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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (24 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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Yuki had heard the rumors, from the plausible to the ridiculous: Ross was a claim jumper, he had a dangerous Change talent, he'd stolen King Voske's crown, he had a map to El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold. But no bounty hunter chased people across the desert for nothing.

At the stream, the horses lowered their heads to drink, and they dismounted to refill their canteens. Yuki splashed water on his face.

“When, um, when I first saw Kogatana, you did this.” To Yuki's amazement, Ross sketched the kanji for
kogatana
in the air.

“You remember that?”

“Where did you learn it?” Ross dipped his canteen.

“On the
Taka,
” Yuki replied. “The ship where I was born.”

Ross straightened, water dripping from his fingers. “You were born on a ship? What kind of ship?”

Everyone in Las Anclas knew about his past, and most of them had learned not to ask questions. Even Paco avoided certain topics. Yuki was about to fob Ross off, mostly out of habit, but the quiet, nonjudgmental curiosity prompted him to break habit and speak.

“It was an ‘aircraft carrier.' Like a floating city. It came from a country called Japan, hundreds of years ago. We sailed in the deep ocean. Every day, we were somewhere different.” Yuki sketched
kogatana
in the air. “Kogatana. The first character is ‘small,' and the second is ‘sword.' Little sword: pocketknife.” His fingers reached up, drawing another pair of kanji: “
Taka.
That was my ship. It means ‘hawk.'”

Memories flooded his mind, washing away the desert, the bright-blue sky, and Ross's curious face. He remembered the smell of deep-sea brine. He remembered riding dolphins and fishing with a spear gun. He remembered the lush greenery of the hydroponic tanks. He remembered the flavors of rice, of sweet red beans, of green tea. He remembered violins playing at twilight. He remembered stepping through the sacred gates to pray to the spirits of rice and wind and ocean. And he remembered his first mother.

He blinked, and the desert was back.

“How did you get here?” Ross asked.

“The
Taka
was conquered by pirates. My parents put me on a raft, but they had to stay.”

“Why?”

“Because my mother was the queen.” Yuki turned away, schooling his face. “If you've heard people call me a prince, that's why.”

Ross looked baffled, and Yuki wished he hadn't brought it up. “They came out of a storm and took the
Taka
by surprise.” Memory assaulted him: flames shooting skyward from the superstructure, the crack of artillery fire. The others rowing him away on the raft while he yelled for them to go back, to wait for his parents.

And, finally, washing up on the beach near Las Anclas. He hadn't understood until much later that he was the only survivor because the others must have pretended to drink, and had given him all their water.

He dug his nails into the back of his hand, shutting the door on those memories. He wasn't on the raft and he wasn't thirteen. He was eighteen, in Las Anclas, in the desert, right now. With Ross staring at him.

Yuki felt as if he'd been cracked open like an egg. Then he remembered that Ross supposedly could manipulate people's emotions. Yuki had begun the ride furious, but then he'd started thinking the guy wasn't that bad. So maybe it was true.

On the other hand, Ross had saved Fuego. And if he really could make people like him, Tommy and his Norm friends would have stopped hassling him by now.

Ross blurted out, “Could you teach someone to read Japanese?”

Once again Yuki was taken by surprise. He lowered his canteen. “I guess. Was that why you were asking me all that stuff?”

“I don't know much about reading,” Ross said to a nearby cactus. “Is it harder than English and Spanish?”

Yuki almost laughed. Ross's face and body gave away everything he felt, as if he'd never learned how to conceal his emotions. Maybe he
had
stolen Voske's crown. It was easier to believe than his being a sneaky manipulator.

Yuki almost hated to break the bad news to him. “Japanese has two syllabaries—those are like alphabets—with forty-eight characters each. The hard part is that it also has about three thousand Chinese characters.”

“Oh.”

Yuki hesitated. Ross
had
saved Fuego. “If you'd still like to learn, I could teach you. But it could be years before you could read anything difficult, like a book.”

“Thanks.” Ross sounded discouraged. “But I won't be here that long.”

I won't either,
was on the tip of Yuki's tongue. But he wasn't sure he wanted to get into a discussion about prospecting yet—especially now that Yuki had a claim of his own. What if the price of learning from Ross was sharing the sea cave? “Can you swim?”

