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Stranger /

by Brown, Rachel Manija; Smith, Sherwood.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: New York, New York : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2014.Description: 416 pages ; 22 cm.ISBN: 9780670014804 (hardcover); 067001480X (hardcover).Subject(s): Science fiction | Teenagers -- Fiction | Ability -- Fiction | Science fiction | California, Southern -- Fiction | Paranormal fiction | Science fictionSummary: "Generations after an unknown Change eliminated electricity and gave people unusual powers, the Southern Californian town of Las Anclas must deal with the consequences when a teenage prospector comes to stay"-- Provided by publisher.
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Young Adult Collection Young Adult Fiction YA SF BRO Available 39270003558677

Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change," arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town... where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.<br> <br> Teenage prospector Ross Juarez's best find ever - an ancient book he doesn't know how to read - nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

"Generations after an unknown Change eliminated electricity and gave people unusual powers, the Southern Californian town of Las Anclas must deal with the consequences when a teenage prospector comes to stay"-- Provided by publisher.

Excerpt provided by Syndetics

<opt> <anon I1="BLANK" I2="BLANK">All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India A Cup of Smoke: Stories and Poems OTHER BOOKS BY SHERWOOD SMITH Crown Duel A Stranger to Command The Spy Princess Sartor A Posse of Princesses Lhind the Thief 1 Ross ROSS JUAREZ RAN DOWN THE GULLY. WALLS OF EARTH and stone sheered high on either side, close enough to touch. Something flickered at the edge of sight. He jammed his heel into the dirt to stop himself, scanning warily. Stone. Dust. A hardy sprig of tarweed fluttering in the breeze. Maybe that had been it. A black claw slashed at his eyes, its serrated edges glinting with oily poison. He threw himself backward. A segmented leg emerged from a shadowy fissure; then a large, black-furred tarantula squeezed out and landed with a thump, sending up a puff of dust. Its mandibles, as long as the blades of Ross's knives, clicked together at knee height as the spider lunged at him. Ross snatched up a loose piece of granite. No point wasting one of his precious daggers. The throw hit the tarantula in its furry abdomen. It curled up, chittering angrily. He edged past, then picked up speed until the gully curved ahead, out of sight. When he reached the rocky outcropping, gravel and dry weeds crunched under his feet. Crystal chimes rang sweetly. Now, that was scary. The gully dead-ended about thirty feet ahead in a grove of singing trees. Razor-edged leaves, faceted branches, and translucent seedpods sparkled in the sun, turning the parched earth into a kaleidoscope of colored light. Exposed roots glistened like veins of jasper and smoky quartz. Behind the trees, an ancient concrete wall towered above the top of the gully. His first impulse was to run. But he reminded himself that the trees' farthest range was twenty feet, so he was safe. Which way now? He could climb out of the gully, but then he'd be visible to pursuit from above. Sweat trickled into his eyes. As long as he kept moving, he could forget how hot and thirsty and tired and scared he was, but once he stopped, all he could think of was water. He couldn't help reaching for his canteen and shaking it, though he knew he didn't have a drop left. He had to get out of this bone-dry arroyo. He took a cautious step, listening for the chime that usually preceded a barrage of crystal shards from the exploding seedpods. There was no wind, but the glassy leaves struck together, ringing out a threat. He was still safely out of range, but not by much. Another step past the outcropping revealed a rock fall that had shattered a brilliant purple tree. The others in the grove were colored by the fur of the animals they had killed and rooted in: yellow brown for coyotes, dark brown for raccoons, gray for javelinas, white for bighorn sheep. But those trees that grew from humans usually took their color from the dyes in clothing. He wondered who had died to create that purple tree. One of the boulders lay beside a hole in the cement--an open pipe. It might be big enough to wriggle through, if he took off his backpack and was willing to risk it. He wasn't willing. He hadn't seen the bounty hunter since the day before, when he'd taken refuge in the maze of arroyos. It ought to be safe to retrace his steps; if the tarantula went for him again, he'd use a knife. The concrete wall stretched for miles in both directions. But once he got around it, extracted water from a fishhook cactus, and snared a rabbit or quail for dinner . . . then what? He'd lost most of his supplies, and you couldn't make a shotgun and prospector's tools out of tumbleweeds. The obvious answer: he had to hit the nearest town and sell something. For once, he had a genuinely valuable find. Ross adjusted his backpack. He wasn't sure he wanted to give up the prize before he'd