burnt, covered in a layer of salt, or, worse, the crystal splinters. I always make her soak in a hot bath before using needles and tweezers to extract them. Not to mention her perpetually aching back. I circle my thumbs down her spine, praying she’ll learn to be careful.
A few moments later, Lilura stands to pace the small, round room.
“The doppelgänger taking the form of a mermaid could mean the waters are dangerous. So, we will keep you away from the shore.” Lilura steps toward a large glass tank to stroke Obsidian and Opal, her snakes. She turns to me with a trembling jaw. “It could also be an omen of death. So, we will adorn you with pearls to hide from Dehel.”
The god of death. According to mythology, Dehel lives below the sea, returning souls to the shore as pearls.
Lilura clutches her locket and bites at her lower lip as she sinks into the mattress.
“What else?” I ask, shaking her shoulder. “What is it?”
Her round, doll-like eyes droop. “Your birthday is near, is it not?”
“LiLi. I know you’ve had premonitions about that day, but I’m not getting married. And if my father makes me, I’ll still be with you. You’re more important to me than anything.” I grab her hand and pull her down for a kiss. Her lips are soft, and her body melts against mine.
“Ingrid,” she groans but does so with a teasing grin. “I was trying to take a night off. You know you make me weak.”
“I’m very sorry.” I slide open the drawer of LiLi’s beside table, where she keeps a paddle and a whip. “You must punish me then.”
* * *
At dawn, Lilura leaves to gather pearls while I retreat to my chambers, satisfyingly sore. After descending the tower’s spiral staircase, I rest my hands against my temples to cut off any peripheral vision. The gleaming-white hallways of the palace are lined with giant, scallop-shell mirrors. Some say my great-grandmother Sunniva designed them to bounce natural light around the palace during the long winter months, while others claim it was to ward off evil forces of Dehel. Either way, I’d rather not have my doppelgänger spook me at such an early hour.
Once inside my chambers, I collapse onto my bed and suck in a deep breath. The air is saltier than usual today and leaves a slight tang on my tongue. I can only relax for one fleeting moment before my three handmaids scuttle into my chambers like a flock of seagulls to prepare me for the day. They don’t comment on my bruises, though I’m sure they’ll gossip about it later.
I choose a voluminous gown of white silk taffeta, the kind that rustles with every movement. As my handmaids detangle my waist-length blonde hair, I count the seashells lined along my dresser to help me focus on something else. Mother and I, all bundled up to brave the strong sea breezes, collected the little treasures together.
After applying my makeup, one of them tilts her head at the vanity and reaches to remove a bedsheet I draped over the mirror yesterday.
“Don’t!” I shout louder than intended, making my handmaid flinch. “Sorry, but the mirror must remain covered.”
She nods and backs out of the room slowly while suppressing a grin, followed by the other ladies. Their giggles echo down the hall as they leave. Everyone thinks I’m strange or, as some try to put more kindly, eccentric.
Opening my jewelry box, my fingernails clink against baubles of all shapes and colors: sapphires, rubies, amethysts, and diamonds. A smooth stone pendant entices me to pick it up and hold it tight to my chest.
Lilura designed this necklace for me with a pebble from the beach near the convent in the north. I rub it when I’m anxious to remember how the waves made music against the stones during our first night of passion. She’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.
Taking a deep breath, I find Mother’s pearl earrings and put them on.
“This is what I found,” Lilura says as she bursts through my door, her purple velvet cloak floating behind her.
I greet Lilura with a kiss on her lips, slick with plum-colored gloss. After she gives me a strand of pearls and a matching bracelet, she presents a small glass vial filled with a shimmery powder.
“What’s that?” I ask, clasping the bracelet.
“Pearl dust I infused with a protection charm.” Lilura tips the vial onto her finger and raises it to my cheek.
“Wait!” I catch her wrist. “What did you suffer for it?”
“Nothing,” she says, avoiding my gaze.
“Magic always has a price.”
“Which I already paid.” Lilura quirks an eyebrow. “Don’t let it be in vain.”
“Just tell me.”
“Fine. While crushing the pearls, I recited a charm that made my bones grind together at the joints.” She puffs a loud breath of air through her nose. “I am still a bit sore, but I assure you I’ll be fine. Let me help you.”
I concede, allowing her to sweep the iridescent powder onto my cheeks, chest, and wrists. It kills me to know how much she suffers for the sake of sorcery.
Keeping her dark eyebrows stitched together, Lilura sprinkles some in my hair as well. “This should be fine for today, but we may need more.”
“More?” My eyes flash wide. “This is a bit much already.”
“I cannot be too careful with you, my temptress.”
