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Authors: Sherwood Smith

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BOOK: Stranger
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29

Felicité

FELICITÉ MADE CERTAIN THAT SHE WAS EASY
for Indra to find. She arrived at school early every day, although that meant she kept getting stuck doing drill. She exercised without protest, grateful that the overcast sky kept the air cool, so she wouldn't get sweaty and smelly. But he never returned to the schoolyard.

She considered various graceful speeches. All began with showering golden coins upon Jennie, moving to sympathy, and then to the dance—and her own lack of an escort. Should she be humorous? “Oh, how funny, here I am organizing everything, and I forgot to organize a date for myself!” But that wasn't funny, it was pathetic.

When Indra's braid brushed against her chair at Jack's, was that on purpose? At Luc's, when she walked past him, she distinctly heard his breathing change. Was he admiring the fit of her dress, her graceful walk? Each tiny gesture was examined for hidden meaning when she retired at night, but the light of day brought dissatisfaction.

Pursuing him was undignified. A Wolfe should not have to ask.

The dance was four days away. She sadly regarded her exquisite lace dress embroidered with silver starflowers. There was no use pretending Indra's tiny gestures had any secret meaning. Couldn't he see how perfect they were for each other? How long could he hold on to a grudge over a single slip of the tongue?

She'd give him one more day, and then she'd have to settle for Tommy Horst, who at least was a reasonably good-looking Norm from the Hill.

Her mother called, “Felicité? Someone is here to see you.”

Felicité raced out, her heart beating fast.

But there was no dark braid on the guy waiting below, no warm brown skin. She didn't recognize the black tunic embroidered with silver starflowers or the tight-fitting trousers. And his hair was blond—

He turned. To her astonishment, it was Henry Callahan. He bowed—formally, not mockingly. “I came to show you what you'll get if you'll be my escort to the dance.”

Her habitual “no” was shaping her lips, but it stayed unspoken. She realized that she was looking up at him, even though she was wearing heels. When had that happened? Henry had always been one of the shorter boys, with those unfortunate freckles shining unpleasantly under the aloe salve that Dr. Lee handed out to fair-skinned families.

He'd asked her out before, but never in a way that would make any girl want to say yes. Once he'd sworn that he'd die if she didn't date him, and when she politely declined, he'd clutched his throat and dramatically collapsed to the ground, making the entire school laugh. And that was typical.

But here he was, alone, almost unrecognizable. How had he gotten so stylish? If it weren't for those freckles, and that floppy hair the color of old straw, he'd almost be . . . kind of cute.

“You match my dress for the dance,” she said. “But no one's seen it yet.”

“My mother made that dress, and I asked her to make me something that matched. I hope that wasn't too weird.” He shifted uncomfortably.

Mrs. Callahan would be a horrifying mother-in-law, but Henry wasn't proposing—only asking her to a dance. On impulse, she said, “I would love to go with you.”

Henry had been glumly eyeing the carpet. His head lifted. “You're joking.”

Felicité clasped her hands. “I never joke in matters of the heart,” she said mock-soulfully. He laughed, as she'd known he would, and she held up a finger. “But you have to promise.”

“What?” Henry said suspiciously.

“No heroically rescuing me—and by that I mean no more roaches.”

He raised his hand as if taking an oath. “I swear.”

• • •

Felicité felt much better when she came to breakfast the next day, and was even happier to find her parents alone. “Good morning, Daddy. Good morning, Mother.”

“What have you learned about Ross Juarez's book?” her father asked.

Simultaneously, her mother said, “How are you progressing with the dance?”

They smiled at each other across the table.

Someday Felicité wanted to sit across from her own husband. They would smile at each other just like that, perfectly in tune.

Her daddy said, “You first, Valeria.”

“Darling? Is there anything you need?”

“Everything's nearly ready.” Felicité hadn't breathed a word about the presentation. It was to be a surprise for her mother and the whole town, to start the dance on a memorable note.