figured out its secrets. And as precious as it was, what if the potential buyer decided to steal it instead? A shadow fell across the weeds at the lip of the gully. Ross dropped to the ground as a shot rang out. He rolled, reached for his boot knife, and threw it. "Dammit!" A hit. But not good enough to take the guy out, if he could yell like that. Ross scanned frantically. He had no cover, unless he risked venturing into the trees' range to reach the boulder or the pipe. He took another knife from his belt. The hilt slipped in his hand--his palm was slick with blood. He glanced down. His shirt was soaked all along the right side. He hadn't felt the bullet, and it didn't hurt. Yet. He scrubbed his hand and the hilt against his jeans, then pressed his forearm tight against his side to try to stop the bleeding. All Ross saw above the gully's edge was brilliant blue sky, but the man yelled, "Let's make a deal." "Go to hell!" Ross's voice cracked. Now he felt the burning pain, and a stab every time he inhaled. He peeled his shirt from his side. The bullet had left a furrow along his ribs--not fatal, just bloody. He hoped the bounty hunter was starting to feel whatever damage he'd managed to do with his knife. As he squinted up into the blinding light, the shadow of a hawk fell across his face and was gone. The bounty hunter shouted, "Listen--" "No!" Ross yelled. Then he reconsidered. Every minute they spent talking was a minute he could figure out how to escape. "What do you want?" "I thought I could take you in less than a day." "So?" If he ran back, the man would follow and shoot him from above. Ross's knives didn't have a twentieth of the range of the rifle. "That was six days ago. I respect that." I bet. Ross pressed his arm tighter against the wound, which just made it hurt more. "I respect it enough to offer you a deal." Stall. "What's the deal?" No way forward, no way back, the bounty hunter would shoot him if he tried to climb out. . . . "You've given me enough trouble already. I don't much want to spend the next six days dragging you back to Voske. Give me the book, and I'll let you go." With his free hand, Ross patted his backpack and found the reassuring jut of the book. "It's mine!" "I don't care. Voske wants it, and he wants you--" "He wants to put my head on a pole," Ross muttered. "--but he wants the book more." I know he does, and I know what he'll do with it, Ross thought. He clutched the backpack tight. "Turn it over and walk away free, or I sit here and wait for you to change your mind. How are you doing on water?" Ross didn't believe for an instant that the bounty hunter was planning anything other than dragging him back to King Voske. Or killing him. That was what bounty hunters did. A pebble rolled down from the gully's edge. Ross hurled a rock with his left hand and heard the man scrabble back out of range. He made sure his remaining knives were loose in their sheaths. The bounty hunter kept silent. Ross knew it was to give him time to think about how hopeless his situation was: wounded, without water, trapped, and exposed in the sun. And it was working. The minutes passed, and Ross was painfully aware of his dry mouth, his burning side, and his throbbing head. Was he getting sunstroke already? The desert heat could kill him as surely as a bullet. "I'm not going anywhere!" the man shouted. The words stirred up first anger, then a sense of calm that washed through Ross's body like cooling water. He refused to surrender, and he refused to sit there and die. You should have kept your mouth shut, Ross thought. He might be able to cram his shoulders through the pipe in the concrete wall. But if he was wrong--he glanced down at his shirt and jeans--he'd become a white-and-blue tree. He measured the distance, calculating how many steps he'd have to take while within the nearest tree's range before he could reach the cover of the boulder. Even one was too many. But it was a chance. And if he died, he and the book would become a singing tree, and the bounty hunter and Voske would never get either of them. He sheathed his knife and rummaged through his backpack. The closest he had to a shield was his second pair of jeans. Holding his breath to ease the pain, he folded the jeans and slid them under his shirt to protect his back, then tucked his shirt into his belt to keep them in place. Ross checked the distance once more. To his shock, he was closer than he'd thought. The trees against the wall shone like topaz and moonstone, but there were telltale shimmers in the air mere paces away. Some had shifted to transparent crystal in the hope of luring him in. And it had worked. He stood up slowly, using the backpack to shield his face and throat. The trees chimed as if they knew what he was thinking. Ross sucked in a breath. He'd move faster if he could relax his muscles, but his entire body was quivering like a stretched wire. "You're crazy," the bounty hunter yelled. "Those things will kill you!" "Better them than you!" He ran. The ringing stopped, replaced by a sound like shattering glass. Ross passed the boulder and flung himself into the pipe. He pushed his backpack in front of him and wriggled on his elbows, squeezing his shoulders together to avoid getting