Ross's brows drew together in confusion. “No. I've never been around that much water.” No competition for the cave, then. Then he blurted out, “Listen, Yuki. I didn't want to make excuses. But we really didn't drink anything. I mean, besides hibiscus tea.” Keeping his eyes on the ground, he added, “I had a bad night. I—I didn't feel good. That's why I forgot about the lesson. It won't happen again.”

It was clear that Ross was telling the truth, and it was also clear that he wasn't telling all of it. But he didn't owe Yuki any explanations. Probably the missing part had to do with the romance he was obviously having with Mia Lee, which was none of Yuki's business.

“If you're sick, you should say so. I would have postponed the lesson. We're done anyway. You can practice riding without reins on the way back.”

He mounted Fuego, and watched Ross clamber up on to Snow. To Yuki's amusement, the mare turned her gray head, as if asking Yuki for permission to move. He clicked his tongue, and they set off.

After all his suspicions about Ross, and all the wild claims of outlawry and mind control, Yuki thought that the truth was probably simpler: he was a young prospector with trouble in his past, who'd spent his life by himself and wasn't used to having to explain himself to others.

Probably.

In any case, there was no point quizzing Ross now. He looked dead on his feet. Yuki would schedule one more lesson. If Ross showed up promptly and tried his best, that would go some way toward proving that he was trustworthy.

As the gates of Las Anclas came into sight, Yuki's thoughts drifted back to his childhood. The
Taka
was so much smaller than Las Anclas; had it seemed bigger because it had been more sophisticated and mechanically advanced? Or because he'd been so young? If the pirates had never attacked, would he have gazed at the ocean's vastness one day and felt trapped within his own kingdom?

28

Ross

ROSS TRUDGED AWAY FROM THE STABLES, HIS HEAD
throbbing, the afternoon sunlight almost blinding him. Then a shadow fell across his face, and his body automatically snapped into a defensive stance.

Mr. Preston loomed up. Ross hastily lowered his hands, heat creeping up his neck.

“You're fast,” the defense chief said. Definitely the first human words Ross had heard from the guy. But then he reverted to his usual menace. “I'd like to take a look at that book of yours.”

“I already told the sheriff, I hid it in the desert.”

Mr. Preston shook his head. “You don't understand. I'm considering buying it from you. But I can't make you an offer sight-unseen.”

Ross stared at him. Mr. Preston used to work for Voske, and had conspired with the bounty hunter. Maybe they were still plotting together. If Ross accepted his offer, what was to stop Mr. Preston from taking the book, keeping the payment, and turning Ross over to his friend?

“I hid it in the desert,” he repeated.

Mr. Preston's pale gaze narrowed. “Do you think someone else here can make you a better offer?”

“It's not for sale.” Ross bolted for the surgery, his head pounding sickeningly.

He'd flopped onto the floor to pull his boots off when Mia pounced. “Ross! You're back! How did it go?”

He groaned.

“That bad?” Mia helped him to his feet. “Dad fixed something for you to eat. We didn't think Yuki would bother packing a lunch.”

“You got that right.” Somehow he made it to the kitchen, and sank gratefully into a chair. The Lees let him eat in silence, but he could feel their attention. Three fat burritos, two dishes of shrimp-and-cabbage kimchi, two peach dumplings, and three glasses of cucumber water later, he took a breather.

Mia sat across from him, elbows on the table. “So, how did it go?”

Ross shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Once we got going. We saw the bounty hunter in the hills. He made sure we saw him too.”

Dr. Lee pursed his lips. “I'll make sure the sheriff knows.”

“I'll bet she already does,” Ross said.

“The Rangers certainly do,” Dr. Lee predicted.

And Mr. Preston
, thought Ross.

“What's the use of making sure he saw you?” Mia asked. “I thought he wanted to kidnap you.”

Dr. Lee nibbled on a pickled shrimp. “He probably wants to intimidate Ross into surrendering the book.”

Ross nodded. “I think so too. But it won't work.”

Mia shot him a significant look. He knew she wasn't thinking about the bounty hunter, or even about the book. She was thinking about the crystal tree. He got up and served himself another burrito, even though he was too full to eat it. He could feel Mia's gaze burning into his back.

Then Dr. Lee spoke. “Ross, Mia told me that your nightmares aren't only based on memories—that you have a connection to the singing tree beyond the cornfields. How are you feeling?”

“Like something scraped my skull from the inside.” Ross pictured crystal roots winding around bone and crystal shards piercing flesh, and shuddered.

“Is it a Change, Dad?” asked Mia. “I'd have thought Ross was too old for that.”

