Read Bound by Ink (A Living Ink Novel) Online
Authors: Marcella Burnard
Titles by Marcella Burnard
Bound by Ink
Bound by Ink
InterMix Books, New York
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
BOUND BY INK
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / November 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Marcella Burnard.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63023-5
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Art saves lives, shining a light into the shadowed corners of the soul. Until it brushes you up against something best left in the dark.
Heat, wet and ripe with the scent of decaying plant material, constricted Isa’s ribs. It had no effect on the cold inside. Birds chattered unseen in foliage that did not reach into the plaza to shade her. Leaves rustled when spider monkeys shrieked and chased one another in conflict over a morsel of fruit.
She couldn’t look up, couldn’t turn her attention from sculpting blue pigment mixed with clay. The color was sacred, but the drops of her blood added to the mix ought to entice the gods to hear her supplication. The skin of her hands took on the stain of the material she worked as a plea to be made whole. To be made warm and human.
The flesh between her shoulder blades tightened as, around her, every last sound of life fell silent.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. It resolved into words that rattled her fragile bones. “Brother. A petitioner.”
Wind, laden with the sweet-sick reek of death, brushed exploratory fingers across her skin, testing, weighing. And found her unworthy.
Terror shot a scream into her throat. She clamped her teeth on it until she tasted blood.
Lightning struck. Frigid electricity exploded through her, outlining every fiber of her in cold agony, casting her into the hard-packed dirt.
“Holy shit, Isa,” a shaking feminine voice said. “What the fuck was that?”
Isa Romanchzyk drew a shallow breath, expecting pain and the stink of rotting flesh. She got neither. Frowning, she blinked her eyes open to stare at the exposed steel I-beams of her tattoo shop’s basement ceiling.
She’d been remembering how to paint on something other than a person’s skin. Therapy, her friends had said, to help her cope with having gotten rid of a Living Tattoo who’d wanted to kill her and take over her body for his own use.
How had she ended up on the floor dreaming of a jungle she’d never seen?
She glanced at the stairway.
Cheri, one of Isa’s friends, teetered on a riser halfway down the stairs, uncertainty in her white-knuckled grip on the railing.
“I don’t know what that was,” Isa said. She shivered at the uneasiness skittering up her spine.
Cheri’s gaze flicked from Isa to the canvas still on the easel. Her brown eyes widened. She came the rest of the way down the stairs, slowly at first, then gathering speed like iron shavings attracted by a magnet. “My God, Isa. Is that what you’ve been working on? That piece is amazing.”
Piece? Isa sat up and looked. The blood rushed out of her head.
The canvas was half sculpture, half painting. Textured Maya blue clay hinted at tumbled-down pyramids. Red slashed the heart of the piece so it looked as if the canvas bled. Unsettling shadows and ripped shreds of black cloth—her sweatshirt, she gathered—had settled like vultures in the midst of the canvas. She remembered creating none of it.
“You certainly tapped into—something,” Cheri said. She shook her head and turned her back on the canvas. “Hey. Oki’s going-away party started. Can you leave this and come have a beer?”
“I think I’d better,” Isa mumbled. “Go on ahead. I’m going home first to change into clothes without paint. Or holes.”
Cheri nodded and started up the stairs. “We’ll be waiting.”
Isa scrambled to her feet and fled to the sink to scrub the drying blue clay from her hands. The clay washed away.
The Maya blue would not.
Even though Isa had agreed to put in an appearance at the party, she hadn’t intended to end up in a crowd. Certainly not a crowd of people comfortable inside their own skins.
Yet after turning tail on the inexplicable artwork in her basement to go change clothes, she stood in the early afternoon April rain outside the Tractor Tavern, staring at a sign plastered to the door that said
. It sat atop a poster for her piercing artist—her friend—Nathalie’s band, Rage of the Raptors.
A guy in skinny jeans and a faded black sweater, with wisps of stringy blond hair poking out from beneath the knit cap pulled low on his head, came out the front door for a smoke. A guitar riff followed him out into the cold afternoon like a lost puppy.
Nathalie and Troy had invited her to Oki’s going-away party, and to the show, like they always had.
Isa had said no. Like she always had. Out of habit. Or self-pity maybe. Or was it out of self-preservation? She was a day late and a dollar short on that one. She should have known Troy would send his wife, Cheri, to haul Isa out of the basement of Nightmare Ink, the tattoo shop Troy, Isa, and Nathalie shared.