stuck. The pain in his shoulders and side took his breath away, and he lay still in the chilly darkness. He'd made it. He'd actually gotten past the singing trees. He'd heard a few shards hit his backpack, but unless they struck something living they quickly dissolved into sand. There was no way the bounty hunter would be able to fit into the pipe, even if he managed to get past the trees. All Ross had to concentrate on now was getting through the pipe and finding water once he was free. He began to inch forward. His left wrist stung as if he'd crawled over something sharp. He tried to lift his hand, but his whole arm felt heavy. A needle of pain jabbed in his wrist, then shot into his forearm. Ross patted it. A hard sliver moved beneath his fingers. A crystal shard was growing under his skin. Terror flashed through him. He jerked his right arm backward, trying to reach the knife at his belt, but he couldn't get his hand past his chest. As he struggled to work his hand between his body and the pipe, the shard stabbed farther into his flesh. It was working its way toward his heart. Ross wriggled as fast as he could, banging his knees and elbows and the back of his head against cold metal. He didn't know how much time he had to save himself, but it couldn't be a lot. Light glinted ahead. He threw himself toward it, pushing off with his toes. Fresh air struck his face and hands like a new-lit fire, and he tumbled out of the pipe onto sun-warmed sand. His left arm had gone numb, hanging from his shoulder like a dead thing. He dragged his jacket off. The brown skin was distorted by a lump that began at the base of his palm. The lump burrowed visibly toward the inside of his elbow. Ross knelt down. Fumbling in haste at his belt, he yanked out a knife. If he wanted to live, he'd have to cut out the shard. Bracing his forearm against his knee, he gritted his teeth and set the point of the knife against the thing in his wrist. He leaned in, intending to use his weight to make the cut, but his arm slid off his knee. As he stared in shock, the shard grew another half inch, jolting pain through his entire body. He dropped to the sand and leaned all his weight on his elbow, pinning his forearm to the ground. This time he put the knife point at the inside of his elbow. He'd cut off the thing's path to his heart. One deep jab got past the outer layer of his skin. The numbness blazed to white-hot agony. Holding his breath, he dragged the knife all the way to his wrist. From beneath its coating of blood, the exposed shard gleamed with its own ruby light. Ross dug the knife point under the shard. He tried to flick it out, but it was attached by tiny rootlets. He flipped the knife around and slashed through the tendrils. They snapped like threads, and the shard dropped to the ground. He flung himself away from it, rolled once or twice, then lay there, his arm on fire with pain. He'd have screamed, but he couldn't catch his breath. In a daze, he watched blood pour from his arm and soak into the ground. At first the powdery dust swallowed the blood with barely a trace, but soon it began to darken the earth, and then to pool on it. Ross tried to sit up, but his body was too heavy, and the ground kept lurching under him. His backpack had a shirt he could use for bandages, but he couldn't reach it. Finally he rolled over, pinning his arm beneath his chest, and hoped the weight of his own body would stop the bleeding. The blazing sunlight dimmed to gray, then black. • • • Ross stumbled across the cracked earth. When he'd come to, he'd been burning up, but now he was cold again. With his right arm, he tugged his jacket tightly across his chest. His clumsily bandaged left arm hung at his side. The ache in his head and side throbbed in echo to the stabbing pain in his arm. Worse, he was leaving a blood trail that anything could track. It fell like red rain, pattering down and sinking into the sand. The blood had still been wet when they'd found his father. Ross could feel it sticky on his hands, feel the cool skin that used to be so warm. He heard his grandmother whisper, He's dead, Ross. We have to run . . . He forced himself back into the present. He had to find water, and then shelter. If he passed out again, he'd never get up. The backpack dragged against his shoulders, pulling him down. He swayed, then caught himself. Stand there and you'll die. He slung the pack over his shoulder and forced his feet to move. Two steps, and he tripped over a rock and slammed into the ground. Sand scraped his cheek. A spindly thorn apple tree cast a shadow across Ross's face, a scrap of relief from the unrelenting sun. His eyes closed. Run. He jerked himself awake, his fingers clenching crisp weeds. There was something he had forgotten. Something important. He was in danger . . . He was in danger from the bounty hunter, because . . . Ross pulled his pack toward him and scrabbled through it until he touched the worn cover of the book. "Still there," he whispered, his tongue dry as leather. He opened his eyes, squinting against the light. There was a cactus a few yards away, haloed in pulsing rings of purple and black. Maybe he could cut it open for water. He blinked hard, and the rings faded. The spines