Ace OF SHADES EXCERPT

Reader, if you’ve made it this far, if you’ve glimpsed the first lines of these pages, if you see the City of Sin’s skyline before you…then it might already be too late.

Welcome to the cover reveal for ACE OF SHADES, the first installment in THE SHADOW GAME SERIES! If you’ve come looking for the cover, then head over to Accio_All_The_Book’s Instagram account. If you’ve come looking for an excerpt, then keep scrolling.

If you’ve come looking for sin, know that you’ve already arrived.

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Relevant Links:

Indiebound || Amazon || Barnes & Noble ||  Amazon UK ||  Book Depository ||  Goodreads

If you’d like to tweet about this reveal or at me (always appreciated!), click here.

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This is a brief, self-indulgent section for me to gush, because I absolutely need to gush. ACE OF SHADES is the book of my heart, and these characters and this setting have been tangled in my heartstrings since I was in high school. This reveal is utterly surreal for me. The novel has a cover at last! And words to go with it! Thank you to everyone who has made this possible–to Kristina at Accio_All_The_Books, to the entire Harlequin TEEN team, to my amazing agent, and to the support of fantastic readers.

Day 1

“To be frank, reader, you’d be better off not visiting the city at all.”

The City of Sin, a Guidebook: Where To Go and Where Not To

 

ENNE

If I’m not home in two months, I’m dead.

Her mother’s warning haunted her as Enne Salta lugged her leather trunk down the bridge leading off the ship, filling her with an inescapable sense of dread.

If I’m not home in two months, I’m dead.

It’d been four.

For the first time in fifteen days, Enne stepped onto dry land. Her balance veered from side to side as if she expected the gray cobblestones to tilt like the sea, and she white-knuckled the pier’s railing to compose herself. If the ground weren’t so littered with cigar butts and grime, she might’ve kissed it. Two weeks battling seasickness on a floating monstrosity could do that to a lady.

A woman shoved past her, not noticing Enne’s petite frame. The force of it nearly knocked Enne over. She glared at the woman’s ostentatiously feathered hat as it disappeared into the crowds.

Hmph, she thought. A lady shouldn’t rush. Barely five seconds in the so-called City of Sin and already people were rude.

As more passengers disembarked the ship, the crowds around the customs tables swelled with hundreds of people, hollering and waving passports and jostling each other in an effort to reach the front of the lines. Most were young men, probably visiting New Reynes to sample its famous casinos and nightlife—but the number of families present surprised her. This city was no place for children.

And, she reminded herself, staring up at the sinister, smog-stained sky, it was no place for her, either.

As Enne joined the queues, she dug through her belongings for her tourist documents. Her purse was stuffed: her passport, a handful of gingersnap cookies leftover from last night’s dinner and a copy of The City of Sin, a Guidebook: Where To Go and Where Not To. As she fished out her papers, something fell and clinked when it hit the ground. Her token.

She scooped it up and clutched it to her chest. Her mother, Lourdes, had given her this token. It was two inches long and gilded, with an old Faith symbol of an eye etched on one side and a cameo of a past queen on the other. The Mizer kings had used these tokens as party invitations. It was probably illegal to own it—any remnants from before the Revolution twenty-five years ago had been destroyed, just like the Mizers themselves. But Enne couldn’t bring herself to throw away something so rare and precious. She tucked it safely back into her pocket.

With nothing to do but wait, Enne pulled out her guidebook and compared its cover to the city in front of her. The photograph of Luckluster Casino matched the stories of New Reynes: red lights that flashed without flame, women of loose morals dancing on street corners in sparkling, skin-tight corsets, gambling dens beckoning passersby with seedy smiles and the allure of fast fortune.

But neither the stories nor the cover bore any resemblance to the city before her. From what she could see, New Reynes was a wasteland of metal and white stone. The factories in the distance glinted as if coated in liquid steel, and the clouds were so black she swore the rain would fall dark as coal.

Panic seized her as she examined the skyline—white and jagged as teeth.

All you know are stories, Enne told herself. And not all stories are true.

“Next!” called the man at the customs table, and Enne hurried to his desk. He snatched the papers from her hands. “Erienne Abacus Salta.”

She cringed at the sound of her full name. No one called her that but her teachers.

He wore round spectacles rimmed in faux gold, making his eyes appear magnified as they traveled from her face and slithered down her body. “A Salta, eh? Then you’re a dancer.” By the way he said “dancer,” drawing out the s sound and licking his lips, Enne knew he wasn’t picturing her ballet at finishing school.

Her cheeks reddened. City of Sin, indeed. She was not that kind of dancer. She. Was. A. Lady.

