Jessica Hernandez is offering her debut YA Fantasy novel free on Smashwords from today, the 18th April until the 22nd April 2016. To take advantage of this offer please follow the link or click on the book cover, choose Buy and enter the code AJ86C at the checkout.
The Utdrendans have spoken, and everything has changed as a consequence. People normally avoid the fog surrounding the cursed Kingdom of Mar, but now they are asking sixteen-year-old Kaia Stone to venture into it. The Utdrendans implied that there is something special about Kaia. They claimed that she could help free the land; she need only carry out their instructions and deliver a message to the Marian king.
Mar, however, is a land in which dark secrets abound, and many will stop at nothing to ensure that it remains forever cursed. Determined to work against Kaia, unfriendly forces have already begun to gather.
Will Kaia choose to abandon the only life she’s ever known—perhaps indefinitely—in pursuit of the greater good…in pursuit of her purpose?
The Pairing Ceremony
“I told you,” whispered a sniffling Taria.
“Patience,” commanded Mr. Stone, widening his unblinking eyes as he spoke. His cold tone made his youngest daughter feel as though she had been struck in the back with a thorny whip; she grimaced, dug her nails deep into her palms, bowed her head, and extended her shoulders forward, desperately trying to break away from the pain.
Dissonance. Kaia could not think of a more appropriate word to describe her sister’s Pairing Ceremony. Ismena’s Isle, which had only ever known nightfall, was gently illuminated by a benign, blue light. Its trees had luscious, impregnable canopies and slightly bowed, green-streaked trunks which measured as wide as three men standing shoulder to shoulder. It was simply ethereal, yet Taria looked as though she was preparing to meet death. The young girl’s unsteady, porcelain hands betrayed the storm raging within. They took turns twisting and wringing one another; they busied themselves with her hair, parting it down the middle and draping each half of golden wool over her shoulders; and they ran down the length of her white dress, smoothing the fabric all over. They did what her heart bid—and her mind forbade—her feet to do. She fears that her ceremony will end as did mine. How foolish! Soon her torture will be over, thought Kaia, recalling that canonipoms can sense when their partner is approaching the isle; for them, the connection is palpable from birth. They cannot resist the draw. Somewhere in the forest, Taria’s canonipom was chasing the pull. Meanwhile, the Stones waited.
Mr. Stone stood closest to Taria; he was a few feet behind her. He held his hands to his back and wore the same frozen, solemn expression as always. His perpetual austerity had led many in Fiaru to regard him as a man of no feelings over the years—callous, even. Kaia knew that such an assessment was lacking in truth. If Mr. Stone came across as emotionally frigid, the cause was not ineptitude but decorum; propriety requires complete restraint when venturing outside the home, or so he would say. Hence, in his eyes, Taria’s behavior was of sufficient cause for embarrassment. Kaia knew that much to be true, and she derived a strange sense of pleasure from her sister’s deficiency—a pleasure that momentarily intensified after she recognized signs of absolute woe in Taria’s face.
A pang of guilt made Kaia go cold. What inappropriate desires! They were not borne of spite. She simply did not want another reminder of her incompleteness. Kaia knew that it would happen regardless, though, and that, in minutes, she would officially be the only person in her family to not have been paired.
Was someone approaching? The blindfolded Taria cocked her head, as if to sharpen her ears, and held perfectly still. Kaia scanned the area. Something moved energetically from tree to tree. Was it Taria’s? It descended rapidly. A thud was heard…and then scampering feet…and then…nothing, save the trickling of a nearby brook. Taria’s shoulders dropped in disappointment. The wait continued.
