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Authors: Sherwood Smith

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BOOK: Stranger
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34

Ross

ROSS WAS ON HIS FOURTH DISH OF APPLE CRUMBLE
and Mia on her third when Jennie and Brisa took the square for a dance battle.

Jennie did a different routine from the one he'd seen, powerful but less acrobatic. She finished with a single backflip, and landed balanced on one hand. Then she bounced to her feet. Everyone applauded.

“I've seen her do four of those in a row,” he said.

Mia chuckled. “Not in that dress, she can't. She's lucky she did one without it tearing at the seams.”

Ross couldn't help wishing it would. Just a little bit.

Brisa strutted up. She'd changed into clean pants and a shirt, and had a rainbow of ribbons tied around her pigtails. With a mischievous look at Jennie, she launched into a series of spins on the ground, now on her back, now on her hands, and, briefly, on her head.

When she leaped up, one of her ribbons had come loose. Jennie tried to catch Brisa's attention, but she had already launched into a series of backflips. On the third, her heel caught the trailing ribbon and jerked her head back. She fell with a yelp, her foot twisting beneath her. The drummer continued for another beat, then stopped.

“Ow,” Mia said, leaping up. “I felt that, just watching. Where's—oh, here he comes.”

Dr. Lee hurried up, with Becky and Brisa's parents close behind him. He said wryly, “You can see Becky outside of the infirmary, Brisa. You don't need all these excuses to go there.”

Brisa gave a watery giggle. Her parents made a chair of their hands and carried her off, Becky trotting anxiously at their heels.

The musicians started up again. “Want to dance?” Jennie asked. “Can't sprain your ankle in a circle dance.”

Mia was on her feet in an instant.

“After I finish.” Ross pointed to his plate.

He settled in to watch, letting the beat carry him away. Jennie looked as strong as she was, but Mia's size and delicacy were deceptive; Ross knew that she could lift him. Jumping, laughing, pink ruffles fluttering, she clearly was dancing purely for her own fun. Jennie's style was more polished; she had obviously practiced the steps, while Mia was simply following along. Catching Ross's gaze, she put some extra swing into her hips, and made her entire body ripple like water. He had to gulp for air.

The circle dance ended, and a waltz started up. Sheriff Crow and Jack Lowell glided expertly past.

“It's good—” Jack began.

“I think—” Sheriff Crow said.

He laughed. “You first.”

Ross had never before seen the sheriff get flustered. “Oh, it was nothing.”

“It matters to me,” Jack said in a low voice. It was clearly a private moment. Ross started to get up.

“It reminded me—” the sheriff began.

Dr. Lee ran up, interrupting them. Ross had never before seen him so angry—or angry, period.

“What is it, Dante?” Sheriff Crow asked.

“My house has been searched!”

“Vandalized?”

“No. Searched by a professional. Nothing out of place.”

“How do you know?” Jack asked.

Dr. Lee addressed the sheriff. “If someone went through your weapons and ammunition stores, wouldn't you know?”

“Yes. It has to be that bounty hunter.” She glanced around quickly, and beckoned. “Ross?”

He got off the bench, his heart pounding. Very quietly, she asked, “Where's your book?”

“Hidden,” Ross said. “Not at the surgery.”

Mia and Jennie hurried up. “What's going on?” Jennie asked.

Sheriff Crow tapped her foot. “Even with a skeleton crew on the walls, that man should not have been able to get inside. I need to know how and where he got in. Let's go find him.”

“I'll guard the book,” Ross started. “No, I can't—”

The sheriff gave a short nod. “He's probably waiting for you to lead him to it.”

Once Ross had been more afraid of that man and his rifle than of an entire grove of singing trees. If he'd known then what he knew now, he'd have climbed out of that gully and faced the bounty hunter with nothing but his knives. He'd have faced him with his bare hands. “I'll help you search.”

“I'll deputize you,” the sheriff said. “Let's go to my office, and I'll return your weapons.”

