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Authors: Sherwood Smith

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BOOK: Stranger
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The other Rangers crowded up. The entire team was there, with the exception of Julio Wolfe, who had been leading a patrol at Lockdown.

Jennie's heart thumped against her ribs as Sera went on. “We followed the boy's tracks, and found a lot of sated blood lizards. They churned up the ground, so we couldn't find any tracks but his. Once you're sworn in, we'll do a wide perimeter search.”

They headed inside, where Mayor Wolfe waited in a gown of dark-blue silk, composed and elegant.

“This deserves a fresh page in the record, don't you all think?” Felicité said in a sprightly voice. Wu Zetian rose on her hind legs to reach Felicité's outstretched hand. “Do you want to lead the ceremony, Wu Zetian, sweetie?”

Jennie couldn't help a flash of irritation at how Felicité was making herself the star of the show. Then she pushed it away. The important thing was that Jennie was going to be a Ranger at last.

Her gaze skimmed past Felicité, to her ma, Indra, the Rangers, Mayor Wolfe, even Mr. Preston. They all wished her well . . .

. . . and they were all Norms, except for Jennie. And possibly her ma, though no one knew whether her knack at communicating with horses was a Change or merely a talent. What would happen if Jennie were to reach out with her mind toward the pen on the desk, and pull?

The Rangers gathered in a circle, their faces solemn. They wanted to make her one of them. They wouldn't care whether she walked over and picked up the pen or pulled it into her hand from across the room. As long as they accepted her, it didn't matter what Mr. Preston might think.

Defense Chief Preston said, “Captain Diaz, will you do the honors?”

Sera had mentored Jennie every step of the way. It felt right that she should be the one to administer the oath. She raised her right hand, and so did Jennie. Sera's dark gaze settled on her as she said, “Repeat after me.
‘On my honor . . .'”

“On my honor . . .” Jennie's voice started to tremble, but she made herself speak precisely, so her mother could understand. She sensed Indra behind her, a supportive presence. Jennie's ma smiled at her, loving and serene.

“I will uphold the laws of Las Anclas . . .”

Jennie knew the oath by heart, but as she spoke it, she felt that for the first time, she truly understood it.

“. . . protect the citizens of Las Anclas even at the cost of my own life . . .”

“. . . have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions . . .”

“. . . and I will never leave a fellow Ranger behind.”

As she spoke the last line, all the Rangers joined with her:
“I swear to protect, defend, and serve.”

Jennie's eyes stung as her ma hugged her, whispering so only she could hear, “Pa and I are so proud of you, sweetheart.”

“Welcome to the Rangers, Jennie,” Sera said. When she spoke again, it was to them all. “We've got a mission waiting. Let's go.”



allowed to play with a necklace of golden coins that her daddy had given her mother as a wedding gift. The sound of gold on gold made a lovely chime.

This was the sound that Felicité heard inside her head when she paid compliments. Each compliment was a coin of gold that would return as a vote when she was ready to run for mayor. Those that took the most effort—that disguised how she truly felt—rang the sweetest.

“Congratulations! Have a safe journey,” Felicité said to Jennie, but her smile was for Indra as the two clasped hands and ran out with the Rangers.


Jennie and Indra. Now, there was a pairing that was wrong in every way. Indra was a Vardam, the second wealthiest family after the Wolfes. And a Norm, of course. Her daddy had said Indra was one of the most promising of the younger Rangers. He could become captain someday, when Sera retired. Later, he might be elected defense chief. That made him the perfect match—for Felicité.

When Felicité's father had been both sheriff and defense chief, he'd unquestionably been the most powerful man in town. He still was, even after Elizabeth Crow had used her Change to steal his position as sheriff. Felicité's parents represented the marriage of military and civil power, far stronger together than each would have been separately. Felicité intended to marry someone who could stand beside her in the same way.

As her mother always said, a first attraction seldom lasts. Indra was bound to get tired of Jennie Riley. They hadn't a thing in common, except for the Rangers.

