Tattoos once were an act of rebellion.
Now they decide your destiny the moment the magical Ink settles under your skin.
Enjoy Paste’s exclusive preview of Inked, Eric Smith’s fast-paced fantasy novel from Bloomsbury Spark. Intrigued? You can enter our Twitter giveaway of Inked and also win swag from Smith’s pre-order campaign.
Chapter 1: Three Days, Three Bells
My thin leather shoes slapped softly against the dirt leading away from grandmother’s cottage as I made my way across our stretch of farmland located at the edge of Frosthaven. With a gentle breeze tickling my skin, I passed through the brambles and bushes full of berries, then to the wide array of fruit-bearing trees in the orchards at the edge of the land. I couldn’t help but be aware of the plumes of hazy brown dust as they floated about my feet, wisps circling my ankles as my weight shifted the soil, leaving a trail of dusty clouds in my wake.
I was running away.
The weather was perfect, with the comforting smell of the cool dry air still lingering in the breeze, the wind pushing me forward. I stopped and watched the ribbons of dirt around my feet wither away. I took a deep breath and buried my face in my hands.
It was the smell of autumn, a season that any other year I’d welcome with open arms. It was still warm enough to explore the wilderness, venture outside into the fresh sharp air, but cold enough that few did the same, leaving me to my own devices, alone in the woods with the rushing freezing streams hidden beyond them. There were plenty of other upsides too though, in addition to the vibrant color of the forest. There was the warmth of the hearth in my grandmother’s kitchen on frigid evenings, and the joy of picking and tasting the final harvest before the Glacialis. These were the things I looked forward to the most, and I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy any of them.
Not with my Inking looming.
There was no time for good-byes. I didn’t care if I was about to come of age or not. I didn’t want to be Inked. To have some magic tattoos telling everyone who I was, what I was, what my future would hold. I packed some supplies, and set off. Inside the medium-sized leather satchel, I carried a bundle of necessities for the road. Dried food from my grandmother’s cellar, enough dehydrated berries, jerky, and seeds to last me over a week, but not so much to cause trouble with the stores come the winter. Other necessities included a few tunics crammed into the bottom of the bag, a leather canteen, and a couple of trinkets to remind me of home.
Just because I had to go didn’t mean I wanted to leave.
I grabbed my father’s broken pocket watch from deep within the dresser in my bedroom, the gears and springs resting silently inside their shimmering bronze case. I also took one of my grandmother’s scarves, a fraying, trailing bit of fabric, the bright shades of berry dye long since faded into pinks and violets.
I walked to the edge of the farm, stepping over the roots of the enormous, ancient trees that jutted out of the earth; the woods were thick, old, and intimidating. There was no gradual rise in foliage, changing from farmland to small shrubs, little trees, and then to wild forest.
Instead it was as if one of the Gods had hurled thousands of million-year-old oaks at the ground from the sky, hammering them into the soil like thick stakes at the edges of Frosthaven. At the border, I looked up at the tall trees, beams of sunlight slicing through the canopy, the light glimmering through the fading leaves like ripples on water. Then I peered into the woods where Dreya and I spent much of our childhood, running, and exploring.
Would she understand? Would I ever be able to come back?
The idea of striking out on my own, venturing somewhere new, didn’t bother me all that much. But disappearing without Dreya, and without saying farewell to my grandmother, that gave me pause.
I’d at least left Dreya a letter.
I jumped back and tripped over a broken branch, then went tumbling to the ground.
Dreyalla jumped out of nowhere from within the woods, a bundle of flowers packed into a basket slung over her arm. Her tangle of long hair danced madly around her shoulders as she charged toward me while I did my best to scramble away.
“Well, well, look who was about to get lost in the woods,” Dreya said, smirking while arching an eyebrow.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. I stood up and brushed the dirt off my pants.
“What are you doing here?” she insisted, eyes curious, hands on her hips. “Did you forget what today was?” The Ink tattooed on her arms reacted to her question, the petals and vines twisting upward, as if the flowers wanted to listen.
