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Authors: Sherwood Smith

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BOOK: Stranger
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breathing hard. Dan Valdez and Ms. Segura followed him, with Felicité right behind. “Is this everyone?”

Daddy glanced around. “I hope not. Let's give it another minute.”

Purple lightning flashed from the wall to the sky. Clouds formed, roiling in a vortex. Rain began to patter down. Felicité's veiled hat and clothing briefly protected her, but as rain soaked through her clothes and blew against her veil, the flesh of her neck began to itch and crawl. Her gills were forming.

She backed away and reached for her scarf. Her fingers touched the bare skin of her exposed neck. Felicité's mouth went dry with horror. The scarf had fallen off, probably when she bent to pick up those arrows. She could feel her gills gape as she pulled her hair forward and tried to tug the veil down to her shoulders.

The smoke vanished under the rain, and the fire that had begun to lick at the trees died down to steaming embers. For the first time they could see the entirety of the hole blown in the wall, and the number of people trying to break past it. Moonlight shone on the silvery hair of a teenage girl surrounded by guards. She stretched her hands to the sky.

“Deirdre!” shouted a woman beside her. “That's enough! The fire's out. You can stop now!”

The girl clenched an upraised hand into a fist. Her clear voice rose above the rain. “Daddy thinks I'm weak! He'll see. I can do it. I'm stronger than the storm!”

Red, green, and orange lightning flashed across the entire sky, followed by thunder so loud it rattled through Felicité's teeth and bones. The rain intensified. Then it stopped, just as abruptly. The girl crumpled to the ground.

Several of the guards bent over her, checking for signs of life. In the sudden stillness, the female guard's voice carried clearly. “She pushed herself too hard. Deirdre's dead.”

Felicité yanked her wet hair forward, plastering it against her neck as hard, cold triumph burned inside her. The enemy girl had died just in time. Another minute of her storm and Felicité's nose would have closed off, forcing her to breathe through the gills. What if someone talked to her?

She took a good long look at the dead girl, who lay still, silvery hair covering her face in locks like dead snakes. That was what the Change did. It made people use you, it made Norms hate you, it turned you into a monster, and if you gave in to it, it could kill you.

Her father was right to hate the Change.

The guards began squabbling over the body. “I'm not telling the king his daughter's dead,” said the woman. “You tell him.”

The man backed away. “Not me!”

Bellowing a battle cry, he charged at the forge workers who stood in a line, pipes and hammers in hand. Mrs. Horst let fly a bolo that tangled his legs. The woman who had guarded the girl took his place, and the fighting resumed.

Felicité's father took aim at an attacker and shot, but his pistol clicked. He pulled up his powder bag, shook it, then flung it down. The last of his powder was ruined.

Jennie ran up, followed by Henry, Mr. McVey, Mrs. Torres, and Ms. Gboizo. Henry and Jennie seemed unhurt, but the others wore makeshift bandages.

“That makes ten of us.” Her father turned toward the ridge. “I guess this is as good as it gets. Let's go.”

As Felicité trotted behind him, she thought of the Change that had ruined Sheriff Crow's face and killed her baby. Even Changes that didn't physically warp you could break you inside, like Ross and his bond with that deadly tree. She wondered what he was planning to do. She'd seen him talking to Mia, and then the two of them had headed straight for it.

After about fifty yards, her father pointed south. Three people ran off. Another twenty yards or so, and he pointed north. Jennie and two others headed for the cornfield. Only Julio and Henry stayed with Felicité and her father, Henry running by her side.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes.” She tugged her hair closer to her face.

Henry patted the hilt of his sword. “Isn't this exciting? Did you see how many I killed?”

“I hate this,” Felicité said.

His face became serious. “I'll keep you safe.”

She didn't want the protection of anyone who thought bloody chaos was exciting. She leaped over a small cactus, hoping to get a little distance. Dawn was coming.

She glanced at her father, whose face betrayed exhaustion and tension.

