When a debut author gets an RT Top Pick! for her very first book, we always take extra notice. So today we’re excited to host an excerpt from Traci Chee’s The Reader, the first book in her Sea of Ink and Gold series, out September 13. This YA fantasy wowed our reviewer with detailed worldbuilding and thrilling romance and we can’t wait to find out more.
When her guardian Nin is kidnapped, Sefia must search for her protector with only a few supplies and a mysterious object of her father’s. Let’s check out an excerpt, and then be sure to enter the awesome giveaway too!
Over the spreading canopy of the Oxscinian forest, the clouds rolled through the sky, growing darker and darker with each wave. The night creatures returned to their hollows and grottoes, and the birds flitted nervously between the branches, twittering. Rain was coming.
It wasn’t until well after noon that Sefia woke. The rope tying her to the tree dug into her waist, and she spent a few moments unknotting it while she studied the boy, asleep in the same position he’d been in the night before. His nose was crooked—it must have been broken in the past—and there was a slight powdering of nearly invisible freckles on his tawny cheeks. He looked more human now, less like a caged animal.
She wondered what her vision had shown her the night before. Moments from an ordinary life. His life? Did this magic allow her to see the past? Had her parents been seers too? Was that why the woman in black wanted them?
No, Sefia corrected herself. The woman in black had said it. She’d wanted the book.
Was she in league with Serakeen?
Sefia unhooked her pack as quietly as she could, but at the slight noise the boy opened his eyes. They trained on her, golden, or amber, with flecks of copper and mahogany in them. He seemed unafraid.
She’d never been this close to a boy her own age before. She hadn’t been this close to anyone since Nin was taken. Coiling the rope into her pack, she averted her eyes from his bare skin. “You can go home today.”
The boy didn’t speak, but he crawled slowly out of the hammock, barely rocking it. He looked around him like a baby animal seeing the world for the first time. Even the leaves and the grayed-out light filtering through the branches seemed new to him. He rubbed his eyes.
As Sefia soon learned, the boy didn’t speak at all. She didn’t know if he could speak. He only watched her, mild and curious, as she stowed the hammock in her pack, and followed her down from the tree without a word.
She quickly grew irritated with his helplessness. He just stood there, waiting for her to do something. She had to press a tin cup into his hands just to get him to drink.
As he slowly chewed his breakfast, she sat opposite from him with her arms crossed over her chest, watching. The skin around his throat was pinkish white where the burns had healed unevenly.
His right arm had been burned too, with fifteen parallel marks the length of her palm and the thickness of a finger, from the oldest scars on his shoulder to the newest past his elbow, like the rungs on a ladder.
She didn’t question him about them, but she did ask about the symbol, tracing it in the dirt for him: the circle, four lines.
He shook his head.
“Didn’t think so.” She dusted off her hands and pointed west. “There’s a town a day’s walk that way. Just keep going and you’ll make it. Someone’ll get you home.”
Dutifully, the boy turned in the direction she was pointing, then turned around. His eyes were questions.
“I’m going to follow them.” She pointed to the ground. “Maybe I’ll get some answers out of this yet.”
The boy nodded as if he understood, so she put half her provisions into his hands—more than he would need for just one day. Then she shouldered her pack and began walking back the way they’d come. She hadn’t gone ten paces before she heard his faint footsteps behind her. She turned, and the boy walked up to her.
He cocked his head and blinked.
She scowled at him. “You’re free now. Go home.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. Maybe he almost smiled.
“Get moving.” Sefia paused. “Before the rain comes.”
When he didn’t respond, she muttered a curse under her breath and began walking again. But the boy continued to shadow her, clutching a few strips of jerky and saying nothing.
Every so often, Sefia turned to see if he was still there. He always was.
“Go away,” she ordered once. “What are you doing?”
The boy merely looked at her and put a narrow piece of meat in his mouth. He gnawed and stared. When she started off again, he followed, chewing slowly.
