The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)(4)


by Traci Chee

The woman in black let out a bark of laughter. “You’ll talk. By the time we’re done with you, you’ll sing. You saw what we did to him, didn’t you?”

Her father. Sefia fought back the memory of amputated limbs. Misshapen hands. Things no kid should see. Things no one should ever see. Nin hadn’t seen the body. She’d spirited Sefia away into the woods as soon as she’d shown up, sobbing and bedraggled, at Nin’s door.

But Sefia had seen it.

She knew what they could do.

Nin said nothing.

Beyond Sefia’s vision, the man spoke again, his words like ice: “Let’s go. It’s not here.”

“I already told you that,” Nin grumbled. “For folks who’re supposed to be so powerful, you aren’t too bright, are you? No wonder it took you so long to track me down.”

“You think that matters? You think that’ll stop us?” The woman in black hit her again. “We are the wheel that drives the firmament. We’ll never stop.”

And again, her fist making wet smacking sounds against Nin’s wrinkled flesh.

Sefia flinched. A branch snapped beneath her. She tensed.

The rhythm of the woman’s blows didn’t falter, but across the clearing Nin froze. For a second, her eyes locked with Sefia’s, warning her to stay put. To keep quiet.

Nin crumpled at the next impact. Her face in the dirt, her flesh swollen and cut.

Stop them, Sefia told herself. She could go out there and give up her pack. Just give them what they wanted.

But fear roiled inside her.

A dismembered corpse. The sick stench of metal.

She’d seen what had happened to her father.

There was movement to her right. Sounds of footsteps in the dead leaves. Sefia went cold. The man was coming for her, stalking the underbrush like a predator. She still couldn’t see him, but the tips of the ferns bent and tilted at his passage, sending ripples among the fiddleheads. He was getting closer.

The smell of metal was so sharp it made her teeth hurt.

“Wait,” Nin coughed.

The man halted.

The woman in black paused, her arm drawn back.

Slowly, Nin pushed herself off the ground. Blood and saliva dribbled from her chin. She wiped it away, squinting up through her bruises. “If you want to do any real damage, you’ve got to get my good side,” she said, tapping her other cheek.

The woman in black seized Nin’s hand and twisted.

Nin buckled.

Her wrist snapped.

Sefia nearly lunged out from the brush to get to her, but Nin was watching her again. Stay put. Keep quiet.

“Enough,” the man said.

The woman in black glared in his direction, but she grabbed the collar of Nin’s cloak, hauling her to her feet. The horses were stamping and whiffling at the edge of the clearing.

Now, Sefia thought. Before it’s too late.

But she couldn’t move. She couldn’t.

They bound Nin’s hands and mounted, Nin letting out a slight whuff of air as they forced her up. Despite the thorns that caught on her hands and arms, Sefia pushed away the barbed leaves until she could see Nin’s swollen eyes watching her from the back of the horse.

Nin.

The only family she had left.

Then they were gone, slipping away between the branches, which closed behind them as if they’d never been.

As the sound of the horses faded into the distance, the copper smell dissipated like mist, leaving that familiar metallic taste in the back of Sefia’s throat.

Her breath came in ragged gasps. Hoisting herself over the log, she staggered into the clearing, where she fell forward among Nin’s belongings. The sobs came suddenly up from her stomach, wracking her entire body.

Six years on the run from these people. A lifetime in hiding. And still they’d found her.

Sefia began gathering up Nin’s things—an oversize shirt, the spyglass, her lock picks—as if the weight of them would be enough to hold on to, now that Nin was gone.

Of course it wasn’t.

Sefia unfolded the leather case that held the lock picks, her fingers catching on the metal tips of Nin’s most trusted tools. Her eyes blurred with tears.

Her mother and father were dead. And now Nin had been taken from her too. To be beaten and tortured and who knew what else.

No. Sefia twisted the leather in her hands. Not yet.

The woman’s words came back to her like shards of glass, cutting into her: We’ll never stop.

Not until they’d gutted everything she’d ever loved.

Not until they’d laid waste to everyone who stood in their path.

Sefia’s hands burned, as if everything she touched would burst into flame.

They wouldn’t stop? Well, neither would she.

Tucking the lock picks away, she jammed a bundle of Nin’s things into her pack and shouldered it. Then, narrowing her eyes, she located the hoofprints in the soft earth and marched into the jungle.

They were faster than her, but Sefia was relentless. She tracked them through miles of rain forest, over fallen logs and into creeks, past gnarled thickets of thorns and stagnant pools buzzing with mosquitoes. By midafternoon, just as Nin had predicted, sheets of water began pouring over the rain forest, dripping from the canopy until everything was wet through. Grimly, Sefia pulled her rain cloak over herself and the pack, squinting into the rain.

As she slogged through the downpour, it became harder and harder to track the horses. But they didn’t stop, and neither would she. She carried on, searching for crescent-shaped puddles and broken twigs in the failing light.

The rain fell, but she didn’t stop.

Darkness fell, but she didn’t stop.

But on the edge of a roaring creek, swollen with rain, she slipped. She slid down the muddy bank, clutching at loose roots that ripped away in her hands, and landed in the turgid water, tumbling over and over in the dark and the cold. Again and again, the current thrust her under, but every time she came up gasping for air, striking at the rapids with her arms and legs, searching for shore.

With nothing but her stubbornness and what remained of her fading strength, she made it to the opposite bank and hauled herself out of the water on shaking limbs. The rain pelted her face as she lay gasping in the dark. How far had she come? She must have been miles downstream now.

Sefia pushed herself to her feet, gritting her teeth against a sudden pain in her ankle. She knelt, testing the swollen joint with numb fingers. It wasn’t broken. At least there was that. Gathering her pack, she ran her hand over the outside to check that its contents were safe, and limped away from the water to set up the little tent.