Ross sat down, the untouched burrito before him. He closed his eyes.

“Not necessarily,” said Dr. Lee. “Though it's more common to Change at the beginning of puberty, it's possible for a Change to occur in men at any time before puberty ends. I've heard of men Changing as late as their early twenties. Ross?”

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. “What?”

“Do you know if you've grown at all within the last year or so?”

“No.” Ross indicated his worn jeans. “I've had these for years, and they still go down to my ankles.”

“It's probably not a Change, then. In any case, Change is genetic. This seems to be caused by a specific incident.”

“So you think it's a sort of symbiosis?” Mia sounded as happily intrigued as if Ross was a machine she was designing. “The tree grew from his blood, so it has a mental link with him?”

“That's what I'd guess. It's also possible that tiny fragments of the shard, too small for me to see, remained in his wound, so—”

“I don't care how it got there,” Ross interrupted. If there were still fragments inside his body, couldn't they start growing again? “How do I get the thing out of my head?”

Mia and Dr. Lee looked at each other.

“Once I get a better range on the flamethrower, I'll burn it for you,” she offered.

A high, eerie note reverberated through him. “No!” He clapped his hands over his ears.

Mia's eyes were wide behind her smudged glasses. “Is it listening to us right now?”

Ross pressed his fingertips to his temples, but that didn't shut out the piercing echo.

“We can talk about it later,” Dr. Lee said. His voice was calm and soothing. “I think first, Ross could use my headache elixir.”

“Ugh, that stuff tastes bad,” Mia said. “But it works, Ross. Drink it fast.”

He would have drunk tarantula blood if it would ease the pain. He gulped down the bitter liquid without a complaint. Soon most of the headache receded, but he still felt as if the chimes might sound again at any second.

A bell rang. Ross's hand jerked, knocking over his glass. A few drops of milky liquid spilled on the tablecloth.

“I believe I have patients to see.” Dr. Lee left the kitchen, closing the door softly behind him.

Ross righted the glass and took a deep breath. “I have to go back to the tree.”

• • •

Late the next night, Mia returned from retooling the ironmonger's generator. “It's quiet out there,” she said to Ross, who sat on the floor of her cottage, practicing his reading. “If you want to go, maybe we should do it now.”

Ross laid aside the page. He hadn't been able to pay attention to it anyway. “I don't want to go. But I think I have to.”

“What's your plan?”

He let out in a long sigh. “I'm going to try telling it to leave me alone. Are you sure you want to come?”

She nodded. “You might need some help getting back.”

“All right. But if anything goes wrong, don't try and help me.”

“Okay.” Mia sounded as scared as Ross felt.

They started off across the dark town square. When Mia's fingers collided with his, he didn't pull his hand away. The next step, her knuckles brushed against his hand again. On purpose? He snuck a sideways glance, just as she snuck a sideways glance.

He promised himself that he wouldn't flinch if she took his hand. Her warm fingers closed over his. Once the first shock of contact was over, he liked the feel of it: small but strong. Calluses in the right places. It made him feel light-headed, but it wasn't bad; just intense. As they walked, he could barely feel his feet hitting the ground.

They slipped into the town hall and, from the darkened mill, watched the sentries stroll by in pairs. Ross and Mia worked out their timing, then ran through the corn to the road.

The ringing he had begun to hear in the tunnel was much louder now.

“Something wrong?” Mia whispered.

“It's the tree,” he said. “Do you hear chimes?”

“No,” she whispered. Her fingers clutched his tightly. Ross felt the tree before they saw it, moonlight reflecting crimson off its gemlike facets. He knew where it was like he knew his own left hand. He could even sense how far the shards could reach. And he knew it wouldn't loose those shards at him.

“Stay here,” he whispered.

Mia dropped his hand and waited.

He slid down the ridge. As he approached cautiously, the chiming stopped. His footsteps sounded loud in his ears—almost as loud as his heartbeat.

The tree waited, bright as the blood that had poured from his arm and almost taken his life with it. Approaching it was harder than it had been to run past a whole grove of singing trees.

He forced his right hand against the trunk.

As he had in the previous night's dream, he saw himself as if in a distorting mirror: a small figure made of red and yellow light, which he sensed indicated fields of heat. He felt his roots digging into the soil, searching out fragments of crystal to add to itself . . . Himself. Farther out were several more figures in yellow and red—one standing on two legs, and a cluster of smaller ones on four. The small ones might feed him if they came closer, but the tall one was not food. That one shouldn't be . . . harmed.

