We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Freedom Race, Lucinda Roy’s explosive first foray into speculative fiction—available July 13th from Tor Books.
In the aftermath of a cataclysmic civil war known as the Sequel, ideological divisions among the states have hardened. In the Homestead Territories, an alliance of plantation-inspired holdings, Black labor is imported from the Cradle, and Biracial “Muleseeds” are bred.
Raised in captivity on Planting 437, kitchen-seed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Lottermule knows there is only one way to escape. She must enter the annual Freedom Race as a runner.
Ji-ji and her friends must exhume a survival story rooted in the collective memory of a kidnapped people and conjure the voices of the dead to light their way home.
Chapter 2: Tongues of Flame
“Your brother’ll be okay,” a voice said.
Guard Longsby squatted down beside her. He was patronizing her—employing the term brother even though he knew seeds weren’t classified as Siblings-Proper.
“The hell he will!” she cried, half hoping Lotter would hear her and return to teach her a lesson. If he did, she would rip his throat out. She gulped back tears and added, “You know what they do to Serverseeds in those camps? Treat ’em worse than dogs!”
“He’ll be okay,” the young guard repeated. Stupid, empty words. Platitudes.
They’d wound up next to the table. And there it was—Mam’s fork, exactly where she’d left it. Ji-ji reached up and grabbed it. She brought it down hard, aiming for Longsby’s hand. He jerked it away before she could stab him.
Quick as a flash, he grabbed her wrist, thrust his left knee into her abdomen, pushed her down, and flung his body on top of hers. He pounded her right hand into the floor until she dropped the fork. He was as heavy as lead.
“You itchin’ to wind up roped to the whippin’ post!”
Longsby’s face was close to hers. So close. His eyes—she could see them clearly now—were as icy blue as Lotter’s. She could smell his beard, almost expected it to be lavender-citrusy like Lotter’s. It wasn’t. It smelled waxy from the planting soap.
Ji-ji blurted out the first thing that came to her: “Your stupid beard looks like shit!”
“What the hell . . . ? You’re beggin’ for a whippin’!”
The young guard retrieved the fork and bounded up off the cabin floor in a single, agile move. “Who d’you think you are, Mule? I could have you strung up for that stunt.”
Before she could think of a way to dig herself in deeper, Lua and Aunt Marcie arrived. Lua ran to Ji-ji and flung her arms around her neck.
Longsby looked at Ji-ji like someone who couldn’t decide whether to smack her, report her, or forgive her. She didn’t want his forgiveness. She wanted to stab his hand with her mam’s fork until that weird smirk he often wore was torn from his face. The guard seemed to know what she was thinking. “Mind your mouth, y’hear?” he said, though she hadn’t said anything out loud. He placed the fork back on the table and hurried out.
Her attack had been stupid. No one attacked a guard and got away with it. If he reported her, she would be hauled up in front of Inquisitor Tryton and sentenced to solitary in PenPen. The fork would be deemed a deadly weapon. Unless Lotter intervened, she would be classified as a Wild Seed and stripped of her plum position as chief kitchen-seed—could even get shipped to the mines in the neighboring parishes of Appalachia. Ji-ji’s fury was mixed with an almost uncontrollable grief. Why had she and her mam assumed they could trust Lotter when everything told them seeds don’t get to hold on to something as beautiful and precious as Bonbon?
Thirty minutes passed . . . an hour. Lua and Aunt Marcie tried to comfort her, but Ji-ji was desperate to be alone and begged them to leave—said she had to get an hour or two of sleep before her early shift at the planting dining hall. They both protested.
“We don’t feel right ’bout leaving you, Ji-ji,” Lua argued. “You sure you ain’t about to do nothing reckless? Don’t forget you got something to cling to. Next year’s Big Race ain’t far off. Fourteen months.” Lua frowned. Math wasn’t her strong suit. “Fifteen months tops. You an’ Tiro’ll both be eligible next year. You the best runner we ever seen on the 437th, an’ Tiro’s the best flyer. Better’n any we got this year. Tiro flies like a bird in that coop—right, Mam?” Aunt Marcie nodded in agreement. “An’ you give a snarlcat a run for its money, Uncle Dreg says. After you win, you can petition for your mam. Petition for Bonbon too.”
Ji-ji wanted to scream—an earth-shattering scream, powerful enough to split open the crust of the world. Instead, she took out her fury on Lua.
“How can I petition for Bonbon, dumbass, when I don’t know where they’re taking him?”
Lua looked as though she’d been hit. Ji-ji came to her senses. Her best friend was even worse off than she was. Her eight siblings were dead or auctioned off to other plantings, and Lua had been mated to Petrus last year. Petrus was in his fifties; Lua wasn’t yet fourteen. Petrus expected his seedmates to be on call every night. If he found her cabin empty there would be hell to pay.
“Sorry, Lu,” Ji-ji added. “I didn’t mean—”
“S’okay.” Lua always forgave everyone. Even Petrus.
“We know you’re hurting,” Aunt Marcie added, which made Ji-ji feel even worse.
“Promise you won’t do nothing dumb?” Lua urged again. “Anything dumb’s what I mean.”
“I promise,” Ji-ji replied. She forced herself to sound calm. “Go back to your quarters, Lua. Petrus’ll hit the roof if he finds you missing. Last&Onlys like us—we got a special duty to keep on breathing. You told me that once, remember?” Lua nodded. “I’ll be okay, Lu. I promise.”
When at last Ji-ji had the cabin to herself, she checked to see the door was firmly closed, walked over to the fireplace, and picked up the sturdiest log she could find from the pile near the hearth. She raised it above her head and let it fall over and over again until all that was left of Uncle Dreg’s beautiful cradle was a mound of splinters.
She wanted to hate him for filling her head with dream stories when she was little, yet she already knew she wouldn’t find much comfort in that. She sat on the floor by the fire and rocked back and forth, recalling the vicious rhyme steaders liked to throw in seeds’ faces:
The only way for a seed to be Free
Is to swing on high from a penal tree.
She remembered something Uncle Dreg used to say about not letting words like that ricochet around in your head because they could smash you to pieces. And now, she’d smashed Uncle Dreg’s beautiful cradle, the one precious thing she had to remember Bonbon by!
“Oh Bonbon!” Ji-ji moaned. “How will you ever know how much you were loved?”
She placed a hand over her heart and gazed deep into the flames. Imitating the steader vows she’d grown up with, she made up one of her own.
“I, Jellybean ‘Ji-ji’ Lottermule, reared in captivity on Planting 437 in the Homestead Territories, hereby swear to find my little brother Oletto ‘Bonbon’ Lottermule, a designated Serverseed, an’ set him Free!”
A series of loud sparks leapt from the fire.
“I’m coming for you, Bonbon,” she whispered. “You’ll never grow up to be a Serverseed, I swear. Don’t cry. Your big sister’s coming to save you.”
The fire whispered, hissed, and crackled as wild yellow tongues spoke to her. In a trance, she fed twig after twig into the raging fire. She watched, eyes aflame, until it devoured every last one.
Excerpted from The Freedom Race, copyright © 2021 by Lucinda Roy.