Isa had once wanted nothing more than to be normal. That possibility had gone up in smoke when Daniel Alvarez had kidnapped and tattooed her with Live Ink against her will. The tattoo had been designed to steal her magic, her sanity, and ultimately, her life. Instead, the tattoo she’d named Murmur and she had negotiated an uneasy truce. Then they’d stumbled on a way to give him what he’d wanted.
Daniel had tried to sacrifice Murmur and Isa. He’d ended up sacrificing himself and his Living Tattoo instead. Maybe she and Murmur had helped make that happen, sure, but it hadn’t gone well for them, either.
Daniel had died.
Murmur had ripped out her throat, taken over Daniel’s body, healed it, and then healed Isa.
Now Murmur was gone. Free.
Isa should have been relieved. Yet three weeks after the fact, she could still taste the smoky caramel of their first and last kiss. And she craved him in ways she’d never imagined were possible.
Within her psyche, an ice-cold razor traced the outline of where Murmur had been. Isa shivered. Driven by longing for something she couldn’t have and shouldn’t want, she went inside. A young woman glanced at Isa’s ID, checked off a list, and nodded.
A simple, sweet melody rang from a single guitar on a darkened stage. A scent that seemed to be a combination of sweat—the kind from exertion rather than nerves—and alcohol hung in the air.
Sound resonated through her as if her barren soul had no further purpose but to vibrate in sympathy with Nathalie’s guitar.
Lights exploded on, aimed at the stage.
The tiny audience roared.
All four women on stage picked up the strand of melody and turned it into a pounding, driving beat.
Music and dancing bodies filled the room. A few people clung to stools and their drinks, tapping their feet or swaying in their seats.
Isa spotted Troy’s tall, broad-shouldered frame in the middle of the dance floor. It took another second of staring to find Cheri.
Hugging the shadows near the edges of the room, Isa looked for an empty spot where she could watch Nat’s girl band perform their brand of blues-y, angry white chick rock while Troy and Cheri danced.
Someone dancing beside them, black hair flying, stopped dead. She stood stock-still amid the gyrating throng and peered at Isa.
Glittering starlight magic brushed Isa’s cheek.
Oki Oshakagiri, the reason for the party. She’d used her power on Isa’s behalf, chasing down research rabbit holes and coming back with exactly what Isa had needed. Oki had caught the attention of the Imperial Order of Living Art in Japan. They’d recruited her.
Isa suppressed a groan. Not only was it her fault that Oki was leaving for Tokyo that evening, Oki had caught Isa lurking in the shadows.
Oki spun, gesturing as if she meant to flag down a naval carrier. Dancers dodged.
Troy stopped mid-bounce.
Cheri led the charge to Isa’s position. Troy’s diminutive wife had an explosion of curly brown hair and pale skin in a heart-shaped face that sported a spray of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. She hit maybe five foot four, but she cantered off that dance floor.
Isa had never seen anyone that small move so fast. She waited for Cheri to body check any of the dancers who weren’t quick enough to get out of her way.
“Isa!” she crowed. “Come on! We’ve got a table set up in the back. I’m going to get that beer.”
The song ended.
The crowd yelled and whistled approval.
Nathalie stepped up to a mike beside the bass player and added her voice to the lead singer’s as they started the next song.
“This way,” Troy said. The former bouncer turned tattoo artist played ice breaker through the enthusiastic dancers.
Cheri angled toward the bar.
Isa couldn’t do anything but follow in Troy’s wake. He led the way to a table tucked into a shadowed corner beside the bar where it couldn’t be a mortal danger to the people on the dance floor.
“This is it,” Troy said. “Let me get your coat.”
He took Isa’s rain jacket from her shoulders and draped it over an empty chair.
Isa sat and shifted so she could see the band.
Onstage, Nathalie waved. She’d dropped out of the duet. Grinning, she applied herself to the strings of her guitar, her eyes suspiciously red.
Isa had no idea how Nat could see her past the glare of the lights.
“One pitcher of porter and an extra glass,” Cheri announced, plunking the glass before her.
“Where’s Austin?” Isa asked.
“The ankle-biter, by which I mean my beloved son, is hanging with my folks,” Cheri said, “who, I discovered, have a bunch of my cast-off canvas. I’m not going back to painting. Since you are, I’ll bring you the canvas.”
Isa lifted her palms, stained bright, vibrant blue, for Cheri to see. “You’ve done enough, thanks.”