I deflate a bit. “You know I hate when you call me that.”
Before we met, Lilura was on the path to become the youngest-ever anointed priestess of Norella and could have someday become the high priestess, a powerful and prestigious position. Anointed priestesses travel the island to perform services for the citizens: baths of sacred water for newborns, handfasting ceremonies for marriages, and blessings with sacred water and oils for the sick and elderly.
Unfortunately, a priestess can only be anointed if she remains chaste. When we were caught in bed together by another priestess, Lilura had to maintain an unanointed status. She likes to tease me about being more temptress than princess. It makes me feel terrible.
“I assure you, I would choose you a thousand times over being anointed.”
“Will I see you later?” I ask, snaking my hands around her waist.
Lilura groans. “I cannot resist you, but I wasn’t joking last night. You weaken and cloud my abilities. If we want to understand these visions of yours, I must focus.”
“Fine,” I say, pouting my lips. “Tomorrow, LiLi?”
“Yes, my temptress.” She winks and sails out the door.
My dress swishes as I rush down the grand staircase of the palace, carved and painted to resemble crashing waves, and step into the dining hall for breakfast. The high-ceilinged room is adorned with white crown molding, sea creatures embellish the walls, and billowy curtains drape the windows. A sea glass chandelier bounces blue and green specks of light around the room. The marble table is inlaid with a giant mother-of-pearl nautilus, the symbol of the Verskelli royal family. My father and the step-queen are already eating when I sit.
I place two fingers against my cheek as I greet them. It represents wiping away the goddess Norella’s tears. Norella and her husband Osmond, the sky god, gave birth to the rains. She later had an affair with Kallan, the god of war, and gave birth to the waves. When Osmond discovered the treachery, he trapped Norella under the island for eternity. They say the spring is sourced by Norella’s tears, for she was unjustly separated from her children.
“Sleeping in again, Ingr—whatever are you wearing?” Father drops his fork onto the table and sweeps his dirty-blond hair from his face when he finally looks at me. “You’re dressed like a spring bride while we are still mourning the death of Tia’s cousin! And what is on your face? Your hair? You look like a walking seashell!”
“It’s just pearl dust. Lilura thinks I might—”
“Oh, what about that sorceress you keep as a handmaid?” Father shakes his head. “You know I don’t approve of magic. If you only knew how—”
“Rolfy.” Tia places her freckled hand on Father’s shoulder. “Leave it alone. A peaceful sorceress using pearl dust is no danger to us.”
“Thank you, Tia.” I clear my throat. “Lilura says my visions are a bad omen. The pearls are for protection from Dehel’s evil forces.”
Father waves his hand in the air, dismissing both sorcery and the gods as nonsense, while a servant refills his tea. He doesn’t approve of magic, yet he doesn’t mind the healing waters being Norella Isle’s largest source of income.
His advisor enters the room and places two fingers against his own pale cheek. Oskar wears a navy uniform with brass buttons and keeps his red hair short, slick, and tidy. Nothing is ever out of place for Oskar. He leans to whisper in Father’s ear and hands him a stack of papers. Father reads the documents while Oskar stares at me with a smug grin. From behind his glasses, Oskar’s eyes linger on my pearl-dusted cleavage a little too long, so I trail my knife along the length of a sausage, slowly sawing it in two.[CK1]
“I see the sacred spring waters of Norella are still in short supply,” Father says, stealing Oskar’s attention.
The healing waters harvested by the priestesses have been running low for years, but the demand continues to rise.
“I suppose we should increase the prices again,” Father says.
“That would be wise, Your Highness. I will speak with the high priestess, though it may be time to eliminate the convent for good to increase profits.”
Heat creeps into my cheeks, and I cannot keep my mouth shut. “You must be joking? Eliminate the convent?”
“Calm down, my dove,” Father says. “It’s merely a thought at this point; nothing about the priestesses will change anytime soon.”
“Or ever,” I mumble out, crossing my arms. “They’re sacred to this island; they’ve been around longer than the Verskelli family.”
Oskar clears his throat and swaps documents with Father. “Next on the agenda. As you can see, the law clearly states a woman cannot rule without a consort by her side.”
More rage boils inside my head. I know they’re bringing up this ridiculous law because of me.
“Great-Grandmother Sunniva ruled alone!” I drop my utensils, which clink against the china, and glare at Oskar.
“After your great-grandfather, King Consort Gregor, passed,” Oskar corrects me. “The point is that Queen Sunniva married and produced heirs. Otherwise, none of you would be here today.”
“He’s right, Ingrid,” Tia says in a gentle voice. “It is your duty as the sole heir. Our people look to you as the future, or the island may fall to Jorsti as so many small kingdoms have before.”