Felicité chirped to Wu Zetian, who leaped up to perch in the crook of her arm. She straightened the rat's bow, and noticed with dismay that it was already wilting. She'd have to talk to the maid about cornstarch—

“It's also possible that he's a spy. It looks like he came down the Centinela Pass, and that leads straight into Voske's territory.”

Her daddy's voice was sharp. Felicité glanced up. He sat with her mother at the Lockdown command post, where the council held open meetings. Despite his best efforts to instill discipline, everyone was roaming around. If the Lockdown went to Battle Stations, they'd all have to take their positions. But until then, anyone who wasn't on duty was free to drift on over and voice their uninformed opinions.

“Some spy, collapsing half-dead in the arroyo,” scoffed Mr. Nguyen. As if a furniture maker knew anything about spies! “If Eagle-Eye Riley hadn't spotted him, he'd be completely dead. Can't do much spying then.”

“Trust Voske to be the first to put ghosts in the field,” joked Grandma Lee. Everybody laughed.

Everybody but Mrs. Hernandez. “Maybe he's a trader, and he was attacked by bandits.”

“All alone? Traders always travel in groups, because of bandits.”

Mr. Horst blared over everyone's heads, as if he was in his forge and needed to shout over hammering: “I'll wager there's a war party sent by Voske, hot on his trail. Why aren't you ringing Battle Stations, Preston? You're the one always complaining we don't have proper discipline.”

“If the Rangers find any sign of a war party, we'll go to Battle Stations.” Felicité's mother didn't raise her voice, but everyone shut up. It was one of her maxims: If you always demonstrate self-control, people will accept your authority.

Never forget that you are a Wolfe, she said. And nobody else will forget.

More mayors had come from the Wolfes than from any other family.

Felicité's mother said to Mrs. Hernandez, “Where were we? The street signs in Sunset Circle, was it not?”

“And who'll repaint them,” Mrs. Hernandez added. “Valeria, you know I'm not one to make trouble, but . . .”

She went on—and on, and on. Her daughter, Laura, also rambled when she taught. Felicité was so glad her next birthday would be her eighteenth, and then she could graduate. Six more months.

She missed her
If only she hadn't Changed—Felicité jerked her thoughts away from that subject.

At least Jennie Riley's Change was invisible. It was irritating to see a ruler fly across the classroom—so unnatural—but it could be worse. Felicité buffed her shiny nails, wondering how Mrs. Hernandez felt seeing her own daughter's monstrous, catlike claws every morning at the breakfast table, wrapped around mugs or scrabbling to pick up a spoon.

“Look at that golden hair.” Mrs. Hernandez sighed. “Laura keeps pestering me to buy that pricey dye the next time traders come round, but her hair is fine as it is, an honest black, and who'll do the extra work to pay for it?”

“I wish my hair had beautiful blue highlights like Laura's,” Felicité said in her best imitation of her mother's diplomatic voice. “But mine isn't true black. It's plain dark brown. Laura is so lucky.”

Mrs. Hernandez sniffed, but her mouth relaxed. Felicité's mother smiled.


• • •

Felicité found a corner where she could listen, unnoticed, and secretly practice Wu Zetian's codes. Her parents usually included her in political talks, but sometimes they sent her off, saying, “You're only seventeen.” Well, if they could keep secrets, so could she. Not even her daddy knew what Felicité had taught Wu Zetian.

She understood the importance of discipline. And the importance of knowledge. The best kind of knowledge was the kind that other people didn't know you had.

As time wore on, tempers sometimes wore out, and people started revealing things they didn't mean to. The carpenter and the ironmonger clearly had a personal conflict. They kept taking opposite sides, even when the talk came around to the worry that the entire town shared: not if, but when, King Voske would attack again.

Mr. Nguyen made a dramatic gesture. “It's a sad state of affairs when a single bandit can throw the entire town into such an uproar.”

