The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)(17)


by Traci Chee

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.

We.

“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.

• • •

Brittle, brightly colored leaves arranged in a forest-floor collage: This is a book.

Chapter 8

A Good Day for Trouble

Captain Reed jogged across the Current of Faith, avoiding coils of rope and redheaded chickens that squawked under-foot. As he passed, his sailors pressed themselves against the rails then closed behind him like waves in a wake, the clicking and scraping of six-shooters and swords rattling at his heels.

Across the water, the Crux rode huge and golden on the waves, sea spray sparkling along her gilded figurehead—a wooden woman holding a diamond the size of a cow skull.

Out of the corner of his eye, Reed saw them lower a rowboat into the sea. Dimarion was coming. They had to be ready.

He slapped both of the chase guns at the bow—nine, ten—and turned down the starboard side.

By the carpentry workshop, he found Meeks, the second mate, lounging in the doorway while Harison sat outside, running a cleaning rag over his revolver.

“They say Dimarion killed one of Roku’s last dragons for it,” Meeks said. The leader of the starboard watch was a short, spry man with neatly kept dreadlocks twined with beads and shells that winked like gems in black chenille. He was cheeky and liked a good story more than anything else. The rest of the crew enjoyed giving him a hard time, but they listened when he spoke. Even when he was supposed to be readying his watch. “The battle lasted an entire day, and when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, it was Dimarion who remained standing, and it was Dimarion who claimed the diamond.”

“And Cap invited him onto our ship?” Harison’s voice cracked on the last word.

Reed smacked one of the sixteen-pound guns on the starboard side—eleven—and chuckled. “Right, you weren’t here for that bit with the Thunder Gong, were you? Must’ve been five years ago that happened.”

Meeks grinned, showing the chip in his front tooth. “Cap stranded Dimarion in a maelstrom. Remind me to tell you about it when we’re done here.”

Harison shook his head. “Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m on your crew, Cap.”

Reed liked the ship’s boy. He was a goofy kid with a broad nose and big wide-set eyes. Ears like a bush baby, but that didn’t stop the girls in port from cooing over his smooth brown skin and short black curls. “Believe it, kid,” he said. Then he jerked his head at Meeks. “Don’t you got a watch to get in order?”

Meeks snapped to attention and tipped him a mock salute. “Yessir, Cap, sir!” Flicking his dreadlocks over his shoulder, he strode across the deck, calling orders to the rest of the starboard watch.

Reed rolled his eyes and finished his circuit of the ship, slapping the last sixteen-pounder—twelve—and taking the stairs to the quarterdeck two at a time. He liked eights best, but he’d settle for fours, sixes, twelves, sixteens, any even number, really. Made him feel like things were in order.

On the quarterdeck, Aly, the ship’s steward, was busy arranging a table for two, laying out fluttering linens and gleaming silverware. Two long blond braids hung over her shoulders as she made a quick set of pleats in a napkin. “Before you ask,” she said as he approached, “I already stowed my rifle under the gunwale.”

Captain Reed grinned. Dimarion was coming. But they were ready. “You’re as sharp as you are sweet, Aly,” he said.

She beamed.

The chief mate had not stirred from his place at the rail. An old man with a lined rectangular face and a scar across the flat arch of his nose, he was the leader of the larboard watch and Reed’s right-hand man. At the sound of Reed’s footsteps, he turned, dead gray eyes probing. “Is it today?” he asked. The same question he asked before every adventure. Before every dangerous caper.

Reed ran his fingers through his thick brown hair, listening to the waves wash against the hull. “Nah,” he said. “Not today.”

The mate’s frown deepened as he handed the captain his high-crowned hat. “How close is he?”

As much a part of the ship as the timbers themselves, the chief mate could see and hear anything on the Current—the face you were making behind his back, the state of the holds, the conversations of the crewmen in their bunks at night—as if the beams of the ship were extensions of his eyes and ears and nose and sense of touch; but anywhere except the ship he was blind, his milky eyes sightless. People said he never left the Current of Faith, and that as long as he lived, he never would.

The Crux’s rowboat was nearly at their hull now. Dimarion’s back was to them, but there was no mistaking his mountainous form. Reed even fancied he saw four sparkling rings on the man’s right hand.

“Close enough.” He tapped his fingers along the rail. Eight times.