Naya, the daughter of a sea merchant captain, nervously undertakes her first solo trading mission in the necromancer-friendly country bordering her homeland of Talmir. Unfortunately, she never even makes it to the meeting. She's struck down in the streets of Ceramor. Murdered.
But death is not the end for Naya. She awakens to realize she's become an abominationa wraith, a ghostly creature bound by runes to the bones of her former corpse. She's been resurrected in order to become a spy for her country. Reluctantly, she assumes the face and persona of a servant girl named Blue.
She never intended to become embroiled in political plots, kidnapping, and murder. Or to fall in love with the young man and former necromancer she is destined to betray.
"A high fantasy filled with adventure, espionage, and romance that envelops the reader in a world where the undead walk among the living."—Kirkus Reviews
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Naya stood on the deck of her father's ship, the Gallant, watching the crowded docks with a growing sense of unease. Any one of the brightly dressed strangers down there could be undead. She shaded her eyes against the afternoon sun as she turned to face her father. "I'm not certain I can —"
"You're ready." He stood beside her, arms crossed, scowling at the city beyond the port. He was a tall man with broad shoulders and dark eyes. His beard was trimmed neat and he wore his black jacket like battle armor.
A warm sea breeze blew across the deck, making the rigging creak above them. Naya touched the silver pendant hanging below her throat. "Yes, sir. I won't let you down."
The scowl left her father's face as he met her eyes. He squeezed her shoulder. "I know. Learn all you can here, and keep your wits about you. This city is full of liars."
Her father looked like he wanted to say more. Instead he looked back at the city and his scowl returned. "Go. Creator guide you."
Naya clutched her oilskin document folder as she descended the gangplank to the docks. She stuck out her chin and tried to mimic the calm expression her father usually wore. Find Master Belleno. Ensure that he sign the contract. Return to the ship. Simple. As for the undead, everyone said they looked and acted like ordinary people. If she ignored the walking corpses, they'd do her the same courtesy. Probably.
The smells of the market — flowers, strange spices, sweat — flooded Naya's nose as she shouldered her way into the crowd. The press of bodies trapped the afternoon heat, making her head spin as she searched for a street sign. Normally her father dealt with suppliers here by the docks. But Belleno was special. He owned some of the finest orange groves in all of Ceramor. The fruit would fetch a good price back home in Talmir. First, though, Naya needed to convince him to sign the contract, and the stubborn old eccentric refused to meet outside his house in the city's western hills.
Naya tightened her grip on the folder. Though she was already past her seventeenth birthday, this was the first time her father had let her go ashore alone to negotiate with a supplier. From her father's tone she guessed her task would be more complicated than just collecting a signature. Perhaps he worried Belleno would try to cheat them. Or maybe he expected her to negotiate for a better price. Whatever it was, it was obviously a test. If she passed, she could prove he hadn't made a mistake by taking on his bastard daughter as an apprentice.
A whistle shrieked. Naya stepped back just in time before a rune-powered tram barreled past. Her heart raced as she tucked a sweat-damp curl back into her braid. She would not fail.
People stared at her as she continued down the main road, past shops in tall buildings with large front windows displaying gowns and gentlemen's shoes. Naya hunched her shoulders. She could imagine what those strangers must be thinking: foreigner. Her tan skin and brown hair could have let her pass for local, but her clothing made her stick out like a barnacle on a well-scrubbed hull. The people here, in the city of Belavine, wore loose, bright-colored cottons. Men and women alike favored brass-buttoned vests that stopped just above the hips. Even the poorest embroidered their hems and cuffs with elaborate geometric designs that looked gaudy in comparison with the simpler fashions of her home.
A drop of sweat trickled down Naya's back and into the hem of her gray wool skirt. She fought the urge to unbutton the high collar of her blouse. Maybe it would have been smarter to concede a little to the local fashions. She'd likely have been more comfortable, and far less conspicuous. Safer. The people here had no love for Talmirans like her.
Naya pushed the uncomfortable thought away. Her father wouldn't send her into danger. And he hadn't offered an escort from among the crew. That meant he thought she could do this alone. Naya focused on the warm sun and the lively sounds of the market. So long as she got back to the Gallant before nightfall, she'd be fine.
Despite Naya's initial unease, a smile rose on her lips as she followed her father's directions deeper into the city. There was a thrill to exploring new places, even those tainted by necromancy.
The streets narrowed when she left the main thoroughfare. The big glass windows were replaced by smaller storefronts and pushcarts manned by eager vendors selling everything from bruised vegetables to lamp oil. The faded wooden street signs were barely legible here. Naya had to double back twice before she finally found the right one.
As she rounded the corner, she noticed a man standing a few paces behind her. He turned away before she could get a clear look at his face, but something about him tugged at her memory. He had shaggy black hair and wore the oft-mended clothing of a common laborer. Naya frowned. She could have sworn she'd glimpsed the same man lingering near the docks. No. Not just at the docks. Hadn't he been standing outside the bookshop she'd passed a moment ago?