That was a mistake. He sent a searching gaze her way, reaching his free hand to give her a comforting pat on the cheek. His eyes narrowed—she could see them clearly in the pale light.

“Did you hurt your neck? Let me see.” He reached for her veil.

Felicité's hands darted up to block his. “No, it's nothing. It's just my hair.”

“No. I see something. Sometimes you don't notice a bad wound until it's too late. Let me—”

Felicité backed away, then stopped. If she ran, he'd know she was hiding something. He reached out again. As soon as he lifted her veil, Daddy would know she was a monster, and he would never love her again.

She spun around and pointed toward the ridge. “Ross is Changed. He can control that singing tree. He's doing it right now. I'll show you.”

“What?” Her father's bloodshot eyes widened. “He's

Felicité started running. His footsteps were right behind her, Henry and Julio flanking him.

Mia stood on the ridge, peering down. Below her, Ross leaned against the singing tree, pressing his face and right hand into the crystal trunk.

Her father stopped beside Felicité, staring in horror. “What's he doing?”

The tree's brilliant coloring began to fade, starting at the tips of its branches and draining downward. It went pink as a rosebud, then transparent as dusty glass, and then so clear that Ross appeared to be leaning on air.

“Felicité's right,” Julio whispered, his eyes wide with shock. “He's controlling it.”

Ross stumbled away and scrambled on hands and knees up the ridge. When he neared the top, Mia grabbed his hand and hauled him up. Before anyone could say anything, the two of them bolted, Ross staggering as if he was wounded or utterly exhausted.

“Get back,” Felicité's father warned.

As she obeyed, she wormed her fingers under her veil. The desert air had evaporated most of the rain. Daddy was watching Ross and Mia flee. Felicité stealthily rubbed her neck dry until she felt her gills close up under her fingers.



the cornfield. He was already reeling, and the tree hadn't even done anything yet.

“Did you do it?” she gasped.

He didn't speak, and she thought maybe he couldn't. Then he whispered, “Yes.”

A heartbeat later, she heard the distant sound of shattering glass.

Shouts of surprise and fear echoed across the ridge. Ross doubled over. Mia pulled him upright. He sagged against her. All the color had gone out of his face, except for where he'd bitten his lip till the blood ran down.

The far-off cries turned one by one into screams. His plan had obviously worked, but Mia didn't feel any relief, let alone triumph. She didn't know which was worse, listening to Voske's soldiers dying in agony, or listening to Ross sobbing with pain beside her.

She dragged him farther into the field, but he only made it a few steps before he tripped. Mia bent to steady him, but the flamethrower swung around and nearly hit his head. She had to let go of him to block it, then shoved it back impatiently as Ross sank to his knees, hands over his face.

Mia put her hand on his shoulder. “Come on, I'll help you walk.”

He didn't move. She unstrapped her flamethrower and put it on the ground. Obviously she'd never get to use it, and she might have to carry him.

Ross screamed, then recoiled as if he'd been shot. He fell on his back, arms outflung. Mia dropped down beside him.

Jennie pounded up, mud splashing, braids flying, eyes wild. “Where's he hit?”

“He's fine. He's only fainted.”

“What?” Jennie knelt next to Ross. “He's been shot. I saw it. Just like Sera. Just like—”

“He's done this before.” It was unnerving to see Jennie panicking. “He'll be all right. See?”

She laid her hand on his chest. The ribs molding the thin shirt were still. She waited, but her hand didn't move. She leaned over and put her ear against his mouth. She heard no hiss of breath, felt no puff of warm air. Mia felt as if the earth had crumbled beneath her and she was falling through cold and empty space.

Jennie cried out, “He's dead. Mia, he's—”

“No, he's not,” Mia insisted, willing it to be true. She put two fingers under his jaw. Nothing. She pressed harder, her own heart lurching, and found a faint pulse.

His heart was beating. But if he didn't start breathing soon, it would stop, and then there'd be nothing anyone could do.