grew in hexagons: a hive cactus. There was no water inside, only more danger if he provoked its swarm. But a barrel cactus grew a few paces beyond. He could get water from that, if it wasn't another mirage. Ross hauled himself upright, dragging his pack by the straps. The cactus didn't fade. He let go of the pack and reached for his boot knife. When he straightened up, black spots swam across his vision. He staggered, the knife slipping from his hand, and leaned against a nearby tree. He was so tired, but at least the pain had gone. He could sleep here, like he used to sleep leaning against his burro . . . "Get away from that tree." He opened his eyes and saw a woman. Long black hair, brown hand reaching out . . . Mom? His mother was dead. He knew that. He tried to move, but his skin seemed stuck to the tree. His palms and hip and cheek stung as if he'd embraced a wasp's nest. "Now. It's sucking your blood." She was right. Leechlike mouth holes had opened in the bark and fastened to his skin. He yanked himself painfully away. With a popping sound, the vampire tree let him go. He collapsed onto the hard earth. Hands gripped his shoulder and hip and rolled him over. He could feel the cool imprint of her palms. You couldn't ever touch a mirage. Ross squinted dizzily up at the woman, whose hair covered half of her face. A steel badge glinted on her leather vest. "Who are you?" He could barely hear his own voice. "Elizabeth Crow. Sheriff of Las Anclas. What happened to you?" Had he lost the bounty hunter? Or was the man still on his trail? He could be aiming his rifle at Ross right now. Or at the woman who was trying to help him. Ross couldn't let her die for his sake, after she'd saved him from the vampire tree. "I'm being chased." He forced the words past his raw throat. "Run and get help. Armed help." Sheriff Crow laid her hand on the pistol at her belt. "I'm armed." Ross whispered, with the last of his strength, "So was I." Her voice was cool, low, calm. "It was good of you to warn me." With enormous effort, he kept his eyes open and watched her drop his knife inside his pack. As she reached for him, her hair swung back, revealing her entire face. On one side, he saw a warm brown eye and smooth brown skin, the strong-boned face of a striking woman in her thirties. On the other side, her eye was lashless and yellow, the pupil slitted like a snake's, and her skin seemed to have melted into her skull. He sighed in relief. She was Changed. She might have some power she could use to protect herself, and him, too. She lifted Ross with no more effort than she'd used to pick up his pack, then shifted him over her shoulders. Her steps gathered speed until she was running faster than a deer. He peered past the swinging curtain of her dark hair at the scrub oak flashing by. The last thing he heard was her sharp order: "Lockdown!" 2 Mia MIA LEE WAS ON TOP OF THE WORLD. AT LEAST, SHE was on top of her world. Crouching on the sentry walk on the wall that surrounded Las Anclas, she stroked the 1,344-pound portcullis of the main gate. She'd loved working on it as an apprentice, but now that she was the town mechanic--the youngest in the town's history--touching it felt different. It was hers now. That beautiful work of engineering was a major piece of their defenses. Mia knew she was supposed to feel solemn about the responsibility, but secretly she was thrilled. At her appointment ceremony, her old master, Josiah Rodriguez, had shaken her hand and said that now he could retire with a clean conscience, and everyone had applauded. But the best part had been when he'd taken her aside and said, "Every generation tinkers with the main gate, since it's every town's weak point and the first thing to get attacked. You're the new generation, Mia. Tinker away." She adjusted her glasses and tried to examine the gate as if she had never seen it before. "Preconceptions are the death of creativity," Mr. Rodriguez always said. The manual winch they used as a backup to close the gate if the generator failed took the strongest people to crank it--people who would be needed elsewhere if the town was attacked. If she put in a differential chain block, even someone her size could operate it. But she'd need to find the space. She couldn't move the housing over the gate, with its drop holes to dump boiling or corrosive liquids onto attackers. And she couldn't put chains and counterweights into the space needed for the defenders. But maybe-- A sharp pain shot through her hand. Mia yelped and yanked it away. A pink eater-rose was straining upward, bumping up against the wall where she'd absentmindedly let her hand drift down. Mia shook her hand, watching the rose dart to catch the drops of blood. Then she opened her lunch box and tossed down the leftover chicken bones and her dad's revolting chicken-liver mousse. The flowers ravenously crunched up the scraps. It was too bad Las Anclas couldn't plant eater-roses along every inch of the city walls, instead of just around the gates. But they didn't have enough water and meat to support 320,612 square feet of carnivorous plants. Mia tried to return to her meditative state, but before she could, three sentries her age came wandering along. They were too noisy to