He glanced back at her paperwork. “From Bellamy. Seventeen years old. You know, you hardly look seventeen.”

She flushed deeper and counted backward from ten, lest she say something indecent and break one of Lourdes’s sacred rules.

Ladies should never reveal their emotions. That was the first rule.

The man checked the birthdate on her passport, shrugged and returned to her travel documents. “Blood talent is dancing, of course. What is the Abacus family talent?”

“Arithmetic,” she answered. Every person possessed two talents, one inherited from each parent. The stronger one was known as the blood talent, and the weaker was called the split talent. Enne’s Abacus split talent was so weak it might as well have been nonexistent, as if all her ability had gone to pliés and pirouettes rather than to simple math.

The man scribbled her talents and family names into a grease-stained booklet. “How long is your stay?”

“The summer,” Enne said, trying to make her voice sound strong. School began again in September, and this was Enne’s final year before graduation, before her debut into society. All her life, she had perfected her fouettés, memorized her table settings and obsessed over every salon invitation…all to graduate and earn the title of lady. She wanted it more than she wanted anything. It was all she’d cared about…

Until Lourdes went missing.

No matter how scared or how alone she felt, Enne swore to remain in this disgusting city until she found Lourdes. For however long it took. But secretly, selfishly, she hoped she’d find her mother before September. Without her debut, she wasn’t sure who she was supposed to become.

The man tapped his ballpoint pen at the bottom of the document. “Sign your name here. If you can’t write, just put an X. And if you can read, go ’head and verify everything.”

The document was a horror of fine print. At the top of the page was a check box for those with Talents of Mysteries. During the reigns of the Mizers, the various kingdoms had required every citizen to be classified into one of two categories based on their talents: Talents of Aptitude and Talents of Mysteries. Both Enne’s blood and split talent were considered Talents of Aptitude; anyone could develop a skill in dancing or arithmetic, even if they would never compare to those born with a family talent.

Talents of Mysteries, however, couldn’t be learned. Crudely put, they were magic—and even the Mizer kings, who’d had powerful Talents of Mysteries of their own, had considered them to be a threat. Before the Revolution, there had been harsh restrictions on where people could live and who they could marry based on their talents. It was one of the many reasons the Mizers were overthrown. And so Enne was shocked to find such a classification in an official document in New Reynes, the Republic’s capital, the home of the Revolution. It was archaic. Distasteful.

She signed her name in her best calligraphic script, ready to move on.

With a dreadful thud, the man pounded her passport with a wooden stamp bearing the Republic’s insignia, a circle with a bolt of lightning inside, meant to resemble an orb full of volts. The signature of Chancellor Malcolm Semper—the “Father of the Revolution,” and still the Republic’s leader twenty-five years later—was engraved over it.

Handing her the papers, the customs man said, “Enjoy New Reynes.”

As if she could enjoy herself when her mother was lost in this rotten city.

Enne shoved her way out of the crowd and stared blankly at the vast New Reynes skyline. At the unfamiliar fashions of the people around her. At the bleakness of the city’s polluted sky. She had no idea where to begin. As she crossed the street, the people waiting to be reunited with their families looked straight through her, as though she didn’t exist.

On her tiptoes, Enne scanned the crowd for Lourdes, for her pale blond hair or signature crimson scarf. She was nowhere.

With the passing of each day beyond Lourdes’s deadline, Enne had begun to crack. As weeks lapsed, then months, the cracks had deepened and spread. Now, as she held her breath and desperately searched the faces of the strangers around her, she felt that she was more broken than not. One exhale, one sob, and all her pieces would shatter.

Lourdes is alive, she assured herself, just as she had done every day for months. The repetition of the words steadied her more than the words themselves.

Lourdes was alive. She was in this city. And Enne would find her.

She repeated the mantra several times, like twisting the key a porcelain doll, winding herself back together.

Never allow yourself to be lost, Enne recited in her head. That was Lourdes’s second rule.

But she wasn’t lost. She was terrified, and that was worse to admit.

She was terrified that—no matter how many times she recited Lourdes’s rules, or how many times she wound herself back together—she’d made a dangerous mistake in thinking she could brave the City of Sin. If the stories were true, she was a schoolgirl who had just wandered into the city of the wolves.

She was terrified that Lourdes was dead, just as her mother had warned.

Lastly, she was terrified of finding her. For all of Enne’s life, it had been only her and Lourdes and no one else. Lourdes was her home, but that home had many locked doors. Her mother had rooms full of secrets Enne had been forbidden to see, secrets Enne had pretended didn’t exist.