Dad had taught her how to make people breathe. He'd told her it had worked for him twice, years before she'd been born, once on a choking baby and once on a woman struck by lightning. But everyone she'd ever seen him try it on had died.

Mia drew a deep breath and gently exhaled into Ross's mouth. It felt as if something was blocking her, and she didn't see his chest move. Then she realized that she'd skipped the first step.

Though every nerve burned with impatience, she forced herself to go through each step, exactly as she'd had been taught. She tilted his head back. Pinched his nose shut. Made sure her mouth was sealed over his.

And tried again.

This time she felt his lungs fill with air. As she breathed for him again, she kept her mind on her father's lessons, visualizing everything he'd showed her and carrying out each step without variation, as if she were following the directions in a manual.

Three breaths. She tasted salty iron—blood from where Ross had bitten his lip.

Four. She should have let Ross go, that night after the rattlesnake attack.

Five. She should have made him go.

Six. That look on Jennie's face, when she'd said Ross had fallen just like Sera.

Seven. How long could they stay here before someone attacked them?

Eight. If she checked his pulse again, what if she couldn't find one?

Nine. She had to stop thinking. She couldn't stop thinking.

Mia was taking the tenth breath for herself, her head buzzing weirdly, when she heard a gasp. Ross coughed, then sucked in his own breath of air. And another. He breathed in ragged, shuddering gasps. But he was breathing.

Jennie was guarding them, sword drawn, gazing out toward the ruddy, dawn-lit ridge. Tears ran down her cheeks, glinting in the peachy glow of the rising sun. Her mouth trembled with grief.

“Jennie.” Mia's voice was hoarse.

Jennie didn't move.

Mia made an effort and put more force into her voice. “Jennie, he's all right. Look.”

Jennie slowly lowered her head, then sheathed her sword and dropped down beside Ross. She put one arm around him, and pulled Mia down with the other. Mia gripped her tight and laid her cheek against Ross's hair, which was as soft as a cat's. Now she was crying too.

The screaming had stopped.

Mia lifted her head at the sound of running footsteps. Enemies approached, silhouetted against the pink-streaked sky. Mr. Preston's sharp voice rose as he drew a small group of defenders together into a line.

One of Voske's men ran to the edge of the ridge. He took one look, then backed up hastily, nearly falling. “They're dead!” His voice was clear in the still dawn air. “They're all dead! There's crystal growing out of them.”

The enemy line faltered. Then a tall man stepped out, facing Mr. Preston. He was too far away for Mia to be able to see his face, but his hair glinted silver in the strengthening light.

“That's Voske,” Jennie said, her voice flat. She stood up, drawing her sword.

The sweet sound of crystal chimes rose delicately on the air. From farther away came more chiming, faint with distance, but joining into the same intricate melody. All the way out to the ruined city, the deadly trees rang out their warning. Mia tightened her grip on Ross.

“Retreat!” Voske shouted. “Sound the retreat!”

One of his soldiers blew a horn. The line of enemies began to back away, all except Voske. He lifted a rifle to his shoulder and aimed at Mr. Preston. Mr. Preston shoved Felicité behind him, and started to raise his sword.

Julio leaped to shield his uncle, but Mia was already on her feet. She dove for her flamethrower, snatched up the nozzle, and slapped the plunger. A huge tongue of flame roared out in a spectacular burst of orange and red.

It sputtered out immediately, but it was enough to distract Voske, whose hand jerked as he pulled the trigger. The bullet smashed into a sapling oak beside Mr. Preston, and a spindly branch fell.

Voske stared at Mr. Preston, who stared back. Then he slapped his pockets; he'd run out of ammunition. He wheeled about and took a couple steps, loping to rejoin his retreating soldiers.



battle, Jennie's hand didn't hurt when she fixed her hair. Though the bruises were fading, her memories stayed sharp and bright as knives.

In the mirror, she saw an unfamiliar figure, an intruder in someone else's room. But her room was exactly the same. She was the one who had changed.

She touched the weapons mounted by the mirror, then let her hand drop. There would be no morning drill.