ignore. Meredith Lowenstein strutted as if to prove to the world that she might be short, but it had better not mess with her. Henry Callahan clattered a stick along the wall's shields, his blond hair flopping around his sun-reddened face. Brisa Preciado moved gracefully, almost skipping, making her chubby body look light as a soap bubble--but the rhythmic beat of her footsteps was distracting. Mia couldn't ever stop herself from noticing patterns. "I hope he's young," Meredith said. "I hope he's a she," Brisa retorted, laughing. The ribbons in her four pigtails fluttered in the hot breeze. Mia had no idea what they were talking about. Then she remembered Mr. Riley telling Sheriff Crow that he'd seen a stranger in trouble, out in the desert beyond the cornfields. Meredith polished her glasses on her shirt, then put them back on and peered over the wall. The others did too, but Mia didn't bother. Mr. Riley was Changed; no one else could see that far without field glasses. "I hope whoever it is stays long enough for us to have a welcome dance," said Meredith wistfully. "It's been ages since the Year of the Pig festival." "I thought you wanted a fight," Henry said. "I'd love a fight." Meredith pushed her sleeves up her muscular forearms. "You can't train every day and not wonder what it would be like to do it for real. But a dance would be fun too." Brisa's black pigtails swung and her crossbow jiggled against her back as she tapped out a heel-toe rhythm. "I'd rather have a dance. I've been dying to show off my routine with the backflips and the--" "Bor-ing," Henry sang out, his freckled face shiny with sweat and aloe salve. "Anyway, that guy's probably a bandit. Bet the sheriff kills him." Mia calculated the odds against a fight at about a hundred to one. They'd had alerts for "stranger in trouble" five times that she remembered, four for travelers who'd run out of water or into dangerous wildlife, and one for Yuki Nakamura. But no attack had ever followed. Mia opened her mouth to say so, but Brisa spoke first. "Want an excuse to miss the dance?" She picked up a pebble, clenched it in her fist, and made to drop it down Henry's shirt. When he yelped, she giggled and flicked the pebble over the wall. It exploded in midair with a tiny pop and burst of flame. Mia wished she had the power to make rocks explode. Henry and Brisa began mock sparring, Henry protesting. "All I'm saying is, you don't have to dress up for a battle." "I love wearing my fancy clothes." Meredith took a swing at him. He pretended to cower in terror, which made them all laugh. Mia felt as left out and invisible as she had at school. But she reminded herself that although she was a year younger than Henry, she had graduated and was officially an adult, with a full job, important responsibilities, and voting rights, while the other three were still apprentices. Would an adult be bothered that she'd been ignored by teenagers? No, an adult would be paying attention to her adult job. She concentrated on the gate again. If she put a tripod-- "Horseplay on duty?" Ms. Lowenstein, the chief archer, stepped into view. The sentries leaped into stiff "alert" positions. Ms. Lowenstein eyed them. "You are sentries on watch. If someone had tried to climb these walls, they would have cut your throats by now." Henry muttered, "No, the eater-roses would have cut their throats." Brisa examined her fingernails, which she'd stained pink with crushed flower petals. Meredith twitched guiltily, then straightened up to face her mother's yellow cat-eyes. For once Mia was glad to be ignored. The chief archer let an awful silence build. "Nothing else to add? You're all getting an extra watch tonight. Want to make it two?" The three sentries fled back to their stations. New sentries came running up the steps. Defense Chief Preston strode behind them, big and scowling. He was followed by his daughter, Felicité Wolfe, in a hat with a lace veil and a matching dress in white and blue. She reminded Mia of a summer cloud floating behind a thunderstorm. Her hair was dyed the rich yellow of ripe wheat. Her golden rat, Wu Zetian, trotted at her heels, as elegant as the ancient empress who was her namesake. Felicité's hair now matched her rat's fur. Only Felicité! Every sentry snapped alert at the sight of Mr. Preston. Mia could hear the soft cheeping of the sparrows that had descended to peck up crumbs. She got to her feet; she didn't want him to catch her squatting like a duck. Only Ms. Lowenstein seemed unruffled. "No sign of the sheriff as yet." "Thank you." Mr. Preston turned to the sentry captain, who picked up his slate and read out the reports for the watch. "Shall I write them down, Daddy?" Felicité asked. "Stand by." Mr. Preston smiled at her. Mia couldn't imagine calling the defense chief "Daddy." It was like calling a giant tarantula "Baby." And nobody said "Mommy" or "Daddy" past the age of ten. But Felicité went her own way. Who else would wear a veil on the sentry walk? Mia'd heard her say that as council scribe, it would be disrespectful for her to show up in work clothes, and sometimes council meetings were held on short notice. Mia estimated the price of that blue-dyed lace at forty of her own work hours. She would hate to