After an hour, Sefia took the meat out of his hands and stuffed it back into her pack. She gave him a drink of water and waited as he sipped. They had stopped beside a massive log, overgrown with moss and ferns. It had ripped a huge hole in the canopy when it fell, creating a clearing that let in the light. The sky was darker now, completely clouded over. The storm would break soon. Sefia sat down on the log and put her chin in her hands. They were losing time. It was already midafternoon. The boy stood awkwardly clutching the canteen.
“They’re probably looking for you,” she said, plucking it out of his hands. “You should get as far away from them as you can.” She waved him away, trying to ignore the pained expression in his eyes. “Now.”
The boy looked down at his bare feet.
“You don’t understand.” Her voice rose. She fluttered her hands uselessly at him. “I can’t take care of you!” She was speaking too loudly. She wasn’t listening hard enough. Behind her, footsteps crunched in the mulch. “It’s too dangerous.” She didn’t hear the creaking of leather or the men’s voices either. A last desperate hiss: “Just go!”
Two men stumbled into the clearing. Hatchet’s men. Sefia recognized the young sentry, though now his hair had been roughed up on one side and there was a bruise soaking his cheek. The other man was already pulling out his sword.
Sefia jumped to her feet, swinging her bow from her back and nocking an arrow in one smooth motion. The sentry cried out. Their swords flashed.
She let the arrow fly.
But the boy was faster than all of them. He was a golden blur leaping past Sefia, landing on the second man’s chest, knocking him aside so the arrow struck his shoulder instead of his heart. The man let out a grunt as the air left his lungs, the boy on top of him like a jaguar on its prey. There was a brief struggle, fists and fingers. Then the boy grabbed the man’s head and twisted. Sefia heard the crack and felt its tremors go up her spine.
The sentry backed away, turning to run, but the boy grabbed the man’s sword. He was standing. The blade was leaving his hands.
The boy’s arm extended, fingers empty.
The sentry’s back exposed.
Between them, the trajectory of the sword was outlined in rippling eddies of light. She could see them more clearly this time: each current was made up of thousands of tiny specks, all drifting and swirling.
The boy’s hand—the sword—the sentry’s back.
She blinked again, and the currents of light disappeared. Time snapped into motion again.
The blade went straight through the sentry’s spine. Her bow clattered as it fell from her hands. She looked for the boy. He was just standing there, staring at the bodies.
The men were dead. The boy had killed them. They’d died so fast. She hadn’t known it would be so fast.
Was that what it would be like to take someone’s life away?
She clenched her fists at her sides, digging her nails into her palms, wondering if that was what had happened to her father when he died.
No. Her hands trembled. They made sure to kill him slowly. It would have looked nothing like this.
The memory of his corpse burned behind her eyes.
Next time, she’d be faster. She’d make the kill herself.
It started to rain. The drops pelted the canopy, filling the forest with the roar of water. Thunder rumbled through the sky like drums.
Sefia and the boy were drenched within minutes. Water dripped down their faces and puddled around their feet. The ground turned to mud beneath them.
Slowly, painfully, she uncurled her fingers. These men weren’t the ones she wanted. She wanted the woman in black. She wanted the man with a voice like ice.
And if he was involved with them, she wanted Serakeen too.
There was a light touch at her elbow. Sefia hissed and drew her arm away. The boy backed off, looking at his hand as if it had burned her.
The snap of a branch burst like a gunshot through the jungle. She looked up suddenly. Amid the thunder, shouts sounded in the woods.
The boy grabbed her bow from the ground, took her hand, and pulled her toward the nearest tree, where he climbed to the first branch and hauled her up after. Her hands clutched at the wet bark. Their mad scrambling sounded so loud. The scratching and scraping. Blood came up on her palms.
“Where’d you get to? Boss wants us to head back!”
Sefia and the boy didn’t have time to climb any higher. There were a few branches blocking them from sight, but Sefia had to hoist her legs up so that they wouldn’t dangle beneath the screen of leaves. They were so exposed. She barely dared to breathe.
Two more of Hatchet’s men appeared in the clearing below. The rifleman and the man with the eye patch. One-Eye knelt beside the first body he came to, felt his broken neck. The rifleman dropped to his knees with the gun at his shoulder.
“Dead?” he asked.