Her Ink was beautiful that season, with white honeysuckle petals dripping with dew, multicolored nasturtiums that made their way down her forearms, all of which rustled when a breeze licked at her sun-kissed skin. In nature, ivy doesn’t really inspire awe as it creeps along forest floors or climbs up trees . . . but on Dreya, it demanded attention. The red and purple veins twisted up her arm toward the sunlight, stretching up her neck and tucking gracefully behind her ears.
Even then, with Dreya standing there, looking at me curiously, her vines and ivy moving and rustling, I couldn’t help but wonder what flowers and greenery would bloom on her next year, or the year after that. Oftentimes, whatever began to bud was the best choice for her family’s greenhouse that season.
Ink was like that. Always suggesting and nudging, always spot on.
Which is exactly why it scared me.
I wanted to know myself first.
And as she stood in front of me, glaring at me with that look of playful accusation, I felt the smile vanish from my face.
“Seriously, what is it?” she asked, taking a step toward me.
“It’s nothing,” I grumbled, “I was just heading out to get some more kindling for grandmother.”
“Caenum, I know you,” she said, taking another step. “You can’t lie to me.”
“No really,” I said, trying my best to maintain an honest tone in my voice, whatever that might be, “it’s nothing. Just you know, out for a walk, clearing my thoughts . . .”
“Clearing your thoughts?” She took another step, and I moved back, almost tripping over a root growing out of the dirt path. “First it was getting kindling, now it’s clearing your thoughts?”
“What is this?” I asked. “Are you the Citadel Guard all of a sudden, come to interrogate me? Oh, please, Captain of the Guard, I don’t know anything; please don’t throw me into the fights . . .”
“Fights!” she exclaimed. “Now that—”
“Oh, please—” I started.
“Is a great . . .” she continued, her voice trailing off, hands outstretched, fingers out like claws. There was a look of playful menace in her eyes, one that I’d seen way too many times. The ivy on her forearms inched up her wrists, eager to decorate her fingers, as if it were going to shoot out and ensnare me.
“Dreya seriously, don’t.”
With a roar she lunged at me. I reached out and grasped her shoulders as she leaped onto me, and we wrestled down onto the soft dirt road, as the dust kicked up into the air. The vines on her arms even seemed to jump in the battle, twisting and curling around on her skin, as if they were trying to grapple with me as well.
I made some attempts to push her off me, but there was something . . . something about having her pressed against me on the ground.
“All right, that’s enough!” I said, trying to push her off me, my heart racing. Dreya pushed my hands off her shoulders and pressed me down to the ground, her full weight on top of me, straddling my waist. With her knees planted firmly into the dirt, she slid her hands to grip my forearms, pressing them to the earth.
“Do you yield?” Dreya asked through gritted teeth, a faux anger in her voice, as if we were soldiers on the field of battle, each of her furious fingers a dagger or a sword. Her thick locks of hair hung over her face, and I sputtered to keep the thick strands out of my mouth as clouds of dirt stung my eyes.
“Never!” I said, attempting a playful snarl while thrashing about, trying to avoid her piercing amber eyes. I looked off to the side, toward the rolling fields and farmland, and tried to will my heart to beat slower. She let go of my arms and pushed down on my shoulders.
“Do you yield, sir?” she shouted. I turned and looked up at her, and met her gaze, her dark yellow eyes looking intently into my dull brown ones. These kind of moments had become all too frequent. Especially lately.
“I yield!” I yelled, breathless. I made my move and grabbed her waist, ready to throw her off me.
And then, I stopped.
There’s a pause, an awkward lingering between us. With her on top of me, hands pressed down against my shoulders, my hands on her waist . . . I could feel her breathing. Her firm muscles under her tunic. We stared at each other for a second, before I broke the silence.
“I-I yield,” I stammered.
“Good,” she says, pushing herself off me and standing up. She brushed the dirt from her clothes and took a deep breath, tucking a rogue strand of hair behind her ear. “Now then,” she said as I slowly stood, her arms crossed, the vines tightening along her forearms. “As written in the treaty of your surrender—”
“There was no—” I started.