“Can you deputize me, too?” asked Mia.

Sheriff Crow gave her a puzzled look, then nodded. “If you like.”

Dr. Lee pointed at Mr. Preston and Mayor Wolfe, who were waltzing across the square. “I'll go report this to Tom and Valeria.”

Jennie tapped her foot thoughtfully. “The bounty hunter doesn't know anything about me. I'll guard the book.”

35

Felicité

THE REEL ENDED, AND TOMMY HORST ESCORTED
Felicité back to her table.

“That was nice.” He sounded nervous. Was that because she'd finally danced with him?

She gave a smile calculated to be sweet but not encouraging. She'd promised herself to dance with anyone who asked, but those clumsy feet would not mash her toes twice.

“Hey, Felicité, I've been to every table.” Henry's cheerful voice came from behind. “And I can definitely say that you've got the best eats. The best flowers. The best everything.” He held out his hands. “Now that there's a bit more room to move, let's show them the best dancing.”

“Let's.” Felicité wasn't sure Henry was actually the best, but at least she was free of Tommy.

She was amazed—Henry turned out to be an excellent dancer, spinning her among the other couples. Felicité nearly lost her hat, and her hair streamed behind her. She laughed, exhilarated. For the first time that night, she was enjoying herself. She was glad she'd rearranged the bouquet. Her family did have the best table, and the best food. Her dress was the most beautiful in the entire square. And this dance was—

Splat
.

A cold drop hit her cheek.

She jerked out of his grip. Henry laughed. “Tripped over a raindrop?”

“It can't be raining. The stars are out. It never rains this time of year.”

“What do you call those?” He pointed at the thunderheads fast obscuring the full moon. “Flying cows?” He laughed.

Purple lightning flashed. Henry's voice was drowned in a clap of thunder, and in an instant, Felicité was drenched in rain.

She yanked her hands free, and pulled her straw hat down over her ears. “My hair!”

Behind her, Meredith's laughter rose above the pelting rain. “Run! Run! Don't let your hair melt!”

“Come on, Felicité, let's dance in the rain.” Henry splashed after her.

She picked up speed. Mud splattered her ankles and the hem of her dress. Henry's footsteps died away. She ran on alone, faster than she ever did in training, and didn't slow until she saw her house.

Felicité darted to the side door, raced up into her room, and locked the door behind her. Then she pulled the curtains. She unpinned her hat, tossed it aside, and turned up the lamps on her dressing table. Her mirror was at least six generations old. Family legend claimed it as a treasure from China, handed down from mother to daughter.

The mirror had never reflected anything like her before.

Her face stared back at her, framed by intricately carved wood. Her hideous, mutant face.

Nictitating membranes slid across her eyes, distorting the elegant uncreased eyelids she'd inherited from her mother. On both sides of her neck, gills gaped red and wet as open wounds. She forced herself to keep breathing with her nose, like a normal person, until the skin finished growing across her nostrils and the gills took over. The grotesque frog-like webbing on her hands was still limited to the first joints of her fingers, but it would grow if she got any wetter. She could feel it between her toes, too, the stretchy itch she utterly despised.

She tore off the dress and flung it away. Over her breasts and belly, her smooth brown skin had grown a layer of silvery scales. That was all it took: a few minutes of moisture, all over her skin. If she ever pressed her naked body up against the naked body of a sweating man, her Change would surely begin.

There would never be “the One.”

No man would ever accept her monstrous body. If she wanted to keep her secret, she would have to be alone forever.

She was lucky to even have that choice. She still had nightmares about that first Change, alone in her own bathroom when she was thirteen, but she knew how very lucky she was. Imagine if it had happened in public! She was lucky to have a bathroom with a lock, and parents who didn't insist on her swimming or training hard or playing any sports where she'd get soaked in sweat. She was lucky to have Wu Zetian to help her keep her secret.