always have to look respectable. She patted the pockets and loops she'd added to her overalls so she wouldn't have to rummage around in a toolkit whenever she needed something. While Felicité read the slate, Mr. Preston gazed out with a pair of field glasses. "He came from the Centinela Pass. That leads straight to Voske's--" he began, then snatched up the bullhorn and shouted into it, "Stand by to close the gates!" It was a rare chance to observe an emergency gate closing. Mia swept up her tools and scrambled back. Brisa and Henry jumped. "Mia!" Brisa said. "I didn't see you." Mia gave her a wave. On the wall, the other sentry teams readied their weapons. Below, four strong people dashed to the gate winches, in case the electricity failed. She almost never got to see Sheriff Crow run full-out, and estimated her speed at about fifty miles per hour. Dust feathered out behind her as she sped across the sun-baked path between the irrigated crops. Meredith gasped. "Look at the guy! I think he's our age!" Brisa shaded her eyes. "Ew. He's all bloody." Las Anclas already had plenty of teenage boys, so Mia didn't see why she should get excited over one more. But if he was injured, maybe her dad could use her help. During Lockdown, her position was at the surgery, anyway. She yanked off her smeary glasses again and tried to clean them on her filthy overalls, but it was hopeless. She crammed the glasses back on and squinted at the body slung over Sheriff Crow's shoulders, and caught a glimpse of a boy's dark face and curling hair as the sheriff shot through the gates, yelling, "Lockdown!" Mr. Preston shouted through the bullhorn, "Lockdown!" Then he clicked open his pocket watch. "One thirty-one, Lockdown. Get the rest, darling." "First sighting at one twelve . . ." Felicité recited the records as she wrote them in her notebook. She'd already memorized everything on the watch captain's slate. Mia envied Felicité's perfect memory. It would be so handy! She could remember numbers, but other things--especially things she shouldn't forget, like whether she'd left her lights on--fell out of her mind as if it were a sack with a hole in it. "Lockdown!" echoed from team leader to team leader, all along the walls. The bell in the tower began to ring out the Lockdown pattern in a steady toll. Some little kid was getting the thrill of a lifetime. Nine years ago Meredith had been on bell duty during a Lockdown that actually went to Battle Stations, when a gang of outlaws led by a fire-throwing woman had burned down half the northern plantation. Mia had never gotten to ring the bell for a Lockdown, though there had been one when she was at school and another when she was asleep. She was briefly jealous of the bell-ringer, then reminded herself that her own job was fun every day rather than only during emergencies. The sentries scrambled into defense positions as the field workers bolted for the gate. The person on wall-feeding duty, no doubt someone assigned drunk-and-disorderly community service, hastily waddled inside. It was impossible to recognize anyone through the top-to-toe protective gear. Too bad the padding did nothing to block the reek of giblets and gobbets of rancid meat. Mia grinned as Alfonso Medina veered away from the gate and ran alongside the wall until he was past the area covered by eater-roses. He leaped at the wall, the gecko pads on his fingers and bare toes splayed out, and rapidly scuttled upward. She loved watching him climb. It looked like so much fun. Then she caught Mr. Preston's lip curling in revulsion. Everyone knew what the defense chief thought about Changed people, but it never failed to annoy Mia when she actually saw it. It was so hypocritical. No one in town refused to be treated by her father. They'd let him save their lives, then justify it by saying that he "wasn't like other Changed people," or that "at least he wasn't a monster," like Sheriff Crow or Alfonso. Mia glanced at Felicité, but she was giving Alfonso the same bland, polite gaze that her mother, the mayor, used. Perhaps the entire Wolfe-Preston household despised Changed people, but at least Mayor Wolfe treated everyone the same. The last of the field workers passed through the gates. There was no sign of pursuit, which was no surprise. Most Lockdowns turned out to be false alarms. "Close the gate!" Ms. Lowenstein shouted. The portcullis screeched a metallic protest as it lowered, followed by the boom of the gates. It seemed slow. Mia made a mental note to test and clock it later. Everyone assigned to secondary support began arriving on the ammo platforms. She was in the way. Mr. Preston said, "Felicité, report to the town hall command post. I'll be there shortly." Felicité tucked her notebook, quill pen, and ink bottle into her embroidered carryall. "Shall I have Wu Zetian send any messages?" "No, keep her with you for now." Her father took out a clean, pressed handkerchief and polished his glasses, then hurried down the steps and vanished beyond the armory. Felicité followed him. Tall Tommy Horst adjusted his crossbow so he could lean over and whisper to her. "Not now, Tommy." She spoke with mock reproach, softened with a smile. Several boys nudged him and snickered, while others petted