“As written,” she pressed, and I immediately shut up. “The defeated party,” she glanced at me, “the defeated party being you, will be subject to the following. One: getting himself up immediately, as the victor would like to spend some time with him. Two: discussing, at length, his feelings regarding his upcoming Inking. And three: quit being the biggest whelp in the Realm starting right now.” She stopped and looked over at me. “Do you agree to these terms, sir?”
“That sounded like more than three terms—” I started.
She stepped toward me, hands outstretched and ready to do battle once more.
“Do I have a choice?” I asked.
“You most certainly do not,” she said. She picked up the wicker basket full of plants off the ground, and cradled it under her arm.
“Now get yourself together and meet me at your house. We’re getting something special ready for you.” She glanced down at her basket of flowers and herbs, and I tried to peek inside.
“Ah-ah, I don’t think so,” she said, shielding the contents of the basket with her other arm. “You’ll ruin the surprise. Finish up whatever you’re doing out here and I’ll see you inside.” And with that, she darted out up the dirt road toward my grandmother’s cottage, leaving me alone with a racing heart, aching ribs, and the tall trees of the ancient forest.
With the Glacialis approaching, Dreya spent most days out in the fields around Frosthaven, collecting all of fall’s final flowers and herbs, rescuing them from death by frost and ice. Her tattoos had her marked as a florist and herbalist, just like her mother. While the Glacialis meant a lot of different things to many different people, it had a particularly unique effect on Dreya, one that I had been dreading this year. As someone Inked with floral imagery, her tattoos reacted to the freezing wind, wilting and dying. She took it hard year one, and I was worried about this year.
To our families, who relied on the farmland for our livelihood, the Glacialis meant harvesting as much as we could, from our farms and from the wilderness. So on days when there wasn’t much for me to do on the farm, I’d join Dreya, chasing after her through the tall grass, and rolling hills spreading out beyond our families’ land.
Much to my annoyance, however, my grandmother always welcomed us back with a smug look on her face, her smile warm, teasing the two of us about how we were destined to be together. This was certainly a nice change from how Dreya’s mother and father, treated me and my grandmother. There was always this . . . this air of disapproval when it came to the two of us spending time together, glances that told me that my small, broken family wasn’t good enough.
But I didn’t care. Growing up as “the orphan with the mysterious past,” I’d become accustomed to those kind of looks, and the whispered bits of gossip, surrounding me and my grandmother, just two outcasts living on the outskirts of town.
Whatever. I needed only two people: my grandmother and Dreya. According to my grandmother, Dreya was actually one of the first people to meet me, right after my long-gone parents.
Long gone indeed.
I pushed forward a few steps into the woods. There, among the towering, ancient trees, sat a small pile of stone with a younger tree growing at its base. The small tree looked like a sapling surrounded by the thick older trunks, but I know it’s exactly ten years old. Some dried-out flowers are nestled among the rocks, and it’s there that I stopped and squatted down, running my hands over the smooth surface of the stones.
“Hi . . . ,” I started, in a whisper. Whenever I visited here, I tried my best to keep it together, but that empty pit in my chest always made itself known, something shouting from the hollow space inside.
“Hi, Mother,” I finish, after exhaling and clearing my throat.
I sat there for a moment, hidden just beyond the edge of the woods.
I stood up, clenching my fists, looking deep into the wilderness. It was now or never. This was my life. This was my choice. I tried to push down all the doubt and swirling emotions rising in my chest, and took a step deeper into the woods.
I turned around and between the trees I spotted my grandmother, a cauldron dangling from her garden-weathered hands as she peered out from the back door of our cottage. Despite feeling as though she was almost a league away, I could definitely spot a smile on her tanned face, her bright-white teeth impossible to miss. I hurried out of the woods and waved at her, attempting a smile of my own.
“What are you doing over there? Come on in!” my grandmother yelled, beckoning me back to the house. “Lunch is almost ready, and you’re not going to want to miss this!” She held up the cauldron and then walked back into the house.
Trying to leave during the day had been a bad idea. I took a step back into the thick forest, bending past around a wide tree, back to the site of my mother’s grave. I breathed in the smell of the sweet decaying leaves on the forest floor. I dug out a nook in one of the small rocks, pushing leaves away, their fading texture crumbling in my hands. I wedged my satchel in the rocks and covered the small space with twigs and branches.