There hadn't been any in those awful days when she helped bury the dead, enemy and friend, then searched for more beyond the walls.

She'd been so dazed and exhausted that she had felt as if she were sleepwalking. Adding to the dreamlike sense were the fields of wildflowers that had sprung up after the rains: brilliant orange poppies, yellow mustard flowers so bright they stung her eyes, purple sage, sun cups, desert stars. Glitter-lizards scuttled among them, creatures they usually saw only in early spring. She'd had to push aside spires of blue lupine to find the bodies. But there hadn't been as many enemy dead as she'd expected, and Voske's people had taken away their wounded.

“They'll be back,” her pa had said as they stood on the south wall, staring out at the new grove of obsidian singing trees.

But he was laughing as Dee made a sugar dust devil whirl into his coffee mug. Paco sat by José, his leg stretched out and resting on a chair.

Her pa leaned back in his chair. “There's no need to decide yet whether or not you want to keep the house, Paco. You're always welcome here.”

“If you move in with us, you can help with my chores,” José said, and wiggled his arm in its sling. “Between the two of us, we make up one guy.”

“Thanks,” said Paco, as if the joke hadn't even registered. She was glad to see that he was even speaking. Those first few days, he hadn't talked at all.

Jennie tried not to stare at his prominent cheekbones and angular jaw, so much an echo of Voske's. Paco didn't know who his father was—he'd sometimes talked about it when he lived with them. She wondered if her parents knew. They must. A lot of the older people in town had to have figured it out.

In this town where everyone knew everything, for once, a secret had been kept. As far as Jennie was concerned, she would take it to her grave.

Paco met her eyes, and she realized she'd been staring. His forehead puckered inquiringly.

“Any ideas for a headline?” It was the first thing that came into her mind. “I want to write an article for the

He shook his head, his expression closing off.

Her ma had been watching him too. “You don't have to write about the fighting, Jennie. Everyone knows what happened.”

“That's true,” Jennie said. “But people keep saying, ‘Did you know my uncle was a hero? My dad, my mom, my cousin?' Mr. Tsai told all of us contributors that it's important to record the brave things people did.”

And maybe if she filled her ears with other people's stories, she'd be able to drown out her own.

Paco bent his head over his plate.

Jennie took a square of corn bread. “But you're right, Ma. That can wait. I've got to give the students the big news, so I'd better get moving.”

As she passed the infirmary, she glanced at the curtained windows, as she had every day since they'd carried in Ross's limp body. Mia had reported that he was getting better, but Dr. Lee wouldn't let anyone see him. “Not even me,” she had said indignantly. He wouldn't let Jennie visit Indra, either. With so many seriously wounded patients, Dr. Lee had been forced to ration his Change power, healing them only enough to save their lives.

Jennie tried to picture Ross and Indra walking out of the infirmary, healthy and strong. She couldn't do it. She tried to bring back good memories, but all she could see was Ross falling, lying so still in the mud with blood around his mouth, and all she could feel was her failed struggle to lift Indra, his impossibly heavy weight, and the deathly chill of his hands.

She stamped her foot, hoping the jolt would drive away the memories, and walked faster when she saw the students milling around the schoolyard.

Yuki leaned against a fence, Kogatana on his shoulder. The bruising from Mia's crossbow was still visible around his collarbone and upper arm, but it had faded from black to purple.

He seemed pleased to see her. “Hi, Jennie. Mom sent me to invite you to dinner tonight. It's Shabbat, so the food will be extra-good.”

The adults had decided that Yuki was done with school. Like Paco, he wasn't getting a formal graduation. The excuse was that there was too much rebuilding going on, but Jennie knew that Paco had refused to have a ceremony. Yuki had too. She wondered if it was to draw attention away from Paco's choice.

“Thanks,” Jennie said. “Tell her I'll be there.”

“I asked Paco, too, but he said no.” Yuki paused, and Jennie wondered if he too was remembering how the Rangers had carried Paco to Luc's, over his halfhearted objections, and they'd all sung “Hijo de la Luna.” “I'm worried about him.”

