BITTERBOUND Chapter One and eARC request form

Hello, hello! Here is your first taste of Bitterbound, out July 16. If you like this first chapter and want to request an eARC, fill out this form.

Chapter One

The light in the dead man’s tent is a diffuse gold, lantern glow shining through waxed canvas. The space is large enough to stand in, a departure from the small one- or two-person tents that dominate the war camp. The warlord who presides over his moving demesne has an even larger one nearby, and the sound of a lute can be heard, the singer’s voice reduced to notes rather than words. Lord Felver and his sons would have real furniture, unlike the dead man, whose tent contains only a blanket roll. There’s nothing else there besides a pair of boots and a single saddlebag, draped in the shirt the dead man had worn that day.

Kin slips her utility knife back into her sleeve, letting the flap she’d cut fall shut behind her. She draws one of the long baselards at that hang beneath her skirt, warm from contact with her skin. The knife makes the barest hiss, covered by the sound of the dead man’s deep breaths and the guards softly talking outside.

Kin kneels on the lumpy ground, watching and listening. The dead man doesn’t stir, his face slack, angles carved out in sickly yellow light and gray shadow. A silver collar encircles his throat, each section connected to the next with a golden link. One such link lies against the artery that runs down the right side of his neck. Easy. Kin places the point of her knife just below that link, not breathing. The dead man wakes.

His eyes are dark and clear. Fearless. Kin may have seen that look in a target’s eyes before, but she can’t remember it now. His eyes are too deep, unsettling in the way most people find a dark night in an abandoned place, sensing hidden watchers where there are none. Kin would rather be somewhere lonely, instead of being anywhere near the kind of man who doesn’t fear her. Anyone who doesn’t tremble just a little in her presence is either foolish or more dangerous than she.

Kin waits for him to speak. Sometimes the people she ends have last words to convey—and that was their right—or a little fight in them. Kin always hopes for a fight. Fights are more interesting than pleading or requests to bear messages, especially when the messages aren’t even relayed as far as she knows. Though the Binders wish to know every word exchanged with her every target, she knows them, knows that they don’t care one whit for anything other than themselves. Bearing those last words with no recipient wears on Kin like sand in her shoes, slowly scraping her down.

“I had always imagined a gut wound,” the dead man says at last, eyes not leaving Kin’s face. Kin watches him warily, the Binders’ enchantments like a second pulse as they draw her toward him. Only killing him will bring relief. “I wondered what it would feel like. Do you know what if feels like, fleshbound?”

“Yes. It’s a bad way to die. You’re lucky. I’m merciful,” Kin says.

“Can a fleshbound have mercy?” He considers her with a newly curious eye. The dead man has the kind of face that had likely been pretty once, but has settled into something more appealing over the years. Something less startling. It’s a shame he has to die. Kin might have flirted with him under other circumstances.

“I do,” Kin says at last. Lost looking at a target like she’s newmade. This man is strange indeed.

“Will you grant a last request, then?” the dead man asks

“Within reason.” Hopefully not a message. Please not a message.

“Take this off.” He touches the collar around his neck. “I want to die free.”

An easy request to grant. This man may be a sorcerer, but she can sink her knife into his throat in an instant. Even if he gets the upper hand somehow, she can survive anything and find him anywhere.

“It will hurt. I’ve tried before,” says the dead man. There’s a rasp in his voice, and his eyes look above Kin’s head at the peak of the tent. “I always faint before I can get it off. I wouldn’t want you to get caught because I screamed.”

Curious. The people Kin kills never care about her safety. Who would? She places one hand over the dead man’s mouth, his breath warm against her hand, and fits the tip of her knife inside the golden link at his throat. A sharp twist should lever it open, but the soft gold doesn’t bend or break. The dead man jerks beneath Kin’s hand, breath fast and shallow against her fingers. A second attempt fails, and his throat works visibly, a guttural sound gurgling up against his lips.

Kin takes away her hand. He’s something special, something far more powerful than the Binders had let on, to wear a magical item able to resist the strength of a fleshbound.