Once she found Lourdes, it was past time Enne opened those doors.

Hands shaking, Enne pulled Where To Go and Where Not To from her pocket and turned the pages to the city map. The Brint River split New Reynes into two halves: the North and the South. She was currently in the harbor, the smallest district of the notorious North Side.

If a storm were to further delay my return or another unforeseen circumstance occurs, you can speak to Mr. Levi Glaisyer, a friend of mine who lives in New Reynes. He will be glad to help you.

That was from the mysterious letter Lourdes had sent Enne a month after Lourdes had left home. Enne had never heard of this Mr. Levi Glaisyer, nor had she the least idea how to find him. On the map, she scanned the various neighborhoods of the much more refined South Side: the Senate District, the Park District, the Student District…he could live anywhere.

Two police officers slumped against the wall of a warehouse, talking to a boy roughly Enne’s age. The officers wore tarnished white boots and jackets buttoned from hips to throat, the threads frayed, the pits stained, the collars scuffed.

The boy speaking to them had a harsh face, like someone had carved his features with a razor so that they sharpened as he scowled. His shoulder bones, hip bones and wrist bones all jutted out uncomfortably, stretching his skin taut, and he wore an oversized collared shirt that only extenuated his gaunt frame. His brown hair was wildly disheveled.

While the officers’ uncleanliness was off-putting, the authorities were probably a good place to start her search. Enne pocketed her guidebook and approached.

“Show us your hands,” the first officer ordered the boy. He was tall with teeth like a shark—one of them gold.

The boy held up his palms. “Happy? No scars.”

“How about rolling up your sleeves, then?” Shark asked slyly. The second officer nodded, a cigar dangling from his mouth. Enne fought the urge to cover her nose. The stench of it.

The boy reached for his sleeves, then stopped. Although Enne had little notion what they were discussing, she could sense the tension in their words. The boy seemed to be in some kind of trouble.

“What?” Shark said, an ugly smile playing at his lips. “Got tattoos you don’t want us to see?”

Enne jumped forward at the boy’s hesitation, both to save him from whatever unpleasant conversation was unfolding, and because she didn’t have the time to wait. Who knew how long it would take her to find Lourdes?

“Excuse me,” Enne interrupted. She flashed her best, practiced smile. All three of them ran their eyes over her plainly tailored suit and high-necked blouse. Amid the flashier haute couture of the women around her, she knew she stuck out as a tourist.

Enne cleared her throat nervously. “I’m looking for someone. I was hoping you’d be kind enough to assist me.”

“Sure, missy,” Shark said as he elbowed Cigar suggestively. “We’d be glad to help ya. But we have to deal with him, first.”

“You can’t arrest me,” the boy growled. “I ain’t done anything,”

“Then show us your arms and prove you’re not an Iron.”

The boy didn’t move, only glared at the officers.

“Please,” Enne interrupted again. “I’m looking for a woman named Lourdes Alfero. She’s been missing since February.” Enne drew the letter from Lourdes out of her pocket and unfolded it. “She gave me the name of a Mr. Levi Glais—”

“Alfero?” Shark repeated. “Why you lookin’ for her?” He shoved the boy aside and advanced on Enne. He was two heads taller than her, and twice as wide. Enne was swallowed beneath his shadow.

“Um…” Enne stammered, the words dying on her tongue.

The other man dropped his cigar and ground it into the dirt with his heel. “There’s probably a mistake. Ain’t that right, missy?” Enne glanced toward the boy, but he’d taken advantage of the distraction she’d provided and fled.

Her stomach knotted. Did they know something about Lourdes? Enne thought back to another line from Lourdes’s letter: I encountered a little trouble that has delayed my return…

“Who’s Lourdes Alfero to you?” Shark’s fingers twitched as he reached for something at his side. A gun.

“No one,” Enne said hurriedly, doing her best not to stutter. Never let anyone see your fear. Another one of Lourdes’s rules—one Enne was certainly breaking. Her chest tightened as Cigar stepped closer, close enough to grab her. “My apologies. I believe there’s been a mistake. Thank you very much for your time.”

Enne dragged her trunk back into the crowd before they could stop her. Her mind raced as she attempted to conjure some sort of explanation for the officers’ reactions. Surely, they must’ve confused her mother’s name with someone else’s.

An uneasiness settled into her stomach—maybe there’d been no mistake. She was in the center of the harbor landing, but all around her were locked doors, locked doors.

Someone tapped Enne’s shoulder. She shrieked and whipped around.

“Scare much?” The boy smirked.

“You know, it’s rude to startle people, and—” And she needed to get out of here.