“Bandit! It's Voske! For all we know, Voske's invisible son is right here in this room!” Mr. Horst bellowed.

Her father didn't raise his voice, either, but like her mother, he commanded attention, as Mr. Horst had not. “Feel around for him, Horst, if that's what you believe. The way people rush around in this town, someone would have run into him by now—if he exists.”

Felicité clutched Wu Zetian close to her chest. That was one secret she was sorry she'd learned. The council knew from questioning traders that Voske's eldest son, Sean, had a Change power that allowed him go unnoticed unless you consciously searched for him. The traders had added that everyone in Voske's empire was constantly peering over their shoulders and jumping at shadows. The council had decided to keep an eye out for him themselves, but not to confirm the rumors. As her daddy said, “Alertness is good, but in an armed town, paranoia can kill.”

As far as anyone could tell, Sean had never attempted to spy inside Las Anclas. But Felicité's father scanned for him every day, and so did she. Whatever Voske's methods, he knew things. No matter how prepared a town was, he always attacked at the exact moment when they'd dropped their guard.

Mr. Horst startled Felicité by thundering, “Far as I'm concerned, we ring the bell and everybody goes to fight, the way we drove Voske off eighteen years ago. But it's quite another matter if certain people are using ‘the military' as a cover to pilfer nails for their own projects!”

“Listen here, you jackass—”

A rustle of silk, a waft of lemon verbena, and Felicité's mother was at her side. “Run to Jack's saloon and order sandwiches and drinks, will you, dear? Mayor's budget.”

Felicité ran, controlling her impatience. She was dying to hear more. Mr. Nguyen had plenty of business. If he was stealing . . . why?

The saloon was nearly empty, because of Lockdown. Jack Lowell made sandwiches of fresh-baked buns and braised rabbit, and set glasses and jugs of tamarindo in a small wagon. “Whose charge?”

“Mayor's budget.” Felicité loved saying the words. She was sure she'd love it even more when it was her own budget.

Back at the town hall, everyone called her an angel and suggested that she get a medal. Felicité poured out the tamarindo and waited until their attention was firmly on one another.

Then she walked by Mr. Nguyen, carrying Wu Zetian and a jug, and casually chucked the rat twice under the chin: the signal to learn his scent. Wu Zetian hopped down and stood up on her hind legs, and Mr. Nguyen reached down absently to pet her.

Felicité topped off everyone's cups, then took Wu Zetian aside. She took the rat's paw and traced the initials “SN,” for Sebastien Nguyen, on her own palm. She repeated it until Wu Zetian squeaked, signaling that she knew it.

The westering sun was streaming through the windows when the Rangers strode in. Jennie wasn't with them. She must be putting away the horses and equipment.


Sera reported that they had found evidence that a single person had been pursuing the boy, and had been wounded doing it. “I'll send a team to ride the far perimeter. But there's no one in attack range now.”

“Do that,” her daddy said. Louder, he announced, “Ring the Stand Down.”

The messenger on duty ran out.

Felicité walked up to Indra, who was as handsome as ever, even dusty and tired and smelling of sweat and horses. “Would you like some tamarindo?”

“Thanks, Felicité.”

As she smiled up at him, she heard his breathing change. That signaled some alteration in emotion. Attraction, perhaps?

She refilled the mug he'd emptied in three gulps. “Now that you're back, would you like to go to Luc's with me?”

His smile tightened to politeness. “I'm in a relationship right now.”

“I didn't know it was exclusive,” Felicité replied, hiding her disappointment. When had that happened? And how had she not known? “Congratulations! I'm planning a party. You and Jennie should come.”

His smile relaxed again. “Sure. Let us know when, okay?”

“I certainly will.” Felicité's mind was racing. Now that Jennie was a Ranger as well as interim teacher, her schedule would get complicated. It would be easy enough to schedule the party when Jennie had duty. Then Felicité could see how serious that “exclusive” was. Maybe Jennie was pushing Indra into a serious relationship before he was ready.

