Read an Excerpt From Vanessa Le’s The Last Bloodcarver

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Vanessa Le’s The Last Bloodcarver, a young adult novel set in a Vietnam-inspired fantasy world—out from Roaring Brook Press on March 9.

In the industrial city of Theumas, Nhika is seen not as a healer, but a monster that kills for pleasure. And in the city’s criminal underbelly, the rarest of monsters are traded for gold. When Nhika is finally caught by the infamous Butchers, she’s forced to heal the last witness to a high-profile murder.

As Nhika delves into the investigation, all signs point to Ven Kochin, an alluring yet entitled physician’s aide. Despite his relentless attempts to push her out of his opulent world, something inexplicable draws Nhika to him. But when she discovers Kochin is not who he claims to be, Nhika will be faced with a greater, more terrifying evil lurking in the city’s center…

Her only chance to survive lies in a terrible choice—become the dreaded monster the city fears, or risk jeopardizing the future of her kind.

Consciousness returned to her in the form of monkey chatter and birdsong, and then the chill of a cold floor beneath her. Pain came last, itching its way back under her skin despite her attempts to silence it. Every leak she plugged only caused another to spout.

Her cheek stung against the gritty concrete. With a groan, Nhika collected herself to a sitting position, eyes adjusting to the dark. Now she saw where the chatter came from—she was in a menagerie, turtles and colorful birds and monkeys stacked in cages, some dead. And she, a bloodcarver, was just another caged animal sitting in the midst of it. It was a small warehouse, and yet the Butchers had managed to stuff in as many black-market commodities as they could—ivory tusks spanning one table and powdered something or other caked into squares on another. Still more merchandise lay behind stapled wooden crates, labeled HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.

So, this was the Butchers’ Row.

With a jolt, she remembered her ring. Nhika fumbled through her layered clothing with shackled wrists, ribs and shoulders wailing at every movement, until she found it still tangled around her neck; the Butchers must not have deemed it valuable enough to take. And truly, it wasn’t—not to anyone but her. It was made of bone and onyx, with a fracture down the center from the fire. No one else could read the inscription on the inner band, three characters that formed her familial name: Suonyasan. No one else would find value in those insets of bone along the onyx, each fragment taken from a heartsooth in her lineage. No one else would notice that the band was incomplete, with space yet meant for her grandmother, for her, for those who were supposed to come after.

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The Last Bloodcarver

The Last Bloodcarver

Vanessa Le

She tucked the ring back under her collar, then rose. Each breath came with a stabbing ache, but she knew her body intimately enough to understand what it was trying to tell her. Nhika staggered forward, fingers catching the chicken-wire mesh of her cage as she scanned for an escape.

Now she’d really done it. She’d played into many Yarongese stereotypes when she learned most Theumans wouldn’t see her any other way—the blood-hungry bloodcarver, the sea-loving immigrant, the hapless charity case—but now she’d fallen into a new one: a ware in the Butchers’ Row. Another item to cross off the list. Nhika felt no one could put her in a pigeonhole if she climbed in there herself, but this particular trope was deadlier than the rest. She tried not to think about how the Butchers’ Row had commodified other bloodcarvers before her as exotic goods, and she didn’t linger on the fate that awaited her if the wrong client purchased her. No, she was going to get the hell out of here.

A monkey perked up at her movement, then moved to the corner of its cage to watch her, head cocked.

“Hey, little guy,” she cooed, dragging herself toward him. “We’re stuck in this together, aren’t we?” She extended a hand, three fingers pressed together as though she held a treat. It piqued his interest and he reached out, tiny fingers scrabbling at hers.

With newfound speed, she snatched his arm. From that touch, she flooded his anatomy with her own consciousness. She made it quick, shutting down his pain receptors before stopping his heart. That was easy to do with animals, much harder on humans; humans could feel her influence, so their own anatomies fought her for control. Animals were never so lucky; the monkey collapsed, and from his still-warm body she siphoned all his energy stores before they could dissipate in death.

With the newfound calories and nutrients, Nhika restored some of her wounds. She released the calcium from his bones to deposit into her own, reappropriated the components of his lustrous hair to seal the splits in her skin. Tissue generation was always an expensive process, and she sucked the monkey dry of his energy, watching as his body stiffened and seized with rigor mortis. It was a kinder fate than what awaited him on the Butchers’ Row, if the table of severed monkey paws was any indication.

Some of her pain ebbed, the receptors satisfied with her soothing. Nhika stood, giving the monkey a grateful look. “Thank you. And, erm . . . ​sorry about that.”

His corpse twitched in understanding.

Now, for her escape.