Wu Zetian as she passed by. Felicité's rat is more popular than I am , Mia thought glumly. Meredith poked Brisa. "Did you see the guy? Definitely our age!" "Who cares how old some dead bandit is?" Henry laughed. "He's not dead," said Meredith. "Sheriff Crow wouldn't bring back a corpse." Brisa added, "She wouldn't bring back a bandit, either." All three peered around guiltily, but Ms. Lowenstein was talking to the watch captain. Mia headed down the steps. "Mia!" She jumped. Meredith was leaning down, her red curls glittering in the sun. "Brisa and I want all the details on the stranger." The ribbons in Brisa's pigtails lifted in a gust of hot wind. " You want all the details, Meredith. Now, if it was a girl . . ." "Come on, Brisa, you know you're curious. We haven't had a stranger in town since those traders in April." "Becky can tell you about him," Mia called up. Meredith made a dismissive gesture. "Becky isn't into boys." "And she's very focused," Brisa added. "She won't notice anything but gross medical stuff." "All right," Mia said. "I'll take a look at him for you." Meredith gave her a playful salute, then hastened back to her post. So Mia wasn't invisible all the time. They saw her when they wanted something fixed, or some news. But she didn't mind, especially if it was people like Meredith and Brisa. Neither was a close friend, like Jennie Riley, but they were . . . friendish. As she hurried past the armory, she thought about how excited Meredith was about the prospect of a new boy in town. Shouldn't she be excited too? She tried imagining a girl instead, but that didn't make any difference. Practically everyone her age had already had at least one serious romantic relationship. Mia had been on one date in her entire life, and she hadn't even kissed the guy. Worse, she hadn't wanted to kiss him. What was wrong with her? Blood rushed to her face when she remembered her dad's talk after her depressing night out with Carlos. She'd confessed that she'd only gone out with him because she didn't want to turn eighteen without having ever had a date, and her dad had tried to make her feel better about being such a freak by telling her that some people never had any interest in romance, and that was "perfectly normal." She kicked at a tumbleweed. Normal for freaks like me. She stomped onto the porch outside her father's house, kicked off her shoes, and padded past the empty infirmary, toward the surgery. She nudged aside Spanner, Phillips, and Fluffy as she opened the door. The cats were banned from the surgery, but they were still convinced that if they waited by the door, someday someone would let them in. She stepped into clean surgery slippers as she closed the door behind her. Her father, his shy apprentice Becky Callahan, and Sheriff Crow bent over the unconscious boy on the examination table. They had taken off his leather jacket, exposing a tattered, blood-soaked shirt and a clumsily bandaged gash in his left arm that ran from elbow to wrist. Becky was nervously avoiding eye contact with the sheriff as she cut off the boy's shirt with a pair of shears. Mia's dad glanced up. "He's lost a lot of blood. Mia, give me a hand with the ropethorn?" "Sure." She followed him to the shelf of potted surgical plants. The ropethorn's green tendrils lashed out when they sensed body heat, extending their thorns to pierce skin and drain blood. Mia picked up the implement she'd designed as a catch-and-shield, a giant spatula with a hole in it. She held it to the thrashing plant, blocking it, until a single tendril poked through the hole. Her father deftly grabbed it behind the thorn at its tip, pulled it taut, and snipped it off at the base. "Good catch," Mia said. He often got stuck by the thorn, but he didn't like to use tongs for fear of damaging the delicate tendrils. He handed it off to Mia, who held it stretched between her hands to keep it from whipping against her arm. Then he set out a basin of saline solution, wiped down the back of the boy's right hand with alcohol, and nicked the vein with a scalpel. He taped the cut end of the ropethorn to the boy's vein, and put the thorn end in the basin. Fooled by the warmth and salt content, the vine swelled as it began to suck the liquid from the bowl and transfer it into the boy. Mia's dad gave Sheriff Crow a bemused look. "What happened to him? He looks like you picked him off a battlefield." "All I know is that he said someone was chasing him. When I found him, he was already bleeding and sunstruck and trying to keep himself standing by hanging on to a vampire tree." Sheriff Crow indicated the bloody bites that marred the boy's upturned palm. "He had to be pretty far gone not to notice that the bark had mouths." "That's the desert for you," Mia's dad said, tightening the bandage he'd applied to the boy's arm. "Once you're injured and not thinking clearly, everything you do gets you in worse and worse trouble. Becky. Treatment for vampire tree bites?" Becky's soft voice was confident here in the surgery, as it rarely was outside. "The sap prevents blood from clotting. Wash out the sap and apply yarrow leaves to stop the bleeding." At his approving nod, she headed for the surgical plants. A ropethorn tendril grabbed a lock