Once everyone was gone, Felicité picked up Wu Zetian's paw and used it to trace the initials “SN” on her own palm.

“Follow,” she whispered.

Wu Zetian would track the carpenter while seeming to wander around town. She was as clever as her namesake, the empress who was one of Felicité's several royal ancestors. When she reported back, Felicité would learn the truth.



aimed at the wound on his wrist. He bore down with all of his weight, methodically cutting down, exposing the growing shard. It gleamed a rich ruby red. He tried to pull it out, but it was as slippery and smooth as glass.

As he braced himself to try again, the shard melted into his body. He tried to run, but his feet were rooted to the ground. Cold red crystal crept up through his body, paralyzing him.

Triumphant chimes rang around him. He and the ruby shard were one

Ross fell to the ground with a thump, smothered in something soft. He thrashed, desperate to get it off. A heap of blankets dropped beside him, leaving him sprawled on a cool wood floor.

He clutched his left arm. The skin was soft and human. A long scar remained, but the terrible pain had faded to a dull ache. He flexed his fingers. They moved, but he couldn't close them into a fist, and it hurt when he tried.

Ross looked around. He lay beside what appeared to be a real bed. He touched a polished wooden leg. It
a real bed.

He wasn't dreaming anymore. He'd cut the shard out. He was still alive, and he wasn't going to turn into a tree. The Changed sheriff must have brought him here.

He put his hand on his side, where the bounty hunter's bullet had clipped him, and took a deep breath. There was no pain, only the raised edges of a scar. Then, puzzled, he examined his hands. He always kept his nails clipped, but they had grown out. His hair seemed to have grown too. How long had he been unconscious?

A soft blue-green glow came from a bright-moth cage on a stand. Someone had selected only the most restful colors, but he knew better than to think he was safe. Still, he recalled all the times he'd lain awake in the desert, watching their rainbow hues against the dark sky, and couldn't help but feel slightly reassured.

The familiar lump of his backpack was beside the bed. He grabbed it and felt inside. The book was gone.

He leaped up and ran to the door, bare feet skidding on the polished floor. Then caution took over. He cracked the door open and peeked out. No one was on the landing outside. Okay, that was one good thing: he wasn't a prisoner.

Or at least not in this room.

Ross closed the door again. Except for the narrow bed, the bright-moth cage, and a bed table with a glass of water and a folded set of clothes, the room was bare. He reached for the glass eagerly, then paused. Who knew if it was really water, or what might have been added to it?

The windows were paned with glass, free of all but the smallest streaks and bubbles. This had to be a wealthy person's house. The closest window revealed a huge square partly sectioned into gardens, with an enormous two-story building on the other side. They had electricity there—floodlights silhouetted a sentry patrolling on the roof. He dropped down, out of sight.

Then he tried the other window. The closest structure was a cottage, its curtained windows golden with a steady light. That light illuminated a treasure trove of prospecting finds in the yard and on the flat roof—and not even guarded. It was obviously the home of another prospector.

Bet whoever lives there has my book,
he thought.
They're probably nosing through it right now.

Ross checked his pack again. His knives were gone too. He upended it on the bed. Everything he could possibly use as a weapon was missing. His right hand clenched, and pain shot through his left wrist as those fingers locked, unable to close. He relaxed his hands. Some towns required visitors to surrender their weapons. It didn't necessarily mean they meant him any harm.

He searched under the bed for his boots, finding nothing but a three-eyed spider wrapping a cricket in luminescent silk. There was nothing he could improvise into a weapon that would give him more of an advantage than his own hands and feet.

It was harder than he would have imagined to dress with only one useful hand. How long would it take to heal? he wondered. How well could he fight when it took him several tries to button his jeans? How much harder would it be to survive in the desert?

I'll figure it out,
he thought, dragging on his leather jacket. He'd met plenty of people who'd been disabled by Change or injury and were surviving just fine. There was the prospector whose right hand was a bird's wing. She'd worked so smoothly that it had taken him several minutes to notice that the feather brush she used to clean her finds had grown from her wrist. If she could manage, so could he.