I roll my eyes as her kindness about Lilura now crumbles away. I do feel a slight amount of pity since Tia’s homeland of Viduk fell prey to the powerful Jorsti Empire years ago.
“Mmm-hmm.” Father nods at the documents. “The law is clear, my dove, and you will need heirs.” He reaches for Tia’s hand to share a somber pout. “The people of Norella Isle would feel more secure if you were married by now. Ingrid, you have delayed meeting a man long enough.”
My gaze falls to my lap. I truly have avoided the subject of marriage for years. When I first came of age at eighteen, Mother was pregnant with what everyone assumed would be a better heir than me. Already, rumors of my promiscuity and eccentricity had swept the land, so I pretended to be very religious to avoid marriage. I even ran away to the Convent of Norella along the rocky shores in the north to study with the priestesses. That was where I met and fell in love with Lilura.
When Mother and the baby passed away, I returned to the palace with Lilura in tow. After a year of mourning, I worried Father would insist I wed, but he was distracted with a beautiful widowed duchess with red hair from Viduk. He married Tia right away. They tried to have a baby, but it didn’t take. The pressure was on me once more.
Last year, when the first suitor arrived, Lilura had a plan. She concocted a potion to make it appear as if I had contracted a horrific disease. At supper, the potion took hold. My tongue thickened, making speech difficult. I began sweating profusely and fell from my chair. When the prince helped me up, my skin had paled and grown rosy pustules. He dropped my hand and covered his mouth with a napkin as he ran from the palace. When Father realized I wasn’t truly ill, he was livid.
The next suitor was an arrogant duke who only wanted to marry me for the power and wealth of Norella Isle. Lilura helped me learn everything there was to know about him. Our plan was for me to act like the reincarnated form of his grandmother. During our unchaperoned walks through the greenhouse, I called him “Dumpling,” pinched his cheeks red, and scolded him for his poor manners. He left the island as soon as weather permitted.
Another suitor, another plan. When the prince arrived, I was charming and flirtatious. I locked eyes with him across the dinner table. I touched his hair and rested my hand on his thigh when we were alone. When I invited him to sneak into my chambers, and he eagerly accepted. I will never forget the look on his face when he saw the ropes, whips, and crystal toys Lilura and I play with lined along the bed. He claimed he wanted to save himself for marriage and darted from the room. I never saw him again.
“Yes, Princess,” Oskar says, drawing me back into the moment. “The time for your tricks is up.”
My heart thumps in my throat. Lilura’s premonitions were correct. Father and Oskar intend to marry me off…soon.
“And where do you expect me to meet someone?” I pick at my fingernails to avoid showing them my teary eyes. “You never allow me to leave the island.”
“I have a magnificent idea,” Father says. “We shall host a celebration for your twenty-first birthday! We’ll invite any and all suitors here for a week. Then, at the ball on the final night, you will marry the man of your choosing.”
My stomach sinks. All hopes of avoiding marriage dissolve like pearls in vinegar as Father, Tia, and Oskar happily chat about my birthday plans. With hot cheeks and ears, I excuse myself from the table. I keep my eyes trained on the ornate carpets as I pass by the mirrors in the hallway.
Lilura is not in her tower, nor my chambers. My wide, white skirts drag against the narrow walls of the servant staircase on my way to check the kitchen. As a hobby, LiLi often bakes delectable cakes and pastries to satisfy my sweet tooth. Turning the corner, I bump into Chef Conrad and fall to my back.
“My princess!” Conrad helps me up, apologizing as he rearranges candies on his tray, which he managed not to drop. “Whatever are you doing down here?”
“I’m searching for Lilura. Have you seen her?”
“No, my princess. I have not.”
“Oh well, thank you.” I admire the sugary, yellow confections on his tray. “What are those?”
“Lemon drops for the queen.” He beams a proud smile. “She has been requesting them nonstop. Your mother used to love them too when she…” He trails off and frowns. “Sorry, my princess. I did not mean to bring her up.”
“It’s all right, Chef. I’ve missed her every single day these past few years, and Father won’t talk about her. Hearing someone else remember her makes me happy.” I blink away the sting behind my eyes. “Well, we should not keep the step-queen waiting. I’ll let you go.”
“Good day, Princess Ingrid.”
Gathering my skirts, I rush up the stairs and down the hall toward my next guess at Lilura’s location. It can’t wait any longer. I need her help now. If she’s not performing experiments or baking, she must be reading. I pass the ballroom, dining hall, a sitting room, and Father’s study, and barrel through the doors of the library.
[CK1]HA I love it.
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