Goose bumps rose on her arms despite the heat. Was he following her? Naya stepped backward, keeping her eyes on the man.
"Watch —!" Something slammed into her. Next thing she knew, she was sitting on the cobblestones and staring up at a heavyset woman in a flowing green skirt and black vest. A shopping basket lay next to Naya, its contents scattered over the paving stones. The woman pursed her lips as she bent to collect her things.
"I'm sorry." Naya grabbed her folder and scrambled to her feet. Her palms stung. When she lifted them, she wasn't surprised to see beads of blood rising from the scrapes. Wonderful. She couldn't even deliver a simple contract without getting into trouble. What would Belleno think when she arrived with stained skirts and bloody hands?
"Are you all right?" the woman asked in the local tongue. She glanced at Naya's hands, and her brow wrinkled with concern.
"I'm ..." Naya began in the same language. But the words died in her throat when she noticed the black runic tattoos encircling the woman's neck and wrists. She'd heard of marks like these. They bound the woman's soul to her formerly dead body. She's one of the undead, Naya thought.
Her skin crawled as she stumbled away from the walking corpse. "No. I'm fine." Before the corpse could do anything else, Naya hurried off. Her heart thudded against her ribs. Fool. It wasn't as though the corpse had done anything wrong. Naya could have avoided her if she hadn't been walking backward like a child scared of wraiths in the night. She paused, looking back the way she'd come, but the strange man was nowhere in sight.
She followed the road up into the city's rolling hills, turning right at an inn with a massive smiling fish carved over its doorway. The way turned again, narrowing to a lane barely wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Tall, brightly painted houses rose up on either side, blocking out the sun. Naya glanced back over her shoulder at the empty lane. Her father had said Belleno's house wasn't far from The Happy Cod inn. This had to be the right way.
After a few minutes following the winding lane, her certainty waivered. The city below was laid out in a proper grid. But up here the streets looked like they'd been mapped by wandering cows. Blind cows. Naya glanced back down the hill. The shimmer of the bay was just visible above the rooftops. The street was empty, but she couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching her.
Naya's fingers strayed to her pendant, running over the stylized bird embossed on the flat disk. Foolish. Her father would be disappointed if he saw her fear. Fear made you hesitate, and those who hesitated were overtaken by others bolder and smarter than them. Naya took a steadying breath, then continued on her way.
Her luck turned when she glanced down an alley to her right. It opened onto a wider street, and through the growing afternoon shadows she could just make out a narrow purple house. White pillars flanked the doorway, matching her father's description. Naya grinned as excitement washed away her unease.
Her shoes splashed through puddles spreading from a clogged gutter as she jogged into the alleyway. Finally. If she hurried, she could be back on the Gallant before dinner. With all her attention focused on the house, her mind barely registered the scrape of footsteps behind her. She felt a sting at the back of her neck. Naya reached up to slap whatever bug had bitten her, but her fingers brushed against something long and narrow protruding from her skin. What in creation? She stifled a gasp as she pulled the thing out and held it up to the light. A dart. It was fletched with tiny red feathers, and something dark and oily was smeared across the needle-sharp tip. Her stomach clenched.
Naya tried to turn, but her neck caught fire with pain. The sensation spread like swarming ants up her scalp and down the curve of her spine. Her jaw snapped shut so tight she thought her teeth might shatter. She tried to run, but her feet got tangled and she stumbled to her knees instead. She tried to call out but only managed a weak moan. The folder slipped from her stiff fingers. When she exhaled, her mouth filled with the copper taste of blood.
Naya tried to take a breath. Nothing. Her chest burned. She tried again, failed again. Numbness crept through her limbs, more terrifying than the pain. No, this can't be happening. She was dimly aware of her body collapsing to the ground. Dirty water splashed against her cheek and into one paralyzed eye. As the edges of her vision darkened, she saw a pair of scuffed boots with bronze buckles.
Then everything melted away.
"It worked. Incredible."
Naya opened her eyes. The world blurred, then swam into focus. What worked? Her memories were fragmented and jumbled.
There had been a song, persistent and alluring, but sung in a language she didn't recognize. She'd been standing on a black expanse, struggling against an icy tide that sought to suck her away.
No, wait, that wasn't right. She'd been on a street. She'd been doing something important. What was it? The details slipped away like fever dreams, so she narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the present. The ceiling was all wrong. It was too high, and too white to be the ceiling of her cabin on the Gallant.
Naya was lying down, so she raised her head. An older woman stood nearby, staring at her. The lines around the woman's eyes and mouth suggested she was somewhere past her fiftieth year. Sweat glistened on her forehead and her skin was flushed with exertion. Round glasses covered eyes so dark they were almost black. Behind the woman, shelves sagged under neat rows of jars with labels too small to make out. A window set in the right wall overlooked a cluttered counter next to the shelves, but it had been covered with heavy drapes.