She whistled. Wu Zetian sleepily emerged from her rat house. She was the only living being ever to see Felicité in her monster form. Felicité cuddled her and sniffed back tears, afraid they would leave scaly tracks across her face.

She put her rat down and grabbed a towel from her bathroom, and rubbed it over her hair and her monstrous body until her skin burned and turned red, and she felt the Changes fading. When she faced the mirror again, there was Felicité Wolfe, future mayor.

Norm.

The rain poured down outside. She opened her closet and took out the gloves, the scarf, and the hat with a veil that she always wore whenever there was any chance of rain. Some of the girls snickered when they saw her like that, but as long as they were laughing at her “obsession” with her hair, they would never suspect the truth.

She put on a dry dress and closed-toe shoes. Then she picked up the scarf, careful to arrange its rich, soft folds right up under her ears. She pulled on the gloves. Last the hat, with the golden ribbons tied firmly under her chin. The veil covered her face.

She sat down on her bed, Wu Zetian by her side, and waited for the rain to end.

36

Mia

MIA, SHERIFF CROW, AND ROSS WERE HALFWAY TO
the jail when the storm hit.

By the time they reached it, they were all soaked. Mia hoped her mother's dress would survive. It squeaked at every step. Embarrassingly, the loudest squeaks were at her armpits, where it was impossible to stop wet silk from rubbing against wet silk.

The jail was deserted, its four cells empty; no drunk-and-disorderlies were sleeping it off for the night, though the dance would probably end there for a few.

Sheriff Crow led them into her office, where she unlocked the weapons cabinet. Ross was clearly relieved and happy to finally get his knives back. As he undid his belt to slide the sheaths back on, Sheriff Crow beckoned Mia.

She had never seen the sheriff's bedroom before. Purple lightning flared, briefly revealing a plain bed, a night table, and a clothes press. Sheriff Crow shut the door and started to peel off her slinky dress. Mia obligingly turned her back.

“Are you sure you want to go along with us?” the sheriff asked.

The transition from the noise and cold of the storm to the hot still air of the bedroom was suffocating. “Yes. Well. I think—”

“What, Mia?” Sheriff Crow rustled around, pulling on her sturdy work clothes. “I know you can hit a target, but what I'm trying to figure out is what you bring to an actual fight if that bounty hunter gives us one.”

“I have to protect Ross,” Mia blurted out.


You
have to protect
him
? From what little I know about Ross Juarez, the one thing that seems clear is that he can take care of himself.”

If she had seen what Mia had seen, at the base of that blood-red tree . . . Mia crossed her arms. Silk squeaked. “I have a flamethrower.”

“It's raining.”

“I have a crossbow that shoots six arrows.”

“Simultaneously?” Sheriff Crow stopped knotting her rawhide laces. “When did you make this? Why haven't you told me before?”

“Um. Well. I only tested it yesterday.”

When she'd test-fired it, the recoil had knocked her down, and every arrow had gone wild. She'd felt tiny and weak then, and she felt tiny and weak now, especially in the same room as the strongest person in town.

Sheriff Crow was giving her a very suspicious look. “Does it work?”

If Mia confessed that she couldn't use it herself, there would be no reason for her to come along. But if she waited till they were at her cottage, maybe Sheriff Crow could take it, and she'd be so pleased with it that she'd let Mia come with a regular crossbow. “Oh, it definitely works!”

Ross called, “Could I borrow a shotgun?”

The sheriff gave Mia another suspicious look as they returned to the office. She got a gun for Ross, and took out her own rifle. The two swiftly loaded their weapons.

“Okay.” Sheriff Crow tucked her rifle under her arm to protect the touchhole from the rain. “If you're that determined, Mia, let's go get your miracle crossbow.”

They set out into a wild wind that drove stinging rain into their faces. When they neared her cottage, Mia was surprised to see golden light in the windows. “Did I leave the light on again? I'm so absentminded—”

Two rifles whipped up, pointing at the door. Waving the others back, the sheriff kicked the door open.