“I am too. It must be terrible to lose—” She was afraid she'd start crying if she even said Sera's name aloud. Belatedly, Jennie remembered that Yuki had lost both his parents, years ago, and felt even worse.

“It is.” Yuki reached up to stroke Kogatana, who was nuzzling him. “You'd think I'd know what to say to him. But I don't.”

The image of Voske's face seared Jennie's mind, nose and chin and cheekbones sharp in the flickering firelight. She forced it away, and it faded, leaving her heart hammering as if she'd been running.

“Do you feel like the battle changed you?” she asked impulsively.

Yuki hesitated, then down came his chin in his characteristic clipped nod. “You know Paco and I were defending the front gate. He could barely stand. We were both out of arrows. I was sure I was going to die, and I'd never get the chance to leave Las Anclas. But I wasn't afraid or angry. Then I remembered being on the raft with Miyazawa-san and Fumi-san and Yoshida-sensei. I'd always thought they sacrificed themselves for me because I was their prince. And I'd wondered if they would have regretted that if they'd known I'd never be a prince again.”

Jennie recalled the solemn, haughty boy whose first, broken words in English had been to demand that he be addressed as “Prince Yuki.” How glamorous she and the other girls had thought him, and how disappointed they'd been when he'd finally told everyone that he was no longer a prince. But she'd never known the names of the people whose bodies had been found with him.

He went on, “Here's what I realized after the battle. Maybe they didn't give me their water because I was their prince.”

Jennie glanced out at the schoolyard. Rico was tearing after Will Preston, yelling, “You didn't tag me! You're still it!”

Guilt choked her. She forced the words out. “You were a kid. They would have protected you no matter who you were.”

Yuki shook his head. “That wasn't what I meant. At the end of the battle, when I was nearly out of ammo, I was willing to die for the sake of the people I loved. So maybe they were too.”

Jennie had never before heard Yuki talk so openly. The battle really had changed him. But not as it had changed her.
hadn't done anything wrong.

Jennie had to say something, before he could ask her if she, too, had been changed. “Do you still want to leave Las Anclas?”

He studied the ground. “Yes.” Then he pushed away and walked off. She suspected that he regretted having shared that much.

In the schoolyard, students stood in a knot, arguing.

Rico exclaimed, “Ross's power is so cool!”

“It is not cool,” Felicité retorted.

Brisa put her hands on her hips. “Ross saved the whole town. Where I was standing, we were losing. Then those chimes started ringing, and Voske called the retreat. That's because of Ross.”

“Where I was standing, we were doing fine.” Henry thumped his chest. “I was with Mr. Preston. We could have taken out Voske's best team. I was all ready to kill Voske myself when Mia got in the way with that flamethrower. Though that blast was pretty great.”

Felicité's hands were gripped together, the nails white. “It was awful. You didn't see it, Brisa.”

“What was it like?” Carlos asked.

Jennie wondered if Felicité was haunted by her own memories. They hadn't spoken once since Felicité had said, “It's your fault.” Now her words were as brittle as falling ice. “I was right there beside Daddy when a man staggered up the ridge, screaming, and fell down at my feet with crystal growing through him.”

A girl's voice rose in a shout. “You don't know what I had to do in the field hospital! Don't tell me all the horrible stuff you saw outside!”

Jennie turned, almost not recognizing Becky Callahan's face, scarlet with rage. Jennie hadn't even known she was capable of yelling.

Felicité's voice, too, rose angrily. “That's what your hero's precious Change power did. Ross is a monster!”

So that's what her real voice sounds like,
thought Jennie.
But what does she have to be angry about? Everyone close to her is fine.

Sujata shoved past Henry and confronted Felicité, face-to-face, almost nose to nose. “How dare you call Changed people monsters! Monsters like my father died to protect this town.”

Felicité stood there, her hands rigid by her sides, and Jennie stepped between them. “Take your seats. Now.”