The “figure” was Mia. Then Ross was back in his own body, dizzy, nauseated, disoriented.

He jerked his hand away from the tree and stumbled away. It was very dark. He scanned for heat, then remembered that a human couldn't sense that.

“Ross?” Mia called softly.

He wondered how much time had passed. It had felt like seconds.

“Ross, are you okay?”

“Yeah. Give me a little more time. I don't think I've gotten through to it yet.”

“What are you trying to say to it?”

“Get out of my head. Stop giving me nightmares. Stop calling to me. Stop—”

“Why don't you pick one?” She sat down in the road to wait.

He hadn't had one good night's sleep since he'd been wounded.
Stop giving me nightmares
seemed a good place to start. He remembered what Yuki had told him about communicating with horses: you had to focus on one thing and really mean it.

He pictured himself lying in bed, peacefully asleep. No, that wouldn't make sense to a tree. How had the tree seen the world? He would have to figure out how it was reaching out to him before he could tell it how to stop.

Ross laid his hand against cool crystal . . .

This time he listened as well as saw. The tree's perceptions weren't only of physical things. It had feelings. Mia wasn't merely a human who shouldn't be harmed, she was a person it cared about.

How could a tree care about a person? The tree felt the same way about Mia that Ross did. But if the tree had emotions, why was it torturing Ross?

He tried to listen for its feeling about him, but all he “saw” was that distorted mirror again. When he tried to listen more carefully, he found himself remembering, almost reliving the desperation and the will to survive that had allowed him to drive a knife into his own body. Those feelings had gone into the shard. And now they were in the tree.

It's me,
he thought.
The tree is part of me.

It's not trying to hurt me. Trying to shut it out is like trying to cut off my own arm.

He tried to convey his intention the way that he had conveyed his intentions to the mare:
Humans need to sleep at night. You have to be quiet.

The tree understood quiet. Its leaves went still and its scarlet pigment drained into the roots, leaving every part of it above ground absolutely transparent.

That wasn't exactly what Ross had meant, but at least he was communicating. He'd gotten that far by listening, so he'd listen harder.

Not listen harder, listen wider.
Ross stretched out his—the tree's—senses.

The world became a chorus of shimmering sound. Beyond the range of human hearing or vision, the trees sang to one another. His tree could hear music all the way out to the borders of the ruins, and see signals of light. What were those other trees saying?

Not listen harder, not wider, but deeper.

Ross imagined himself diving into a well, swimming deeper and deeper into black water, searching out a spark of light. The light was blue. He reached for it. Pain seared through him, like when the shard had been growing inside his arm, but now it was everywhere. Crystal daggers expanded in his chest, crushing his lungs, piercing his heart.

He hit the ground, gasping for breath. Someone was calling in a low voice.

“Ross. Ross. If you don't answer me, I'm coming down there to get you.”

His throat ached as if he'd been shouting. “Don't come near—no—no. Wait.” He glanced up. Ruby veins glowed in the leaves silhouetted against the night sky. “No, it's okay. It won't hurt you.”

Mia hesitated. Then, moving jerkily, she skidded down, grabbed his arm, and hauled him to his feet. His legs were so shaky he could hardly stand, and his vision swam.

“You were yelling. Or trying to. It sounded like you were being strangled. What happened?”

“I think I felt somebody die.”

“What?” she squeaked, then cut herself off. The wall and its alert sentries were not that far away.

Ross struggled up the slope, leaning on Mia. He was relieved that a little of his strength was returning, though he was still dizzy.

“I think it was a prospector,” he whispered. “A prospector who got made into a tree. I felt her death. I think the last memories of the people they killed are in those trees. And my tree . . . it's got some of mine.”

“Seriously?” Mia whispered back. “Wow. That's the most amazing scientific discovery I've ever heard of. Can I tell Dad?”

Hesitantly Ross said, “I guess. If he'd promise not to tell anyone else.”

“Never mind. I can't. You're not even supposed to know about the tunnel. If I tell him we were out here, he'd have to tell the rest of the council.”

“Then don't say anything. I still need to come out here. I've got to figure this out.”

“Okay. Sure. Look, it's late. How about we go back now? You don't look so good.”

“I don't feel so good,” he admitted.

As they walked up the road in silence, Ross wondered what he'd dream about that night.

BOOK: Stranger
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