“Look over my shoulder.” He leaned down like he was whispering in her ear, allowing her to see beyond him.

The two police officers pushed through the crowd in their direction. Enne’s hands began to sweat inside her lace gloves.

“Who are you?” he asked. “First you’re looking for Levi Glaisyer, and now you got the whiteboots tailing you.”

“You know Mr. Glaisyer?” How could a boy like this know a gentleman? He smelled like he slept in a sewer, and there was something about his face that unnerved her. Not so much his crooked frown as his crooked smile. He looked like a warning from her guidebook.

He rolled up his left sleeve to reveal a black tattoo of a club on the underside of his arm, like the card suit. It was small, halfway between his wrist and elbow. “Because I’m an Iron.”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with…the terminology.” Though even as she said it, Enne realized it did sound familiar. Something she had read in her guidebook, in the section about the North Side. Admittedly, she’d skipped most of those parts. The North Side’s reputation was so dirty, even its chapters in her guidebook looked a little bit stained.

The boy leaned down a second time. The whiteboots watched them from the end of the block, and Shark kept one hand on his gun. “You’re lost, missy. And walking straight into some muck. So take my advice: ditch your trunk, and scram. Playing nice is the same as losing in this city.” Before she could adequately digest what he’d said, he whispered, “Three, two, one.”

He took off.

Behind her, Shark and Cigar shoved their way toward her, cursing and knocking travelers aside. Enne whimpered, terrified, yet loath to abandon all her possessions.

But the decision took only a moment. She was lost, and the boy knew Mr. Glaisyer, Enne’s only connection to finding Lourdes. Maybe Mr. Glaisyer could explain the misunderstanding between the whiteboots and her mother. Maybe he possessed the key to those locked doors. And possessions could be replaced.

She dropped her trunk, yanked up the hem of her skirt, and sprinted after him.

The boy ran two blocks past the end of the harbor before turning down an alley. Wheezing, she forced her legs to move faster. Her heels clicked loudly with each step, and sweat dampened her forehead and undersleeves. Enne couldn’t remember the last time she’d run. This behavior must’ve breached every one of Lourdes’s rules.

The boy slipped down another alley up ahead, while Enne trailed fifty paces behind. What if she lost him? For every step she made, he’d already made three. He clearly had some sort of speed talent, which explained why his features were so angular—like he’d been made to be aerodynamic. She passed a pawn shop and an outdoor grocer, but no one looked twice at her, as if a girl fleeing from the authorities was a common morning occurrence in New Reynes. Maybe it was.

The next alley had no streetlights, and thanks to the black clouds and towering buildings, she could hardly see where her feet landed. Soon the noises of the main street—the motorcars, the shouting, the traffic whistles—disappeared, and it became eerily quiet. Only their footsteps remained. Enne’s heart pounded so hard, she felt the beats in her back.

The buildings here looked different, too. In the harbor, the shipping houses were made of a weathered white stone—the kind her guidebook described as characteristic of the city. But the architecture around her was gothic and black, full of spires and archways and wrought iron. Everything was sharp, a place designed to cut. To draw blood. It was the kind of dark where shadows didn’t exist. Wherever she was…she shouldn’t be here.

She turned a corner and found the boy waiting for her. He stood at the doorway of a house with boarded windows and shriveled ivy crawling up its gutters. He grabbed her by her blazer and jerked her inside. She crashed to the wooden floor.

They were in a dusty, unused kitchen. Two panels on the ceiling flickered with murky light.

The boy bent over her. “So, why are you looking for Pup?”

Enne scrambled to her feet and smoothed out her dress, hyperaware of how inappropriate their situation was. They were alone in goodness knows where. She didn’t know his name. She didn’t even know what he wanted.

What had she done?

No emotions, no fear, she thought. She smiled and adjusted her posture, but that couldn’t have made much of an impression, panting and sweating as she was.

“Well, I’m actually looking for my mother, Lourdes Alfero,” Enne explained. “She mentioned Mr. Glaisyer to me in a letter. She said he’d be glad to help.”

“I never knew Pup to be glad to help anyone,” he said darkly. “Sure you got the right man?”

Dread blossomed in her like black ink soaking through paper. Could there have been some other mistake? “I believe so,” she replied meekly. “How are you acquainted with him?”

“Acquainted?” he echoed. With his thick New Reynes accent, he didn’t pronounce the t. It reminded Enne that she was awfully far away from home.

“How do you know Mr. Glaisyer?” she asked.

“Everyone does,” he answered. “He’s the lord.”

