Johnny Blanco Photography
Isabella Biedenharn
January 26, 2017 AT 11:02 AM EST

The YA fantasy realm is adapting to our gender-eschewing modern times: Linsey Miller’s forthcoming debut Mask of Shadows centers on Sal, a gender-fluid thief fighting for a spot in the Queen’s personal cadre of assassins.

Here’s the book’s official description:

When Sal Leon steals a poster from a royal scribe advertising open auditions for The Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears—Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal—their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with shrewd circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.

In advance of Mask of Shadows‘s September 2017 publication, EW presents an exclusive cover reveal and a sneak peek inside, below:

Excerpt from Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

“Twenty-Three, Sal, Sal, Sal, brought the hand of Grell da Sousa. Knife work was sloppy but willing to practice.”

Amethyst chuckled. “Grell da Sousa? The old street fighter in Kursk?”

“One and only.” I nodded, spreading out the hem of my dress so I was sitting like Emerald—taking up space and showing off what muscles I had, but not splayed out like Five had been.

“What do you do?” Emerald studied my feet and worked her way up to my face. She corrected my posture till my spine was straight as hers. “You look like a runner.”

“Thief.” I stiffened. “Highway jobs, housebreaking, and some street fighting on the side.”

“I take it you’re one of those haunting the highways, terrorizing poor coaches, and stealing all our things.” Ruby crossed his legs and let out a soft laugh that made me think it wasn’t a question at all. He turned to the others. “They killed Grell with a pin.”

Emerald scoffed “You killed him with a pin?”

“He marked his routes on wall maps and held them up with old hat pins. It was safer to get him near a map. He expected knives.” I shifted, the “they” hot in my ears. “And you can call me ‘she’ when I dress like this. I dress how I am.”

Which was fine by me. I wore a dress, and people treated me like a girl. I wore trousers and one of those floppy-collared men’s shirts, and they treated me like a boy. No annoying questions or fights over it.

“And if you dress like neither?” Emerald asked.

“They,” I said. Rath had asked once, a while after we’d met and been living together, and I’d not known how to explain it yet. I didn’t have the words. He always felt like Rath, and I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always. Rath not understanding that had hurt the most, but at least he accepted it. “I’m not always ‘they,’ though.”

“Understood.”

The moment passed, and the tilt of Emerald’s chin and nod of Ruby’s head made me think it would never happen again.

“What else can you do?” Amethyst beckoned me and pried off my gloves. “Don’t be humble.”

“I’m quick, good at climbing, sleight of hand.” I flexed my arm while Amethyst tested my muscle. “I was the best fighter in Tulen and most of Kursk.”

“Any real training in anything?” Emerald tugged Amethyst away and studied the pads of my fingers. “Trade? Carnival? Apothecary?”

I shook my head. “Just street fighting.”

“She was about to snap our dear Roland’s neck,” Ruby said to Emerald. “Not standard street fighting.”

I shrugged. “I have many skills.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Ruby laughed. “Now, what don’t you know?”

“Poisons.” I didn’t miss a beat and sighed to myself when Emerald shook her head. “I can use knives, but not swords. Never used a spear. I shot a bow once and missed, and don’t know a thing about court life. Can’t read Erlenian—bit better at Alonian—and never learned how to write either.”

The three of them all shifted at that.

“And I need to practice my knife work.”

“All fixable ailments if you so desire.” Ruby leaned forward, collar flopping open and scars peeking out from under his shirt. White scars on dark skin. Runes. He’d been a mage. “Alona had public schools. Why didn’t you attend?”

“I was only five,” I said with another shrug. “And you still have to buy supplies and a uniform.”

Ruby hummed. “Who are you, Sal, Sal, Sal?”

“What does it matter?”

Sal was gone. That was the point, wasn’t it? I wasn’t tied to anything, no one knew my face, and I’d no friends or family that could be held against me, no allies to betray me. I had inherited ghosts, and I would become one.

“It matters to us.” Emerald tapped her mask. She didn’t wear jewelry, didn’t drape herself in the silver chains commonly found in the carriages we raided, but her fingers were jewelry themselves. She’d glued ovals of a brassy metal over the nails. “The new Opal will be our partner, our business consultant, and our friend. They will be the only person outside of Our Queen to know our faces, and we will know theirs. They will be one of us.”

“We have to select someone we can live with.” Amethyst nodded to me. “We have to know who all of you are, so we may know whom we are inviting into our safe haven. And we will find out who you are regardless of how honest you are.”

“So who are you?” asked Ruby.

“Sallot Leon.”

The trio stilled. My full name gave away too much. Only Naceans kept their mother’s first name as their own, a holdover from the old days when there were more countries, more traditions. My grandmother had been Margot, my mother Leon Margot, and I was Sallot Leon. It was all I remembered and all I had left.

All I had that was truly mine.

“Why bother learning Erlenian or Alonian when you’re not from either country?” Emerald flexed her fingers. “Few Naceans escaped the shadows.”

History said we’d been massacred by errant magic. An accident. A casualty of war.

But I knew our murder was orchestrated. I remembered the soldiers reading letters the day before they left. I remembered them fleeing in a panic. I remembered their whispers about “orders.”

“One,” I said softly. “I have never met another.”

Emerald evened her head with mine. “In a few moments, you will head to strength training, archery, and sword work. The nights are for personal reflection and competition, and we may offer personalized training. You will attend all three training sessions every day until we say otherwise. If you’re still alive by then.”

“I will be.”

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