He hefted his pack and opened the door again. Something warm and furry collided with his ankles, nearly tripping him. Before he could pull back, his foot propelled the thing off the landing.

The creature splayed out in midair. Flaps of furry skin stretched and arrested its fall, and the tabby cat glided down to the ground floor. It glared at Ross and let out an indignant meow.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

He walked more cautiously down the stairs—stepping over a calico cat and skirting a black one—and into a parlor flooded with moonlight. Near the front door, he found a shoe rack with his boots.

He pulled them on, impatiently stuffing the laces inside rather than trying to knot them one-handed, then straightened. A door opened to a room with a big table and medical equipment. The tabby cat made a run for it, but Ross shut the door first. Had the people there healed him? Didn't matter anymore. They'd taken his prize and weapons, and he'd get them back, even if he had to fight the thief to do it. The fact that King Voske had sent a bounty hunter to retrieve the book only proved its value.

Ross ran to the house with the treasures in its yard. He used the sheets of metal and the sound of the humming generator as cover as he made his way to a gold-lit window. Pressing close to the wall, he peered inside.

It was a one-room cabin, half of it crammed with prospected parts, broken machines, and tools. The other half was very clean, organized around a burner, a water pump, a sink, and a table covered with glass bottles and containers.

A narrow bunk had a complete engine resting on the patchwork coverlet. A side table was piled with yellowed pages out of old manuals. A prospector could spend his entire life searching and never find half this stuff. He couldn't see the entire room from where he was, but he spotted part of someone's back. He moved to get a better look.

A teenage girl crouched over his book like a vulture.

He charged around to the door and flung it open. “Give me back my book!”

The girl blinked up at him. She didn't move to defend herself, or even to protect the book. “Hi,” she said cheerfully. “Do you know how to read this?”

Ross breathed hard, trying to contain his anger. “It's mine.”

“I know.” She patted the air between them, as if that would make everything okay. “I know! I'm not stealing. I'm only looking. I meant to return it before you noticed it was gone. My father didn't think you'd wake up till halfway through tomorrow.”

“Who else knows about it?” he demanded.

The abacus and slide rule on the girl's belt rattled as she clutched the book. “No one! Not even Dad.” He reached for it. She didn't let go but turned it around so they both could see it. “Here, check this out.” It was open to a diagram that had also intrigued him, of a crossbow that shot six arrows at once.

His anger died away. She seemed excited but not greedy. He waited.

She smiled back from a round face framed by short black hair. Friendly brown eyes examined him from behind square wire-rimmed glasses. “Isn't it wonderful? I wish I knew how to read that script. Can you?”

The back of his neck itched with embarrassment. Obviously she could read every scrap of paper in the room. No way would he admit that he couldn't.

Instead, he changed the subject. “Are you a prospector too? It looks like there's great pickings around here.” He paused. “Uh, where is ‘here'?”

“Las Anclas. The last town before you hit the ocean.”

“Oh, what the maps call World's End.”

“Well, I'm the chief mechanic of World's End.” She smiled proudly. “But really, I'm an engineer.”

Usually Ross told little about himself. It was safer that way, and most people didn't care. But he'd never met an engineer his age, and the urge to talk to her was irresistible. He tapped the book. “I almost got killed by people trying to get this thing. Do you know what it is?”

“Not exactly, but I'd love to find out. Do you know how rare it is to find a complete book with diagrams?”

“Yeah. I'm a prospector.”

“I know! I saw your tools.” She sighed with envy. “You must see cool stuff all the time.”

“Not really. A good find is always exciting.” Ross indicated the engine on the bed. “Like that. That's complete, isn't it? I've never seen one in such good shape.”

The girl beamed. “You noticed!”

“It's a treasure. Does it work?”

“It will when I'm done with it,” she assured him, giving the engine a familiar pat. “That is, if I can find the right kind of fuel.” She picked up a yellowed page from the table. “Here's part of the schematics. Have you ever seen another manual for internal combustion engines? Or even a piece of one?”