“What are you?” Kin asks.

“I’m a Carrier.”

Kin sits back on her heels. When the Binders tell her to kill a sorcerer in a war camp, she expects to find a Reaper or a Healer. Both follow war like crows. But a Carrier ought to be deep in research or at his holy Wellspring, not waiting to march into battle.

The man touches the collar at his neck again, his dark eyes two wells of buried-deep pain.

“This has made me into a war machine.”

Kin may be capable of mercy, but pity was taken from her years ago, leaving behind little emotion to spare for her targets. She knows utility, though, and this man can be of use to her, and she to him.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “I’ll break the collar and take you away from here. In exchange, you’ll help me find my soul and destroy it.”

The man’s eyes search Kin’s face, dance over her body as he takes her in, deciding whether she’s worth trusting. If he trusts her to kill in service of his freedom once she’s set her mind to it, he’s smart. If he trusts her to do anything else, well . . .

“It’s a deal,” he says.

Kin covers his mouth again, this time noting how soft the flesh of a mortal man feels against her callused hand. She gives one last wrench to the golden link. It twists open at last, and the alive man sits up, fumbling at his throat to pull off the collar. Kin catches his wrist when he makes to throw it away. The Binders give her only a tiny stipend every month, knowing she has no need for food or shelter. This much gold and silver is worth more than she’s seen in years.

“Get dressed. Get your things.” Kin stands to give him room.

The man moves gingerly, like his whole body aches, to pick up his discarded shirt and pull it on. All of his clothes are dyed the same pale blue and black as the banners outside the camp, though they’re far from a soldier’s uniform. They’re more like the clothes Kin has seen lords dress their mistresses in: pretty decorations for something they own. She can see why he wastes no time rolling his blankets up.

When he reaches for his saddlebag, Kin stops him to grab it instead, throwing it over her left shoulder. He looks like he’s ridden all day for weeks. Kin is perpetually fresh, rarely needing more than an hour’s rest every night unless she’s badly wounded or skipped her hour for days on end. One of the few benefits of being fleshbound.

Kin shepherds him out of the tent with a rustle of canvas. Outside in the chill night, a sliver of moon is nearly outshone by the sharp, shallow pinpricks of stars. The mist of dim light leaves the small gap between the backs of the tents shadowed and safe. As they make their way away from his tent, Kin and her target have to turn sideways more than once to fit through the narrow space, or crouch to stay hidden, listening for soldiers making their rounds. The sound of heavy boots pass by as they reach the edge of the row of tents, where Kin puts out a hand to keep her new ally from stepping into the open. She can survive a fight, but the sorcerer might not, and she refuses to risk him now that she has him.

“Who here knows your face?” Kin asks.

“Most everybody this side of camp. If we make it to the far side, I don’t think anyone will recognize me there. They might get suspicious if they sense my magic.”

“Can you hide it?”

The sorcerer shakes his head. “It’s impossible for Carriers. We’re too powerful.” The words sound like bragging, but his tone and posture give away no ego. He’s simply stating a fact.

“Oh, well. We’ll be careful.”

Kin moves from shadow to shadow to avoid being seen, the darkness welcoming her as its own. The sorcerer is absorbed just the same, as if the night is willing take him as long as he’s at her side. Twice soldiers pass by, their eyes sliding right past, noticing nothing. If they sense magic, they likely dismiss the feeling as the Reapers who surely lurk all around the camp. If Kin had the same sense of magic as humans, she would use it to avoid any Reapers, but that ability was taken when she was Bound.

After skirting an open area holding tethered horses and blacksmiths’ tents, Kin and the sorcerer find their way to another cluster of tents, and she feels more than sees him relax as they fade back into the darkness.

“What’s your name?” Kin asks. Not because she wants to know more about the not-dead man who has no fear of her. It’s simply more convenient to know.

“Verias.” His voice is steady but soft.

“We’re almost out, Verias. My horse is waiting.”

BITTERBOUND Content Warnings and Such

If you want to take care of yourself when reading Bitterbound , here are the content warnings that also appear at the beginning of the book:...