The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)

by Traci Chee

Chapter 1

The Consequences of Thievery

There were redcoats on the road. The gravel path that cut through the tangled jungle was teeming with people, and the mounted Oxscinian soldiers rode above the sea of foot traffic like lords in a parade: their fine red jackets unblemished, their black boots polished to a high shine. At their waists, their sword hilts and gun grips glinted in the gray morning light.

Any law-abiding citizen would have been happy to see them.

“No good.” Nin grunted, shifting the pile of furs in her arms. “No good at all. Thought this town would be small enough for us to escape notice, but that doesn’t seem likely now.”

Crouched in the undergrowth beside her, Sefia surveyed the other shoppers, who carried baskets or towed rattling carts with burlap nests for their infants, the parents calling sharply after dirt-smudged children if they wandered too far. In their trail-worn gear, Sefia and Nin would have blended in well enough, if not for the redcoats.

“Are they here for us?” Sefia asked. “I didn’t think the news would spread so fast.”

“Word travels quick when you’ve got a face as pretty as mine, girl.”

Sefia forced out a chuckle. Old enough to be her grandmother, Nin was a squat woman with matted hair and a face as tough as rawhide. Being pretty wasn’t what made her memorable.

No, Nin was a master criminal with hands like magic. They were nothing special to look at, but she could slip a bracelet from a woman’s wrist with a touch as soft as a breath. She could undo locks with a twitch of her fingers. You had to see Nin’s hands at work to really see her at all. Otherwise, in her bear-skin traveling cloak, she looked something like a hill of dirt: dry, brown, ready to crumble in the humidity of the rain forest.

Ever since they’d fled their home in Deliene, the northernmost of Kelanna’s five island kingdoms, they’d kept a low profile as they roamed from one land to the next, surviving on what they could find in the wilderness. But in the hardest winters, when the scavenging was poor and the hunting was worse, Nin had taught Sefia to pick locks, pick pockets, and even steal huge hocks of meat without anyone noticing.

And for six years, they hadn’t been caught.

“Can’t stay here.” Nin sighed and hefted the pelts in her arms. “We’ll unload these in the next town.”

Sefia felt a twinge of guilt in her stomach. It was her fault, after all. If she hadn’t been so cocky two weeks ago, no one would have noticed them. But she’d been stupid. Overconfident. She’d tried to steal a new bandanna for herself—all viridian with gold paisley, much finer than her faded red one—but the clothier had noticed. At the last second, Nin had slipped the bandanna into her own pocket, taking the blame so Sefia wouldn’t have to, and they’d left town with redcoats on their heels.

It had been too close. Someone might have recognized Nin.

And now they had to leave Oxscini, the Forest Kingdom that had been their home for over a year.

“Why don’t I do it?” Sefia asked, helping Nin to her feet.

Nin scowled up at her. “Too dangerous.”

Sefia plucked at the topmost pelt in Nin’s arms. Half of these were kills she’d brought down and skinned herself, enough to help them pay for passage out of Oxscini, if they ever got into town to trade them. Nin had kept them safe all these years. Now it was Sefia’s turn.

“It might be more dangerous to wait,” she said.

Nin’s face clouded. Though the old woman had never explained exactly how she’d met Sefia’s parents, Sefia knew it was because someone had been after them. They’d had something their enemies wanted.

And now Sefia had it.

For the past six years, she’d carried everything she owned on her back: all the tools she needed to hunt and cook and camp, and at the bottom, slowly wearing holes in the leather, the only thing she had left of her parents—a heavy reminder that they had existed, and now were gone. Her hands tightened on the straps of her pack.

Nin shifted her weight and glanced over her shoulder, into the thick of the jungle. “I don’t like it,” she said. “You’ve never gone in alone.”

“You can’t go in.”

“We can wait. There’s a village a five-day journey from here. Smaller. Safer.”

“Safer for you. No one knows who I am.” Sefia lifted her chin. “I can go into town, sell off the goods, and get out of there by noon. We’ll be twice as fast if we don’t have these pelts to lug around.”

Nin hesitated for a long moment, her shrewd gaze darting from the shadows in the undergrowth to the flashes of red on the road. Finally, she shook her head. “Be quick,” she said. “Don’t hold out for the best price. All we need is enough to hop a ship out of Oxscini. Doesn’t matter where.”

Sefia grinned. It wasn’t every day she won an argument with Nin. She wrested the heavy stack of pelts from Nin’s sturdy arms. “Don’t worry,” she said.

Frowning, Nin tugged on the red bandanna Sefia used to tie her hair back. “Worry’s what keeps us safe, girl.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Oh, you’ll be fine, will you? Sixty years of this life, and I’m fine. Why is that?”

Sefia rolled her eyes. “Because you’re careful.”

Nin nodded once and crossed her arms. She looked so perfectly like her grouchy old self that Sefia smiled again and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks, Aunt Nin,” she said. “I won’t let you down this time.”

The woman grimaced, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “I know you won’t. Sell the furs and come straight back to camp. There’s a storm brewing, and I want to get going before it breaks.”

“Yes, ma’am. I won’t let you down.” Turning away, Sefia glanced up, noting the moisture in the air, the speed of the clouds as they crossed the sky. Nin always knew when the rains were coming, said it was the chill in her bones.

Sefia stumbled off, hefting the furs in her slender arms. She was almost at the edge of the trees when Nin’s gruff voice reached her again, quick with warning: “And don’t you forget, girl. There’s worse than redcoats out there.”

She didn’t look back as she struck out from under cover to join the other people on the road, but Sefia couldn’t stop herself from shuddering at Nin’s words. They had to avoid the authorities because of Nin’s reputation for thievery, but that wasn’t the reason they lived like nomads.