The chipper Mrs. Stone, made more excited by the false alarm, rubbed her palms together. She was planted beside Mr. Stone. Her pink lips were stretched across the width of her face, growing narrower near the center under the pressure of her gnawing. She was a bit more transparent than was her husband—a mechanical human she refused to become—and had been both looking forward to and lamenting Taria’s Pairing Ceremony for quite a while. My doll is to be ten years old already! Ah! This is likely to be the last time I visit the isle, for I have no more children, she had observed. But if I’m not paired, Taria had countered, I, too, shall be allowed to try again. Won’t I? And then you shall go once more. Feeling old sores reopen, Kaia banished the memory of that conversation and looked to her side, where stood Elania.
Kaia’s elder sister Elania was the calmest and most composed of the group. Her eyes were half closed. She was slowly dozing off, yet she did not fight it in the slightest. Kaia narrowed her eyes. She was surprised that Elania—the most sympathetic of the Stone sisters—was not at all perturbed by Taria’s inquietude. Then again, Elania had echoed Kaia’s sentiments in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. She knew that there was no reason to harbor any qualms. What happened to Kaia, Elania had reassured, happened because of that, not for any other reason; therefore, the youngest Stone was, without question, safe from a similar fate.
A disturbance. Something moved.
Kaia noticed a human-like, ash-skinned figure emerge from a thicket. The others saw it, too. Nellie, bouncing with joy, hugged Mrs. Stone’s leg before bringing her interlocked hands to rest beneath her chin. Flashing a welcoming smile at the stranger, Ani closed the distance between herself and Elania. Abe, true to Mr. Stone’s wishes, maintained his composure, detachedly studying the newcomer as he stood with arms akimbo.
It had Taria’s features—a high forehead, wide-set eyes, a perfectly pointed nose, and petite lips. It was, undoubtedly, hers. Not yet fully grown, the creature—scarcely over a foot tall—was a few inches shorter than Abe, Nellie, and Ani. Aside from that, it was like any other canonipom. It was very thin and had a spherical head with large, round eyes, razor-sharp teeth, and pygmy ears. It had claws, too, and feet resembling hands. More than half of its height was accounted for by its legs, and its arms were nearly as long as its lower limbs.
“Taria, kneel down,” instructed Mr. Stone. She did as she was told.
Taria’s canonipom looked into the face of every member standing in the assembled crowd prior to approaching the girl. Its gait was tight, and it moved with hesitation.
“Bow low to the ground,” ordered Mr. Stone.
A hairsbreadth separated Taria’s face from the sod. As soon as she felt her canonipom’s slender fingers start to undo the knot behind her head, she stopped shaking and let out a subdued, fragmented laugh. Once unveiled, Taria brushed her hands across her face and blinked furiously, trying to dry her eyes. She offered her upwards-facing palm to the creature before her. Just like that, their bond was sealed at first touch.
“Can you hear her, Taria?” inquired Mrs. Stone, motioning to her head.
“Yes,” she squealed.
“What is her name?” asked Elania.
Taria’s lips were still. There weren’t too many options; a canonipom’s name is always derived from that of its human’s. Divining Taria’s thoughts, the canonipom shook its head twice before nodding enthusiastically.
Kaia felt a surge of anger wash over her. Her sudden change in demeanor caught her by surprise. She took notice of it only after her thumbs cracked under the pressure of her clenched fists. Awareness opened the door to shame, and Kaia’s cheeks instantly became inflamed. Water began to flow from her eyes. Panic set in; she could not let her family see her. Kaia bent over, pretending to be occupied with the laces on her shoes. She thought of her face and attempted to calculate how much time was needed for the blood to drain; that only made things worse. Wait, she remembered, it’s too dark. They won’t be able to discern my color. And if they see the tears, let them think that joy is the culprit.
“Ree. Her name is Ree,” said Taria.
About Jessica Hernandez
Jessica Hernandez was born and raised in the beautifully sunny state of Florida. She attended the University of Miami, where she spent more time than she cares to admit daydreaming of a faraway land called Acu. Upon graduating with a degree in English and Political Science in 2014, Jessica put pen to paper and brought Acu to life—so was born “Capering on Glass Bridges.” Currently, Jessica is working on a second novel.