“Probably. But he had a partner.” One-Eye pulled Sefia’s arrow from the body, its shaft glistening red. He squinted, blinking water out of his good eye. “Any sign of them?”
The rifleman swept the edge of the clearing. To Sefia, it was obvious where they had sat, where the broken stems and twigs and churned-up places in the mud revealed their passage, but the man was looking out into the trees, not at the ground.
Lightning flashed overhead, followed almost immediately by thunder. The rain came down harder. The branches felt slippery under Sefia’s hands.
One-Eye pulled his gun from its holster. The clank of the cocking mechanism cut through the cascade of the rain. “Which direction did they go?” he asked.
“Do I look like I know?” The rifleman spat sideways and kicked uselessly at the ferns, dislodging raindrops. “Tracker’s gone southeast with Hatchet.” He made a disgusted noise deep in his throat. “Boy!” he shouted. “You better come on in before it gets real bad for you! Hatchet’s mighty pissed about you running off!”
The two men stopped to listen. To Sefia it seemed like they stayed there for hours. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Her skin was slick. Her arms and legs began to tremble. She tried to stop it, but the tremors increased. Her elbows felt like they’d give at any second.
The rifleman took a step forward. He was almost directly under them now.
Sefia’s legs were spasming painfully; she couldn’t hold them up much longer. Her arms shook. She gritted her teeth and tried to hold on.
Perched just above her on the branch, the boy leaned down—quietly, quietly—and took hold of her legs. She felt him take her weight. She stopped shaking.
The rifleman studied the corpses. “Should we go after them?”
An uncomfortable pause. The men chewed the insides of their cheeks. Sefia felt like every breath coming in and out of her lungs could rattle the entire world. The rain came down hard.
After a minute One-Eye shook his head and took a step back. “Nuh-uh. I don’t care what Hatchet does to us when we get back.”
The rifleman’s gaze kept darting out into the forest, like he was expecting the boy to leap from the undergrowth when he wasn’t looking. “Yeah,” he said. “I say send the tracker after them.”
Sefia held her breath. Hope flickered inside her.
The men looked at each other for a second longer before they put away their weapons and began fashioning a stretcher from long branches. They worked quickly and methodically, and soon they had piled the bodies on their makeshift stretcher. With a last nervous glance around the clearing, One-Eye tucked the arrow and the sword on the stretcher beside the bodies, and then he and the rifleman marched back into the woods.
Sefia eased out of the boy’s grasp and settled more securely among the branches. But she did not speak, and she did not come down.
She and the boy waited while the storm swept over them, bringing more rain. In the late afternoon, when the deluge finally let up and the thunder became a distant echo, they descended from the branches with deep shuddering breaths. Sefia’s legs and arms went limp as wet rags. She sank to her knees. The mud was cold and slick under her, but at least she was on the ground again.
The boy stood next to her, peering into the trees in the direction Hatchet’s men had gone.
“I would have been caught if it weren’t for you,” Sefia said. After a moment, she added, “Thanks.” The word felt clipped and unnatural on her tongue.
He looked down at her and nodded gravely. His hair was plastered to his forehead.
“I’m not after them, you know.” She tried rubbing her muscles to get them working again. “But I guess you’d come with me anyway.”
The boy nodded again.
She sighed and got slowly to her feet. She was a little wobbly, maybe, but otherwise fine. “We can’t stay here,” she said, glancing at the bloodstain and the matted-down places in the ferns. “And we’ve got to be more careful.”
He smiled then. A real, warm smile that seemed to surprise him, as if he hadn’t known he could still do it. His smile was a soft buttery thing.
“Yeah, yeah. Come on. They’re bringing the tracker.” She began hiking away from the clearing, taking care with her tracks. Placing his feet where her feet had gone, the boy followed, still smiling.
So good, right? And we have an awesome giveaway, too! One winner will receive a copy of The Reader, an “I am the Reader” tote bag and $100 Visa gift card to grow your book collection. U.S. residents only, please. The giveaway is open for one week.
The Reader will be available in stores and online September 13. You can preorder your copy here: Amazon, BN.com, iTunes, Kobo, GooglePlay. Digital copies start at $10.99. For more YA stories, be sure to visit our Everything YA page!