“Watch this for me, would you?” I asked. I turned to walk out of the woods, and then back to the small tree, its branches stretching toward the sky, as if it were desperate to catch any glimmers of sunshine that streamed down through the thick, dark canopy. “Don’t be disappointed in me, please?” I asked. “I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
I stepped out of the woods and back onto the farmland, marching my way toward the cottage.
I could wait until nightfall.
“Are you almost ready? I’ve got a little surprise for you,” Grandmother called. She peeked through my bedroom door, clutching a ceramic black soup bowl in her weathered hands. I leaned over and tried to see what was inside, and my grandmother took a step back, grinning.
“Nope,” she said, teasing, a smirk on her face. “Finish getting ready and meet us in the kitchen.” She disappeared beyond the door.
“And hurry up!” Dreya shouted from inside the house.
I peeked out of the window, the bright autumn afternoon greeting me as I willed the sun to lower itself toward the horizon. Lingering would only make things worse.
I made my way into the kitchen. My grandmother was fussing over the table setting, messing with the spoons, cloth napkins, and the giant pot in the middle of the table, and Dreya stared impatiently at her bowl. I bit my lip as I walked over, the impatient look on her face strangely attractive. I wanted to let her wait a little bit longer, but the smell of beef, barley, celery, onions, carrots, and . . . something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on, the secret spice my grandmother always used, wafted through the air and caught my attention.
Immediately, I knew what was inside that giant pot sitting on the table, made of black ceramic, etched with patterns of the meadows outside.
Grandmother had made her legendary stew.
“There he is!” Dreya exclaimed, looking up from her soup bowl. “About time. Still sore?” She winked.
“Please,” my grandmother said, smiling, “you’ve got to eat something.” I walked over to the table and sat down. Dreya made a quick move at me, her hands outstretched, and I flinched. Scowling at her, I inched my chair closer to my grandmother, who promptly filled up a bowl and handed it to me. The bowl was warm in my palms, and the soup gave off an aroma so powerful that I could already taste it in the back of my throat. My grandmother reached out and tucked a piece of my black hair behind my ear, and I flinched, looking between her and Dreya, irritated.
“Would the two of you stop grabbing at me?” I muttered.
“Okay, okay,” my grandmother said, backing off, beaming.
I grabbed the wooden spoon and stirred the broth, eventually taking a slow careful sip, as it was piping hot from the fireplace.
“Thanks,” I said, and sighed, staring down at the bowl, watching the steam rise slowly off it. While they were fussing with me, I had kicked off my shoes and started messing around with the dirt floor at my feet.
“Caenum?” I looked up to spot my grandmother giving me her telltale stare, her head tilted, her eyebrows raised.
“Sorry, I’ll stop,” I muttered, digging my toes firmly into the ground. My grandmother always kept a perfectly clean house, despite the dirt floor, thatched roof, and rickety, generally broken, wooden furniture. A seemingly impossible task, but she managed somehow.
“Caenum, look . . . ,” my grandmother started.
“Not now.” I said, looking over at Dreya, who immediately returned my look with a gaze that insisted I talk, her amber eyes wide and welcoming. “I don’t want to hear it. For the next three days, I just want to be left alone.” Never mind that I was planning on getting out of there once the sun went down. What was the point in talking about how I felt when I was going to be far away from it all tomorrow morning?
“Caenum . . . ,” Dreya started.
Don’t, I thought to myself, closing my eyes tight.
“So, Grandmother, will you finally tell me your secret ingredient?” I quickly asked, eager to change the subject. The steam from the soup bowl rose in front of my face, my grandmother’s grin, wavy in the heat, told me she had no intention of revealing her recipe. Instead, she reached over and placed a hand on my shoulder. This time, I didn’t flinch.
“I was scared too when the time came for my Inking,” she said, her face warm and kind.
I looked at my grandmother’s hand, where dark lines extended from her fingers down to her wrist, cascading in swirls up her forearm and disappeared into the sleeves of her shawl. The lines were raised, like tracks one might sow while planting seeds in a garden or on a farm. She shook her arm a little, tightening her hand on my shoulder, which caused small Inked grains to tumble onto her unmarked skin, creating tiny, blackened freckles.