Cheri stared, then doubled over, cackling.
“That is so disturbing,” Isa said.
Oki grabbed one of Isa’s hands. “What the hell?”
“Maya blue,” Isa said, “a pigment someone sent Cheri. She wasn’t into it. And I’ve discovered it doesn’t wash off.”
“Cheri had me bring it to Ice when I mentioned Isa had taken up painting again,” Troy said between chuckles.
Wiping her eyes, Cheri sobered and filled Isa’s glass, then everyone else’s. She dropped into the seat next to Isa.
Troy picked up his chair, spun it so he could straddle it facing the stage, and sat beside his wife.
Oki took up position on Isa’s other side. “Thanks for coming, Ice! I didn’t think I’d see you again before I had to fly out.”
“I had no idea you guys had bought out the Tractor.”
“Only because we agreed to a Thursday afternoon,” Troy said.
“I know how this sounds, but who are all these people?” Isa asked.
Oki downed half her beer, then said, “Friends from the university, some customers. There’s Cynthia from the yoga shop. You know. People like you who wanted to see me before I fly off.”
Isa watched Oki polish off her beer and then reach for the pitcher. “Do you intend to be sober when you get on that plane for Tokyo?”
“Yes,” she said, after downing half of her second glass. “Have to be at the airport a couple of hours early. That’s enough time to sober up, right? I can’t face Mom crying anymore. Not sober.”
“I feel a little of her pain.” Isa grimaced. “It’s selfish, but who’s going to bring me California rolls?”
“Hey, if you cry, I swear I’ll dump what’s left of the beer on your head,” Oki said.
Cheri grabbed the pitcher. “Don’t you dare!”
“Your California roll is officially no longer my problem.” Oki grinned. “I’ll be able to dish up better stuff where I’m going.”
Nodding, Isa breathed in a slow, thin stream of air. It did nothing to stabilize the feeling that another chunk of the world was crumbling beneath her feet.
“The library of the Imperial Order of Living Art,” Isa said. “While it’ll be nice to have someone I haven’t pissed off in a position to look stuff up for me, I’m learning to hate change.”
Oki and Cheri laughed.
“Any wisdom for the departing student?” Oki asked. “Tell me the rules.”
Isa blinked. “I must have misplaced my copy of the rulebook. I didn’t think rules had been worked out in the past fifty to one hundred years that magic has been a thing.”
“But you do everything a certain way,” Troy protested.
“Sure. The way I was trained,” Isa said and looked around a circle of glum faces. “Okay. Maybe we start the manual of magic. My first rule would be: Train hard so you know your limits and your abilities. Find out what they are before someone else does.”
“Whoa,” Oki said. “That starts us right off on a paranoid note. I like it. What else?”
“Same rules as life, I’d say. Be a decent human being. Help people. Protect the innocent. Defend life. Respect death.”
“Now you’re writing a philosophy treatise,” Cheri said.
“I don’t think you could grow up with the three elders I grew up with and not,” Isa said.
“I was hoping for something like, ‘You’ll be able to find six unlikely things a day. After that hit the sake and give it up,’” Oki said.
“How many unlikely things have you found in one day?” Isa asked.
Oki wrinkled her nose. “I—It’s not like that. The expenditure of energy goes on for days while I loop down a spiral, circling ever closer to the thing I need. It’s like a lost kid, you know? Hiding and crying. I have to zero in on the crying.”
Isa sat back. “Congratulations. You’ve written your own first rule.”
“Hey! Great work.” Troy lifted his beer glass in toast.
“What are your rules, Ice?” Cheri asked.
Isa wanted to offer a flip answer. She couldn’t. “I wish I could tell you. It isn’t that I don’t want to. It’s that everything has shifted inside, and I can’t help thinking that the rules I’ve internalized and built my practice on were for a game that has changed in a way I don’t yet understand.”
The three of them stared at her.
Cheri put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s the aftereffect of losing your tattoo. It has to be. Your reality got turned inside out twice, first when Daniel forced that Ink on you, and then, second, when that Ink came off in the worst possible way. Give it time.”
“Maybe so,” Isa said. “If you don’t like the philosophy treatise as rule two, try this on for size. I was taught that magic is only as good as your concentration and focus. I don’t know if you can train to get more magic, I suspect every branch of the military is researching to find out, but I do know that concentration is a muscle. It can be developed.”