Ross tried to sound out the first few letters, but hundreds and hundreds of letters followed those. It was hopeless. He raised his eyes to find her watching. She knew what he'd been doing. His face heated up. But she didn't mock him, or even give him a look like she thought he was stupid.

“My name's Mia Lee,” she said. “What's yours?”

“Ross Juarez. Do you have my weapons?”

“No, Sheriff Crow took them. Don't worry, she'll give them back.”

“Point out where she is. I'll get them on my way out.”

Mia flapped her hands frantically. “No, no, no! I have to study your book some more! Please don't go! Do you have somewhere you need to be?”

Ross had never in his life had somewhere he needed to be. “I have to take my book and go.”
Before someone decides to keep my book and get rid of me,
he finished silently.

“How's your arm?”


She offered him a wrench. Confused, he held out his right hand to take it.

She shook her head. “Left hand.”

His shoulders tensed. She knew he couldn't use it. She could turn that to her advantage if it came to a fight. He said warily, “What do you care?”

“Sheriff told us how you warned her. My father can help with your hand, if you stick around a while.”

“But they wouldn't let me stay here . . . would they?”

“Sure,” Mia said cheerfully. “That's why we put you in the guest room. Why not?”

“There's this guy after me. The one who shot me. How long was I out, anyway?”

Mia pursed her lips. “One night.”

His hand went to the scar over his ribs.

“Dad healed you,” she explained. “Whoever's after you, no one's seen them, and no one can sneak into Las Anclas. And if you stay, we can have a dance! The mayor always holds a dance if someone new comes.”

Ross had considered a number of possible outcomes as he'd headed for the cottage, several involving his own death. This was not one of them. “I don't know how to dance.”

“You'll learn.” Mia smiled. “Hey. About learning. We've got a schoolhouse here. And my best friend's the teacher.”

“You have a school?” He couldn't keep the longing out of his voice. It had been years and years since his grandmother's lessons; all he could remember was her teaching him, not what she'd taught.

“A library, too. It's got three hundred and nine books, and twenty-two of them are artifacts. Not all of them are complete, though. But you could sit there and read all you liked, once you learned how.”

Ross felt as if he'd tunneled into some unpromising-looking rubble heap and found a treasure trove.

“Well?” Mia asked. “Would you like to go to school?”

“I guess so,” he said slowly. “But I don't want people to know about my book. Don't tell anyone about it.”

“I won't,” she assured him. Her brown eyes widened hopefully. “If you stay, will you let me look at it? You could keep it here, at my place.”

That roused his suspicions. On the other hand, the easiest way to get the book would have been to simply let him die and take it. But her father had healed him instead. Still, it didn't feel right to walk out the door, leaving his book behind.

“You can take it back with you, if you like,” she offered. “But unless you carry it all the time, it's safer here. And if you do take it, everyone will wonder why you're always hauling your backpack around.”

She had a point. Besides, it would take seconds to search the room he was staying in, while her cabin was full of hiding places.

“Let's make a deal,” he said. “If you don't tell anyone, I'll let you look at it as for long as I'm in town.”

“Deal,” Mia said formally, holding her hand out flat.

Ross laid his palm against hers. She had calluses in the same places he did. “Deal. Guard it for me.”

She smiled radiantly at him and then at the book. “Why don't you go back and get some rest? Got a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”

• • •

Ross next woke to the pale light of early morning. He drank the water by the bed, then went downstairs. He could smell tortillas and savory aromas that he didn't recognize.

A man stood cooking at an iron stove as the mewing cats wove around his ankles. He was short and solid, with salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail and a round, pleasant face like Mia's.

“I didn't expect you to wake up so soon. That is, good morning. I'm Dante Lee, the doctor.” Dr. Lee's smile was like Mia's too. “Welcome to Las Anclas.”

BOOK: Stranger
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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