In the spring, the tattooed tracks of earth on her arm would start to show bits of green, which would grow into thicker, vibrant lines in shades of sage and hunter. And as the days turned to weeks, the weeks into months, the green lines would blossom and burst with other Inked flowers, fruits, and vegetables. She even had an enormous apple tree on her back that bloomed white at the base of her neck.
It was one of the few pieces she had that didn’t change seasonally, as the orchards regularly produced apples.
If I stayed until it was time for my Inking, would I too end up a farmer like my grandmother? Or like my parents, also bound to the land?
“What,” I began, stumbling to find the words, “what if I don’t like what I get?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Grandmother said, smiling warmly. “Everyone worries about that. I know I did. But in the end, the Ink knew exactly what was best for me.” She looked down at her tattoos and ran her hand over one of her arms.
“You always wanted to work with plants? With food?” I asked, swirling the wooden spoon around in the bowl.
“In a way, yes,” she said, tracing the lines on her arm. “It was something I always had a knack for. You should have seen your father and me . . .” She paused while mentioning him, and looked out the foggy glass window and toward the meadows. As if he were going to be out in the fields someplace, sweat dripping down his brow as he tilled the land. I glanced over at Dreya, who squirmed uncomfortably. Her vines tightened up around her arms, the flowers closing.
My father was a touchy subject, and I was always careful when he was brought up. But if I was truly leaving that night, I at least wanted a little more information about him.
“He wanted to farm too?”
“In a way, yes. He really didn’t have much of a choice. He was gifted.” She wasn’t smiling anymore. Inked pebbles and dirt scattered as she ran her fingers across the tracts of land imagery that decorated her arms.
“But what about his Ink?” I continued to prod.
“That’s a story for another time, Caenum.”
“But what if . . . ,” I started to stammer. I felt the panic rising in my voice. “I don’t even know what I want to do with my life. How are the Scribes supposed to know? They don’t know me!”
The urge to get up and run out of the room, out of the house, across the farms, through the meadows and into the ancient woods, far away from Frosthaven, was suddenly more than I could bear. I looked from Dreya to my grandmother, my breath grew short and my chest grew heavy. There it was, the panic I had been trying to avoid.
“I don’t even know me!”
My grandmother touched my chin, turning my face so I was forced to look at her again. Tears welled up in my eyes and my chest constricted as I fought to keep it all buried down, not wanting Dreya to see me cry. My grandmother spoke, stressing every single word as she did so.
“Your Ink isn’t who you are,” my grandmother said. “Remember that.”
The sound of the large brass bell in the town square was loud and clear, reverberating all the way to our small house on the outskirts of Frosthaven.
A second bell. Two more and it would be an emergency. It’d been a while since the last major incident, when several horses trampled a family on a narrow path leading into the village. Anticipating the worst, I closed my eyes and felt Dreya’s soft hand wedge itself into my closed fist. I looked at her soft eyes staring back at me, awash in concern, filled with a promise that everything would be all right.
And for a moment, I believed her.
I knew what the third bell meant. Three bells signaled their arrival.
I tightened my grip on Dreya’s hand, and for the first time, I wished for tragedy. I couldn’t help myself. Let that fourth bell sound, let it welcome in a tornado, a monsoon, a plague, or even a dragon to descend upon the land. I just wanted to hear the sweet sound of that fourth bell, welcoming in the destruction of the world. Any disaster would be better than letting the third bell echo in my mind.
Please ring. Please ring. Please ring. I could feel my lips moving as I repeated the chant in my head. The third bell continued to resonate with a seemingly endless tone, and my chest constricted tightly. As it faded Dreya nodded her head at me, squeezing my hand. We were left alone, frozen in the kitchen as the soft din of the bell faded away, quickly overwhelmed by the sounds of the crackling fire and the breeze rushing through the window.
I glanced down at the vines and flowers on her arms, all of which were wilting, mirroring our mutual disappointment.
“Caenum, it’s time to get ready,” Dreya said, squeezing my hand tight.
Caenum’s adventure continues in Inked, hitting shelves on January 20th.