She yanked at the chicken wire, but it’d been fastened tightly. Then she jiggled the door, not surprised to find it locked. Nhika frowned. In Yarongese folklore, there were bloodcarvers who could give themselves superhuman abilities: a rhino’s strength by maximizing the chemistry of their musculature, or unbreakable bones by perfecting their calcium matrices. Of course, she knew only of the legends. Her parents had fled Yarong long before she’d been born, and those abilities—if ever they truly existed—had been left on the island.

Nhika didn’t dare try those tricks now for fear of wrecking her own anatomy in the process. A stone of calcium deposited in the wrong place, a muscle grafted to the wrong bone . . . ​She’d need more than monkeys to fix all of that. While Yarongese people with her gift had the ability to alter anatomy through touch and thought alone, it was as much a science as medicine, each procedure requiring practice and study like any surgery might. But desperation was a powerful motivator.

Before she could get desperate enough to experiment, the click of lights echoed around the warehouse and the rafters came alive with incandescent bulbs. Nhika’s eyes adjusted again, blinking away the temporary blindness as the broad expanse of the warehouse came into full view. Creatures woke from slumber in the corners of the building, and she could see a metal door on one side, crowded with boxes, from which a group of people emerged.

They meandered their way between pillars of crates toward her, admiring wares on the way. A crocodile here, some snakes there—yes, yes, all fascinating, but Nhika knew she was the true marvel.

“And here we have her,” said a woman at the front of the group. Her clothing was a mere imitation of refinement, with wraps of colored rayon and scarves to conceal a too-tight dress. Two of Nhika’s captors were in her attendance, followed by a stately gentleman she assumed was the client. He had the posture of an aristocrat, back straight and neck angled, as though he was accustomed to looking down on people. A fine black robe, embroidered with silver herons, draped his shoulders to reveal a well-tailored dress shirt underneath.

He narrowed his eyes as he scrutinized her.

Good, there was a doubt there, and his lips pursed with the haughtiness of a man with something to prove. He looked her up and down, seeming unimpressed by what she had to offer, before passing the Butcher a trenchant look that held a silent question: Is she real?

“She fell down the side of a building just this morning,” noted one of her captors, as though by way of explanation. “Now look at her. Back on her feet. She’s healed herself.”

“Oh? Was I meant to act injured?” Nhika quipped.

The client leaned forward, hands clasped behind his back and eyes narrowed. “I want proof before purchase. I’m not interested in consuming a regular human.”

“Proof?” The Butchers looked uneasily between one another, but all Nhika heard was that he was planning on eating her. Panic spiked, slipping through her control, and she staggered backward in the cage. She’d heard of the superstition, something about how eating the heart of a bloodcarver could grant immortality, or good health, or libido—it changed with each iteration. All false, of course, but that had never stopped the Butchers’ Row.

The woman cleared her throat. “Certainly. I, um . . .”

“A knife, if you would,” the man said, holding out a gloved hand.

“What are you intending?” the woman asked, eyes narrowed.

“If she’s a bloodcarver, she would heal a fatal wound,” he said. When they didn’t give him a weapon, he scoffed and perused the tables, finding a knife near the animal cages still crusted in monkey blood.

The Butcher opened and closed her mouth with quiet protests, and at last she managed, “You would injure one of my wares?”

“Yeah, you would injure one of her wares?” Nhika echoed.

“It would not be an injury if she’s truly a bloodcarver,” the client reasoned. “Isn’t that right?”

Nhika prayed the Butchers would keep insisting, but they only exchanged nervous glances before the woman dipped her head in resignation. Nhika threw up her hands. “Hold on a moment. Let’s talk this through. You’re a smart man—you caught the farce. I’ll admit it: I’m a fake! No need to trouble yourself for proof,” she babbled, her eyes trailing from his knife to his face. His impassive expression told her that murder was little more than an inconvenience to him.

Her gaze flicked to the monkey cages. Would she have enough energy to heal a fatal wound? And even if she did, her fate was determined—he’d buy her and chop her up for parts. Her bones would get powdered into tea and her liver eaten with shark fin soup, as though her gift of bloodcarving could survive beyond the grave.

Nhika swallowed. Perhaps, if she could feign death, bleed out in front of his eyes without dying, he’d pass her over. That’d give her more time for escape. But how? How? Her mind raced for ideas, recalling the old anatomy books she and her grandmother had stolen from medical colleges. How to die without dying? How to survive as a corpse?

The jangle of the padlock rattled her back to the present focus. The client was unlocking the door and she considered escape. But her legs and hands were chained—how far could she go? She searched the Butchers for a key ring.