Weak light shone from oil lamps and reflected off a strange metal table pushed against the wall opposite the window. A man of average height and build stood next to it. He wore a dark, well-tailored suit and held his hands clasped behind his back. A wide-brimmed hat shadowed his face.
The woman with the glasses watched Naya with an expression of grim triumph. What in creation did you do to me? Naya tried to ask, but all that came out was a moan. She tried to draw breath. Couldn't. Tried again. Still nothing. Fresh panic ignited her thoughts. Her memories returned, indistinct at first, but growing clearer with every passing moment. She was in Belavine, a wealthy port in the country of Ceramor. She'd been looking for something for her father. Naya's head spun as she tried to recall the details. Why did she feel so strange? Her back seemed to barely touch the floor, almost like she was drifting.
"There. She's almost completely solid. Where's my book?" The woman turned to search the cluttered counter, oblivious to Naya's panic. Anger sparked in Naya's chest. Who were these people? The drifting sensation lessened. She pressed her hands against the cool stone floor as her anger grew.
The woman dug out a worn leather journal from a pile of papers. She grabbed a pen and began writing, stealing glances at Naya between sentences.
Naya tried again to take a breath, and this time air flooded her lungs. She sat up. The blanket covering her slid away. When she glanced down, a noise somewhere between a yelp and a scream escaped her throat. As if waking up in a strange room surrounded by strange people wasn't bad enough, someone had taken her clothes. The rough wool blanket slipped through her fingers as she struggled to cover herself, but after a moment she managed to pull it to her chin. In the flickering candlelight her fingertips looked silvery blue, almost transparent. Naya blinked and the illusion vanished.
The woman looked up. "Please, try to remain calm."
"Who are you? What's going on? Where am I?" Too late Naya realized she'd asked in Talmiran. Even using the familiar words, her voice sounded strange. She took another breath and repeated the question in Ceramoran.
The woman gave her a tight-lipped smile. "My name is Lucia Laroke, and this is my shop. I realize this is disorienting, but I promise that will pass." She wrote a few more lines in her journal.
"Now then, would you please raise your right hand above your head?"
Naya clutched the blanket tighter. She looked again at the strange room. White chalk runes encircled the bare patch of floor where she'd woken. An idea tugged at the back of her mind, one too terrifying to acknowledge. "Why?" she asked.
"It's a standard test. I need to gauge your motor functions."
Mistress Laroke spoke like a physician. Her calm tone pushed back against Naya's fear.
Reluctantly, Naya shifted her grip on the blanket and raised her right hand. Her memories were beginning to stitch themselves together. She recalled the alley and the stabbing pain in her neck. She'd been attacked. A mugging perhaps?
"Good. You can lower your arm."
What kind of physician left her patient to lie on a stone floor? And where had Naya's clothes gone? She scrambled to her feet, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.
"Please, I had a folder with me. Where is it?" she asked.
"It has been taken care of," the man by the metal table said.
Naya almost jumped in surprise. The man had stood so quiet and so still that she'd nearly forgotten he was there.
"You don't understand. I need to deliver it, and I need to get back to my father's ship. I can settle whatever accounts we have after —"
"I'm afraid your ship has already begun the return voyage to Talmir," the man said.
"That's impossible. What day is it? My father wouldn't leave without me." The panic growing in the back of her mind threatened to envelop her. She ignored it. Foolish little girls might panic when they woke in a strange place, but Naya wasn't a fool or a child. These people were obviously confused. They'd mistaken her for someone else. All she had to do was figure out where she was and what they had done with her document folder and her clothes. Then she could be on her way.
Madame Laroke took a step back and glanced nervously between Naya and the man. "There are a few more tests I need to run to make sure the runes have set properly. After that you're welcome to —"
"I believe your tests can wait until she recovers her senses." The man pulled off his hat, revealing an angular face with a long chin and thick black eyebrows. His hair was combed back and held in place with some sort of oil. His skin was smooth save for a few wrinkles around the corners of his eyes. Naya frowned. The man's features seemed familiar. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. Like Madame Laroke, he spoke Ceramoran, though his words were clipped by a faint Talmiran accent. Naya glanced at his feet. He wore slick black boots laced up the front — definitely not the boots she remembered seeing in the alleyway.
Naya stared at him. She was certain they had never met, but there was something about him. "You're Ambassador Valn," she said after a moment. Dalith Valn was the ambassador assigned to represent her home nation of Talmir here in Ceramor. Her father had always insisted she keep up with politics, and she'd seen a sketch of Valn in one of the morning newspapers back home.
Excerpted from "Twice Dead"
Copyright © 2018 Caitlin Seal.
Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.
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