A tall man in a long black coat sat on Mia's bed, one elbow resting on the engine as he browsed one of her manuals. His face was scratched from forehead to neck.

“Stand up,” Sheriff Crow ordered.

The bounty hunter laid the manual aside, then stood, hands held away from his body. “I figured you'd show up sooner or later.”

“Who've you been fighting?” the sheriff demanded.

“Cats.” The bounty hunter jerked his thumb toward the surgery.

Mia gasped. “You didn't hurt my cats?”

“Boot's on the other foot.” His lips thinned in what might have been a smile.

A sheet of purple lightning brightened the windows to a mad glare. Spheres of light leaped along every metal object in the room. The bounty hunter took a fast step away from the bed, where the engine briefly glowed with lurid light. The cottage vibrated in a blast of thunder.

When the rumbles began to roll away, he said, “This is not a natural storm. That purple lightning and St. Elmo's Fire? I've seen it before. Voske's oldest daughter Changed last year. Deirdre's a stormbringer. If she's here, Voske's outside your gates right now.”

Ross's voice cracked. “You're a liar. You're working for him. This is some kind of trick.”

“Any particular reason we should believe you?” Sheriff Crow inquired.

Mia quietly felt along the stacked boxes until she found the comforting shape of her flamethrower.

“Take a look,” said the bounty hunter. “You won't have seen the army approaching because Deirdre uses mist to settle the dust from the horses' hooves. But I bet you can see them now.”

“And you're telling us, why?” Sheriff Crow held the rifle loosely, muzzle pointed at the floor. Mia knew how fast she could bring it up. She wondered if the bounty hunter did.

He had seemed perfectly cool before, even when St. Elmo's Fire burned on the engine inches away from him, but now his lips tightened. “Voske didn't send anyone to warn me he was coming. I think he's planning to kill me along with the rest of you.”

Mia was ready to rush out and take a look for herself, but the sheriff said calmly, “And why would that be?”

The man leaned back against the wall, equally calm, as if they were having a casual conversation over drinks at Jack's. “Voske hired me to fetch the book, preferably along with the boy who stole it. He also gave me the option to kill the boy.”

Mia edged closer to Ross.

He went on. “When I tracked him here—well, Tom Preston and I know each other. I tried to get the book and the boy by legal means. When you wouldn't surrender them, I tried to intimidate the boy into handing it over. When that didn't work, I tried to steal it. I take off my hat to you, Juarez.” He tipped an imaginary hat to Ross. “I still don't know where that book is.”

“Sounds to me like you did your best for your employer,” said Sheriff Crow. “What went wrong between you?”

“I think Voske got paranoid,” the bounty hunter replied. “He hired me for a job that should've taken a couple days. It's been over a month. If he's been spying on me, maybe he saw me talking instead of fighting, and thought I was throwing in with you folk.”

“I don't suppose you know how he spies on people?”

He shrugged. “No idea.”

Ross scowled. “Don't believe anything he says. He claimed I could control people's minds!”

The bounty hunter's mouth twitched in amusement. Mia suspected that the lie had come under the heading of “legal means.”

The sheriff seemed to agree. “That was to turn Preston against you, but this story makes sense. Voske's tried to take Las Anclas before, and we know that he never forgives what he sees as betrayal. If he thought you double-crossed him, and he knew we were planning a dance tonight . . . Yes, I can see him deciding it was the perfect opportunity to take the town, and get the book, the thief, and the traitor along with it.”

The bounty hunter nodded. “So here I am. If I'm going to be fighting him anyway, I'd rather have some backup.”

The sheriff tucked her wet hair behind her ears and turned her entire face to the man. “Are you asking me to deputize you?”

“Yes.” He returned the sheriff's cool gaze with unblinking black eyes.

“All right,” she said. “Let's go.”

BOOK: Stranger
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