Exclusive Deleted Opening Scene from Umbertouched
by Livia Blackburne
The creek is frigid. My fingers ache after a few moments under the surface, and the icy bite sends a tingle up my arm. Still, the opportunity to be clean is too tempting to ignore.
Gingerly, I dip a rag into the water, and shiver as I wipe days of sweat and dirt off my arms, careful to avoid the sleeping snake wrapped around my bicep. When I rinse the rag, a cream colored plume forms in the water— the remains of the ointment Mehtap gave me two weeks ago when I fled Sehmar City with Dineas. I’d kept it slathered on my skin to cover my rosemarks, but most of it has rubbed off by now. It’s not a good thing— it just makes me that much more recognizable. But part of me is still relieved to finally wash off this grime.
Strange, you’d think that a fortnight of fleeing across the empire, eating foraged scraps, and jumping at any sign of soldiers would take my mind off something as pedestrian as cleanliness, but it doesn’t. I may be exhausted and hungry, but if I die, I will at least die without this crust of dirt on my skin..
Springtime has bloomed in the northern grasslands. All around me, orange flowers dot the knee high grass, and the few trees lining the river sprout green buds from their stems. Other than the small ravine that houses the river, the grassland is flat as far as I can see. The only landmark is a small village a short walk to the east, where Dineas is attempting to buy food and overhear any news. I would have liked to go with him, but a rosemarked woman traveling with an umbertouched man is far too distinctive a sight.
Dineas and I are unlikely allies. He’s a Shidadi warrior who spent his life fighting the Amparan empire that rules us, while I’m a healer from the peaceful territory of Dara. We were sent as spies to the capital, but we barely escaped with our lives. Now, we flee back to our homelands with an army at our heels. At night, when I do sleep, I dream of the Emperor’s troops marching crossing Monyar strait into my homeland. I wake with the panicked conviction that we must get back, but finding our way out of central Ampara has proven harder than we thought. The Empire is determined to capture us, and several times already we’ve barely escaped the manhunt.
A caw sounds overhead— a warning from Dineas’s crow Scrawny. I jump to my feet, scanning the horizon. It might be nothing—the crows sound the alarm for anything they don’t recognize, and Scrawny is jumpier than most. Still, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. My snake Diadem senses my fear and tightens her hold around my arm. A few paces away, our stallion snorts and paws the ground.
A few moments later I hear hoof beats, and after that, shapes appear in the distance. Five riders in Amparan livery. As they come closer, I see that three of them have dark brown umbermarks on their skin.
My heart begins to pound. The only reason there would be three umbertouched soldiers in a party of five is if they were coming after me. Most people who touch my skin would risk catching the deadly rose plague, but the umbertouched have already caught the fever and survived, leaving them immune.
The riders fan out as they come closer. They’re definitely searching for something, but they don’t seem to have spotted me. My mind races. I can’t stay near the horse. He’s too large and recognizable. I crouch and run a good distance away, then huddle in the grass and hold my breath. The riders come closer, past the horse and then a few moments later, past me.
Then one of the riders stops and circles around.
I try in vain to shrink even smaller as I untie my blowgun from my waist and remove a dart from a pouch. The rider who’d turned around shouts to the others and points straight at me.
“Scrawny, warn Dineas,” I shout. As the crow flies toward the village, I square my stance and face the soldiers.
Stay calm, Zivah. You’ve been through worse than this.
I fit a dart to the blowgun and aim for the umbertouched rider at the front. His eyes fall on my weapon, but he doesn’t change his pace and continues sweeping his gaze back and forth. He’s more concerned with finding Dineas than worrying about me.
Which means I have a chance.
My first shot misses, but the second finds its target. The soldier grabs his arm, then slumps and falls off the horse as the sleeping potion on the dart takes effect. The soldier next to him yells, and the remaining four speed up to surround me. I aim for the second umbertouched soldier, but thundering hooves come up behind me. I turn, expecting sharp hooves to crush my skull, but instead the rider veers off at the last moment. He swings his sword, and my blowgun flies out of my hands.
I scramble up the riverbank and plunge into the grass beyond. The blades of grass brush at my trousers and I pray that I won’t twist my ankle on some unseen divot. On my arm, Diadem wakes and hisses.
Someone grabs my tunic and jerks me back. An umbertouched arm grabs me in a bear hug and squeezes even tighter when I kick and yell. A hiss sounds. Diadem rears up and sinks her fangs into his arm. The man screams and claws at the snake, wrenching her off my arm and throwing her to the ground. As he collapses, his comrade runs up and brings his sword down behind Diadem’s head.
Then the remaining umbertouched soldier grabs me. He pins my arm behind my back, as the man who killed my snake holds his sword to my throat.
“Don’t move, or you’ll follow your pet to the underworld.”