“I'm proud of you.” Mother took a last bite of fried turnip cake and set her chopsticks on their rest. “I must go, dears. The guild chief is waiting.” She kissed Daddy, and Felicité watched as she left. How did her mother make walking out a door look so elegant? Felicité straightened her spine, and arranged her arms more gracefully. Control, every moment.

Her father laid down a half-eaten scallion pancake and turned to her. “Have you discovered anything regarding Ross since your last report?”

Felicité couldn't think of a positive way of saying “Still nothing,” so instead she focused on details. “He spends a lot of time alone with Mia Lee.”

Her father smiled, but his tone changed. “I don't need a report on his love life. I want a report on his book. Beginning with its location.”

Felicité was thrilled. He was asking her to spy for him! “Should I search Mia's hut?”

Regretfully, he shook his head. “That would be going a bit far. Just keep watch. If you visit Mia and spot it lying in the open, let me know.”

She daintily dipped a cruller in warm soy milk as she wondered how she could manage that. Wu Zetian had not been much help when it came to Ross, nor had the bounty hunter. Before he was ordered out of town, he'd spent all his time in Jack's, talking to people, especially the sheriff. Felicité was sure he'd been mining for information.

“I'd need some business for Mia,” Felicité said. “We're not friends, you know.”

Her father laughed. “Mia might not be your first choice for your drawing room, but she's a fine mechanic.” Then his smile faded. “Maybe I'm old and suspicious, but it occurs to me that she has access to the entire town. I've seen people do things they never would have done, except that they thought they were in love.”

Felicité had never considered that angle. How many times had her parents told her to look beneath the surface?

She nodded, disappointed with herself. “I'll do my best.”

• • •

Once again, Felicité watched Ross sparring with Jennie. She'd seen engaged couples dance less sensually. Teachers weren't allowed to date students. But he wasn't really a student—he wasn't even a citizen—and she'd only been appointed temporarily.

Good; that meant Jennie was distracted from Indra. Felicité did wonder what Mia thought, though; even her father had assumed Mia and Ross were dating.

After school, Felicité followed Ross as he dragged a wagon all over town, collecting smelly used vegetable oil. He spoke to no one. Then he had dinner with the Lees. She strolled past the window and spotted Dr. Lee demonstrating some surgical technique on a fried flounder. Ross and Mia looked as fascinated as Felicité was repulsed.

Then Mia and Ross went to Mia's cottage. Felicité followed, tired and hungry and incredibly bored. But Daddy had given her a mission, and she meant to carry it out. Still, she told herself, at the first sign of lip-locking, she'd call it a day.

She ducked around an untrimmed shrub, disturbing a flight of glowing bright-moths, and wedged herself between the wall and the bush, her knees pulled up under her chin. Felicité signaled to Wu Zetian to keep out of sight and fetch her if anyone approached the cottage.

For the next two hours, Felicité heard nothing but clanking, scraping, and an excruciatingly dull discussion about electrical wiring. Then Ross said he needed to study, and for another hour, there was only clanking. Felicité remembered that Mia often stayed up all night. Surely her father wouldn't expect her to do the same?

Ross broke the silence. “I think tonight I should go alone.”

Crash!
Some metal object dropped to the floor.

“No way,” Mia said. “It's not safe.”

That sounded interesting. Felicité's discomfort and hunger were forgotten. She was wondering if she should risk a peek when she felt the tap of a little paw:
Someone is coming.

There was a knock on the door. From the way things crashed and tinkled inside the cottage, Mia and Ross were not expecting visitors.

Felicité was surprised to hear her cousin Julio's voice. “Mia, we've got an emergency. That winch on the front gate is jammed and the gate's stuck open. Mr. Horst and Mr. Nguyen each sent a couple of workers over, and Jack's bringing coffee. This could be a late night.”

“Oh. The gate.” Mia sounded alarmed, which was odd; normally she seemed to love burrowing into greasy machines. “Um, you go ahead. I'll catch up with you.”

“I can wait.”

There was a series of clatters that Felicité couldn't help hearing as exasperated. Then Mia said, “Ross, don't study without me. It's important; you need a study partner. Wait for me to get back!”