Sujata's hand was already raised to slap Felicité. Jennie caught her eye and shook her head. Slowly Sujata lowered her hand.

Felicité flinched as if the slap had landed. “Jennie. I should not have said that.” And when Jennie didn't speak, there was the sugar again. “Ross did save the town.”

But Jennie was waiting for the apology for that monster crack.

Felicité's throat worked, then she turned, shoulders straight, ribbons fluttering on her hat, and stalked into the schoolhouse, followed by Henry and the others. Brisa put her arm around Becky's shoulders.

Sujata murmured, “I don't know what's got into Felicité. Maybe
has been raving about monsters, but she better not say anything like that again, mayor's daughter or no.”

“I don't think she will,” Jennie said, though she wasn't sure of anything anymore.

“Nobody is like themselves. Oh, yes—Indra asked after you. Dr. Lee says you can go see him this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Sujata.” Jennie stepped into the schoolroom, studying all the faces. Some angry, others curious, some off in their own worlds. A few of the smaller kids surreptitiously kicked one another under the desks. Henry grinned as he took the seat by Felicité, who sat with her head bowed, so all Jennie could see was an enormous feathered hat and a beautifully worked lace scarf.

She drew in a deep breath, her eyes stinging when she took in the empty desks. Some belonged to people who'd been hurt. But two were empty because the fifteen-year-olds who'd once sat there were dead. Estela and Ken had ignored orders and run into the thick of the battle, meaning to help. Another empty desk was covered with curlicues and flowers, scratched on by sharp black claws. Laura Hernandez had followed her orders, and held the line till the end.

“I have an announcement,” Jennie began, and she didn't have to ask for quiet. “There will be no school until further notice. No!” The cheering that had begun stopped abruptly. “It doesn't mean you're free. Some will help with the harvest, others will be sentries, and you older ones will be on patrol until the wounded heal. Everyone will be training, because sooner or later, Voske will be back.”

She wanted to end on a less grim note, but couldn't. “The memorial is at sundown. You're dismissed.”

When everyone was gone, Jennie glanced up at the rafters, where she had hidden Ross's book. She wondered how important that book really was.

There was one person who'd know: the bounty hunter. If he was still around, the sheriff would know where.

Jennie walked to the sheriff's office, then stopped on the threshold when she discovered the bounty hunter leaning against the wall, eating a saucer of apple crumble. He seemed even taller and more formidable in the light of day.

A headline popped into her mind, making her smile for what felt like the first time in months: “Mysterious Bounty Hunter Eats Breakfast with Heroic Sheriff!”

“Morning,” he said.

Sheriff Crow beckoned her in. She wore her hair in two braids, the way she had before her Change, leaving her entire face bare. “This is Jennie Riley.”

“So,” Jennie said. “You're”—
On our side? Spying? Still here?
—“staying in town?”

He put down his fork. “Tom Preston invited me to join the Rangers.”

Jennie tried not to show the flinch that she felt right down to her bones. But Sera's empty shoes had to be filled. She straightened, and looked him in the eye. “Can I ask you why Voske attacked us? Was he after Ross's book?”

“I think the book was more of a bonus,” Sheriff Crow replied. “He's after the town. He's tried before, you know.”

The bounty hunter gave a nod.

“But how did he know to attack on the night of the dance?” Jennie asked. “Or was that an accident?”

The man shook his head. “There are no accidents with Voske.” He flicked a glance at the walls, and Jennie scanned the room uneasily.

“Jennie, that's not for the newspaper, or the schoolyard,” said Sheriff Crow. Jennie nodded. Her throat hurt. Then the sheriff faced the bounty hunter. “I was meaning to talk to you about names.

“My name isn't really Elizabeth Crow. Crow isn't a last name at all. It's the name of my tribe. Way, way back when—sometime after the world changed—my people saw everything being forgotten. The one thing they were set on remembering was that we are Crow. So we used it as our name, because that is the one thing you can never forget.”

BOOK: Stranger
6.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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