The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)(5)

by Traci Chee

The rain didn’t stop. It hammered on the canvas as she hauled the pack after her and placed it in the space where Nin would have lain, though she couldn’t fool herself into thinking the sodden lump was her aunt. Wincing at her scrapes and bruises, she struggled out of her wet clothes and climbed under her blanket, pulling herself into a ball with her hands clasped around her knees.

Dry-eyed, she stared into the darkness.

“Nin,” she whispered.

Chapter 3

The House on the Hill Overlooking the Sea

There were a few hours every morning when the house on the hill became a round island, cut off from the village below, floating in cold fog with views of nothing but birds, air, and an endless ocean of insubstantial white.

Hours before he was killed, Sefia’s father walked her down the misty slope to the blacksmith’s shop, as he had done every morning for four years, since her mother died. They’d go hand-in-hand through the grass, her father turning his head like a stag watching over his tiny herd, and when he said good-bye he always tapped her once, lightly, on the chin. Then he’d go back to the house on the hill to tend the animals or repair the fences or study the ocean through the telescope.

Sefia loved the workshop. It wasn’t a shop, really, just a shed in the back of the blacksmith’s house, with a dirt floor and blackened walls hung with hooks and tongs and hundreds of locks and keys.

Sometimes she brushed her fingers against the keys, making them clatter and clank until the small room was a cacophony of noise. Other times, like today, she simply watched the blacksmith’s strong hands bend to their craft.

“Aunt Nin,” she said, tapping the woman’s round shoulder. “Will you teach me to do that?”

“Do what,” Nin said, her voice like gravel.

Sefia put her hands on the tall counter. “Pick locks.”

“I’m fixing a lock, not picking one.”

“But will you?”

“Will I what.”

“Teach me.” She had perfected the whine of a nine-year-old.

Nin didn’t pause in her work. “When you’re older.”

Sefia laughed. Nin’s gruffness never bothered her; she’d known the woman all her life. When her parents had built the house on the hill, Nin had helped them. She’d fitted all the doors and windows with locks, and at their request, installed three additional, secret doors.

The first was hidden in the stones beside the hearth. You used the end of the fire poker to unlock it, and it opened onto a secret stairway that led to Sefia’s basement room, just a small place for her bed and belongings. Her parents never let her keep anything in the house proper, though they never had visitors to notice. To anyone peering through the windows, it used to look as if there were only two occupants in the house on the hill.

Now it looked as if only a widower lived there.

They kept to themselves as much as possible, gardening, raising chickens and pigs and goats and even some sheep, only going down the slope to the village out of necessity.

Besides the small family, there was only one person allowed in the house, and that person was Nin.

Sefia had guessed a long time ago there was something different about her family—their secrecy, their isolation. Someone was after her parents. She didn’t know why, but she imagined it was some shadowy figure with red eyes and sharp teeth, a monstrous villain come out of her nightmares with metal hounds to hunt them down.

Sometimes she pictured her mother and father as heroes. Keepers of some arcane knowledge. Her mother proud and small, her black hair twisted into a bun at the base of her neck, a silver star glinting at her chest like a sheriff. Her father with a shock of hair like a bristle brush stiff with shoe polish, rolling his large sleeves up to his elbows while the scar at his temple gleamed white.

Sometimes she woke screaming in her basement bedroom, knowing with absolute certainty that someone was coming for them.

“When you teach me, will I be able to pick any lock in the world?” Sefia asked.

“Only if you’re very good.”

“Are you very good?”

Nin didn’t look up. “Don’t be stupid,” she said.

Sefia squinted. Her eyes turned to slits above the soft bump of her nose. “That’s what I thought. Daddy said that’s how he and Mama met you. Because you were the best.”

“Is that what he said.”

“Yep. He said you helped them. He said he wouldn’t be here if not for you.”

“Well . . . I wouldn’t be here if not for them either.”

Sefia nodded. Her parents must have been captured, once, held in iron cages above seething fire pits while their enemies gibbered around them. Nin must have freed them, with her slender tools and miraculous hands, and they’d all gone running into the sunset together.

Smiling, Sefia laid her head on her folded arms, watching silently as Nin’s fingers worked and the little room filled with the clicking and jerking of teeth.

• • •

Under ordinary circumstances, Nin would break for lunch at noon and walk Sefia back up the hill to the house, but on that day there were horses to be shod, axles to be fixed, and all manner of locks and hinges and bolts to be repaired, so Nin sent Sefia scooting out through the back door with warnings to be aware of her surroundings and not to make too much noise.

“And go straight home, or your father will have my head,” she added, giving Sefia one last shove.

Delighted with her temporary independence, Sefia skipped out into the fog. At first she cackled softly and ran at the indistinct shadows of barrels and wheelbarrows, pretending they were monsters rearing out of the mist, but she was too accustomed to caution to dally for long.

As she left the village and began climbing the hill to her house, the fog crept closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied swirls of golden light appearing here and there on the dewy slope, but when she looked closer, they melted into wisps of gray. Sefia’s pace grew slower and more subdued. Moisture from the tall grasses clung to her shins and shoes, making her toes uncomfortably damp.

A breeze stirred the mist, and the faint scent of copper stung her nose. Sefia stifled a cough and shivered in the fog. It wound around her like a living thing.

After a moment the smell dissipated—so quickly she wondered if she’d imagined it. But as she inhaled the sweet scent of grass, she tasted metal at the back of her throat and knew it had been real.