It was the most suspicious-sounding thing Felicité had heard in her life. Her father was right. They were definitely up to something.

She waited until Mia and Julio's footsteps faded, then sent Wu Zetian to keep an eye on Mia. If Ross left, Felicité would follow him herself.

She inched upward, glad she'd thought to wear a black hat and dress. She tilted the brim to shadow her face, though she knew that people in lit rooms couldn't see out. Pins and needles prickled her legs as she peered inside.

Ross sat on the floor with a book. The book? No. Felicité recognized the reader she'd studied when she was five. He rubbed his eyes, then leaned back against the bed and stared at the ceiling.

She sank down, sighing.

The moon had emerged when the light in the cottage went out. Felicité rotated her shoulders, wondering if Ross was going to sleep. Wouldn't she have heard him move the engine off the bed?

The door creaked—he was leaving!

After a count of twenty, she skirted the junk in the yard until she could see the town square, which was empty except for him. To her surprise, he entered the town hall.

She darted in after him, shrouded by darkness. The lamp was gone from its usual place on the side table. When her eyes adjusted, she made out a black square in the gloom: the basement door. Open. She ran into the basement. Empty. There was only one way out: the tunnel.

The tunnel she had only learned about this year, when she'd been appointed council scribe. The only people who knew about it were the council, the scribe, the teacher . . .

And the mechanic. Mia had broken one of the most important laws of Las Anclas.

Felicité had to get her father. At once. But then they might never know what Ross was planning.

She slipped into the tunnel and felt her way to the mill. She thought of calling the sentries, but what if Ross heard, and bolted? She had to be the one to find out what he was up to. Yes, she was breaking the rules too—but it was for the good of the town. When she looked at it that way, it was secretly thrilling.

Once she got to the trail along the ridge, Ross was easily visible, starlight gleaming off his white shirt. Then a flash of scarlet startled her. She'd forgotten about that gruesome crystal tree below the ridge.

He walked straight toward it without even slowing down. Was he sleepwalking? It was already too late to warn him. She held her breath, bracing for the horrifying clash of chimes and pop of breaking glass that would signal his death.

She rubbed her eyes. Ross was standing beside a singing tree, and nothing had happened.

He had to be Changed, but not like the bounty hunter had said. His Change kept him safe from those killer trees. But that didn't explain what he was doing. He stood beside it with his arms clutched tight across his chest. Then he lifted a hand, and laid it against the crimson trunk.

Chimes began to tinkle softly. In an eerie echo, more joined in from the hills, and from far beyond the mill. She had never heard anything like it before. It was almost as if the trees were talking to each other.

Ross let out a cry of pain. Felicité jumped. But every tree had gone silent, and none of the pods that contained the deadly shards had shattered.

He staggered a few steps away, then crumpled to the ground.

At first she thought he was dead; then she heard the sounds he was making. He was crying. Ross lay there sobbing in the dust, like Jack had sobbed after Sheriff Crow had lost their baby.

Felicité took an uncertain step toward him. Then she thought,
What would I say?

She backed away, then tore down the road. She didn't breathe easy until she emerged into the town square.

As she ran home, her panic eased, leaving her hungry, thirsty, and tired. Ross's Change seemed more a danger to himself than anyone in Las Anclas. But it was illegal of Mia to have shown him the tunnel, and illegal for him to use it this way.

She arrived home still wondering what to report. Maybe it would be clearer in the morning. Felicité slipped into the kitchen to get a drink. At the first crank of the pump, a light flared, and in came her father, carrying a lamp.

“I waited up for you.” He gave her a glass of water, standing silently by until she had finished. “Were you out investigating?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I like your dedication. Just what I expected. So what did you find?”

She hesitated, then began at the beginning.

But the more she talked, the guiltier she felt over what she was about to do to Ross. Not that she cared about him personally, but when she remembered him sobbing in the road, she couldn't help feeling sorry for him. But how could she fail to tell her father that the town defenses were vulnerable?

BOOK: Stranger
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