“Careful, Mr. Zen, sir,” the woman cautioned, her expression pained. Not for Nhika, but for her client. “One touch and she has access to all your vital organs. It’s a certain death.”

“I’m well aware,” Mr. Zen said, but he opened the door anyway.

Nhika bolted, but he grabbed her wrists with a gloved hand and drove the blade straight into her gut.

The pain came before she could react. Nhika doubled forward, then fell to the floor as he withdrew the blade. She gasped on the concrete as her blood pooled beneath her. Her mind reeled with panic, so many emotions lighting up her attention at once, all her body’s alarms flaring, every muscle clenched against the threat of death. Too much to parse through. Overwhelming. So much blood. She was dying.

No. Her focus returned to her, sharp above the muddle of her pain. Breathe, Nhika, breathe. She would not survive all these years alone only to die here, in the Butchers’ Row—no, she’d make sure her death meant something.

Pain receptors off. Her skin fizzled to silence. There, now she had room to think. Next, she muted the buzz of adrenaline and stress hormones coursing through her—she’d take it manually from here.

First, stop the bleeding. She’d lost too much already in her floundering, but now she pulled every last ounce of energy out of her stores to mend tissue, starting from the inside out. Organs first, to stop the internal hemorrhaging. And then the peritoneum, to hold her viscera in place. As for her skin, she let that weep a little, just for show—convince him she wasn’t a bloodcarver; give him nothing to bid for. She would not heal herself today just to get eaten tomorrow.

She’d have to fake shock. That wouldn’t be hard; her body was already preparing for it. But she shunted her remaining blood inward, constricting superficial vessels, until she was sure she looked as pale and colorless as a Theuman. She felt the remainder of her fuel dwindling like a candle on its last inch of wick, and she bled it conservatively to feed her charade.

The client clicked his tongue. “Just Yarongese. Figured as much.”

“No!” one of her captors protested. “She’s faking it. I can assure you. She’ll have a pulse.”

Oh, Mother. If they checked her pulse, it’d be over. She couldn’t risk shutting off her carotid, or else she’d truly be dead.

Keys jangled again. Nhika considered giving up her play and accepting her fate. Instead, she prepared to jump him, to suck him dry of his energy stores and escape the place. At the moment, with her body in torpor and her energy reserved, the very thought of moving sowed fatigue into her bones.

But when he stooped beside her, he didn’t check her neck. Instead, he took her hand. Nhika resisted the smile. While she couldn’t shut off blood to her brain, she didn’t mind clamping off a radial artery.

The client placed gloved fingers at the edge of her wrist, but she’d already constricted the vessel. His fingers pressed deeper, trying to feel for a pulse through his silk gloves, and he waited a laboriously long time. Numbness needled its way into her thumb, tingles spiking across her palm, before he finally lifted his fingers.

Blood flooded back into her hand. The client clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Look what you’ve made me do. I’ve killed a girl for nothing.”

“She’s still breathing, I assure you,” the woman protested. Nhika remembered to hold her breath.

“Enough of this,” the client snapped. She heard the clatter of a knife. “The next time you call me, make sure it’s not over a ghost story.”

There was silence, and then footsteps, growing farther away from the cage. In the distance, the door opened and banged shut.

Someone slammed a fist against her cage, rattling the bars. “You insufferable witch,” the Butcher growled, the malice in her voice lethal. “Wake up. I know you’re alive.”

Nhika opened an eye. Then another. Only the Butchers remained, and she rolled herself onto her back, too spent to sit up. Blood stained the floor, caking her hair to her face and wetting her clothes. She was alive, though she must’ve looked like a corpse.

“You won’t be able to pull that trick every time,” the woman spat.

“What trick?” Nhika rasped. “Your client wanted a demonstration. I thought I put on quite a show.” She licked blood from her teeth, her stomach flipping with hunger at its sweetness. “If you don’t mind, I need food.”

“You think you can make demands here?”

“Healing expends a tremendous amount of calories. If you don’t feed me, my death won’t be an act.”

“No more tricks, bloodcarver.”

Nhika drew herself up against the back of her cage, feeling the mesh dig into her skin. Everything felt a little raw, the skin learning to feel again after she’d shunted away its blood. “Let’s make a deal. If you can find a buyer who doesn’t plan on killing or eating me, I’ll be cooperative.”

The woman gathered her things to leave, hesitating with an answer. Nhika wondered if she was actually considering it, making bargains with her merchandise. But she turned to leave with her lackeys and gave a huff as a final parting gift. “We’ll sell you to the highest bidder. What they plan to do with you is not my concern.” icon-paragraph-end

Excerpted from The Last Bloodcarver, copyright © 2024 by Vanessa Le.

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