Footsteps thudded down a staircase, and two others entered the kitchen. The first was another boy, also about Enne’s age. He had a soldier’s look to him: broad shoulders, a shirt too tight for his muscular build and an expression like he was never much surprised about anything—that, or he didn’t care. Black-and-white tattoos covered his arms, some disappearing into his sleeve, snaking up his neck. Among them were two small ones, the only ones with color: a red J on one arm, and a diamond on the next, in the same places as the first boy’s. He wore his trousers cuffed and his blond hair slicked back underneath a newsboy cap.

Like a gangster, she thought. She took a step closer to the door.

The other person was a girl, maybe thirteen years old. She had golden skin and thick black hair, which was cut bobbed and jagged. She wore men’s clothes that were several sizes too large and a pair of ruby earrings that Enne imagined she’d stolen. On the underside of her forearms, just like the boys, she had two tattoos: a black spade on the left, a five on the right.

The boys met each other’s eyes sternly. “Where’ve you been, Chez?” the soldier one demanded. “And where—” his eyes wandered over to Enne “—did you find a missy like this?”

“Near Tropps Street. She was wandering around…an easy target, really—”

“You’re a bad liar,” the soldier one said. “You’ve been pickpocketing at the harbor again. You know Levi has business with the whiteboot captain. Business worth a lot more than a few volts in some tourist’s pocket.”

Enne perked up at the mention of Levi. So they both knew him.

“Then where’s my paycheck, Jac?” Chez growled. “Where’s her paycheck?” He gestured toward the girl. When the soldier boy—Jac—didn’t respond, Chez added, “I found this missy asking the whiteboots about Pup—I mean, about Levi. Levi and some other person. Then they started tailing her.” Chez took a switchblade out of his pocket and flipped it between his knuckles—deftly, expertly. Enne’s mouth dried, and she hugged her purse to her side. “She’s kinda thick.”

Jac tugged at his cap and nodded at Enne, who tried not to appear nervous. From his build, Enne guessed he had a strength talent. If he grabbed her, she wouldn’t be able to escape. And if she ran, Chez would catch her.

They all knew Levi Glaisyer, but something was wrong. Without knowing why, she felt trapped. Twenty minutes in the city, and she’d already made a dangerous mistake.

Jac stepped closer to Enne and stared at her with such intensity that, if not for years of etiquette training, would’ve made her drop her gaze to the floor. Lost or not, strength and speed talents or not, she refused to let them know they intimidated her.

“What’s your name?” he asked, arms crossed.

“Enne,” she said, clearly, loudly, as if answering roll call rather than speaking to a potential delinquent.

Don’t speak about yourself unless asked. Never show fear. Never allow yourself to be lost. No emotions. Don’t trust anyone unless you must.

Lourdes had drilled dozens of rules into Enne in the hope that they would become second nature. Usually, they were. Sometimes Enne could hear her mother’s voice in her head, whispering about etiquette and precautions. But right now, all she could focus on was Chez’s knife twirling around his index finger and the seriousness in Jac’s gray eyes. Even the girl looked threatening, and she was younger than Enne.

Enne held her breath, but even so, she felt herself cracking…shattering.

“Enne? That’s a letter, ain’t it?” Jac asked.

“Yes.” She didn’t hide her astonishment well, but the boy didn’t seem to notice.

“You from around here?”

“I’m from Bellamy.”

“Quite a journey.” He smiled, and she relaxed a bit when she noticed his dimples and the way his ears stuck out. “When did you get here?”

“An hour ago.” A wave of nausea crashed over her when she remembered that she’d left her trunk with all her belongings near the harbor. Someone would’ve stolen them since then. Now her only means of paying for her stay in New Reynes and her ticket home were the thousand volts she was carrying, meant to last an entire summer. She hadn’t anticipated buying new clothes or other necessities while in the city.

She was lost, surrounded by strangers, and all she had were the contents of her purse. And it was—mostly—her own fault.

When she caught Chez and the girl both staring hungrily at her bag, she hugged it closer.

Fear. Lost. Emotions. Trusting… Were there rules for when she was breaking every rule?

“I don’t know why you wanna see Levi,” Jac said, shaking her trembling hand, “but anyone who outruns two whiteboots on their first day here seems trustworthy in my book.”

Even if he trusted her, Enne knew better than to trust him. She knew better than to trust anyone in New Reynes. Except, hopefully, this Levi Glaisyer.

“Levi will be here in an hour,” he said, and those were the only words that held her together. “He’s busy, and I can’t make promises, but I’ll make sure he talks to you.” He took her arm and led her to the sitting room, his smile a little too wide, his grip a little too tight. “I’m Jac Mardlin. Allow me to be your official welcome to the City of Sin.”

 

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