of blonde hair that had escaped from her hair net, and she jerked away. Mia remembered her promise to Brisa and Meredith, and examined the boy for the details she knew they'd be interested in. Because everyone knew Mia wouldn't be interested. But that was perfectly normal. His face was turned aside, but faces were hard to describe anyway. He had overgrown wavy hair that was as black as the sheriff's where it wasn't matted with blood. His body was thin but muscular, his ribs and collarbone sharply etched, and he had a lot of scars for someone his age. Mia bet each one came with a thrilling story. Her father sponged at the drying blood on the boy's side. "That's odd. This is a gunshot wound. But this . . ." He indicated the bandaged gash in the boy's arm. Sheriff Crow inspected it. "Looks like a defensive wound. Gun battle and knife fight?" "Maybe he fought one bandit at close range. Then the other bandit shot him." "Or he was shot, and dropped. When the bandit got close enough to rob him, he fought back, and got knifed. Either way, he put up quite a fight." Sheriff Crow pushed her hair back. "But he still warned me. Actually told me to leave him and return with armed backup. Take good care of him, Dante." Ever since she had won her place as sheriff, Elizabeth Crow had seldom used first names, and corrected anyone who forgot and used hers. The boy must have made quite an impression on her, to cause her to forget that she was the sheriff for a moment. Mia was impressed too. She wondered if she'd have been willing to risk her life for the sake of a stranger. "I will." Mia's dad bent over the boy's injured arm. "Though he may need some difficult surgery. It looks like there's some damage to the tendons that control the fingers. This will be a good one for you to watch, Becky." Becky nodded as she applied yarrow leaves to the boy's cheek. "Do your best." Sheriff Crow straightened up. "Well, I'll search him for weapons, and then I've got to run." "Did you have a chance to speak to Tom Preston?" Mia's dad asked. "No, I ran straight here. I'm sure he'll be on me to know whether or not the boy is Changed." Mia double-checked to see if she'd missed any tentacles or feathers. There was nothing, unless it was a Change that a pair of ripped-up jeans would cover. Of course, he could have a cool nonphysical power, but Mr. Preston seemed less bothered by Changes he couldn't see. Sheriff Crow continued. "All the defense chief will get from me is that I checked for weapons." She shook out the leather jacket, confiscated a knife from the boy's boot, then slid his belt from his jeans. Another knife and a marvelous array of tools hung from it: two beautiful screwdrivers, a set of lock picks, a miniature pry bar, a folding blade, and even a tiny crowbar. Mia coveted them all, but especially the screwdrivers. Sheriff Crow took the blade and the knife, but left the rest alone. "Prospector's tools," Mia said longingly. "Could I search his pack for you? We haven't had a real prospector here for ages." "Well, that makes sense. Prospectors are always targets for bandits." She tossed Mia the boy's dusty backpack. "Have a treat. If you find any weapons, you know where to bring them." As Sheriff Crow started to leave, Mia's father called, "Don't forget to drink some water and have a good meal. You ran nearly a mile in the sun carrying this boy." "He doesn't weigh much." With the half smile that was the only one she could make now, she added, "I could have carried him that distance before I Changed. Maybe not running. But thanks, Dr. Lee." She nudged Fluffy away with her foot, then closed the door behind her. Mia took the sheriff's place. Now she could see the boy's face. He had very long black lashes and straight black eyebrows. His skin was smooth medium brown where it wasn't smeared with blood and dirt, with an underlying pallor that would go away once her father got him back on his feet. The delicate skin under his eyes looked bruised, as if he hadn't slept in days. His mouth was . . . just a mouth, but Mia liked its shape. She leaned closer, half-tempted to trace it with her finger. Her glasses slid down her nose. She shoved them back up absently. "Mia." "Huh?" "Take off," her dad said with a smile. "Have fun with the backpack." She kicked off her surgery shoes and walked to the kitchen, where the usual smells of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic were overlaid with something strange. Not only were the regular jars of cabbage and radish kimchi present, but there was disturbing evidence of experiments with nontraditional goat-cheese kimchi. She made a face. Pickling cheese was just plain wrong. She opened the window to air the place out, sat down at the table, and eyed the young prospector's pack. It was like being a prospector herself. Anything could be in there! Prospectors charged high prices for luxury goods like ancient jewelry and art, and for usable mechanical parts. But they also sold scrap metal, cloth and clothing, plastic items, and objects of no clear use. Mia collected those. The last had been a paper-thin metal disc stamped with a woman's name and numbered phrases like bits of poetry. The prospector had laughed when she asked who bought that sort of thing. "Dreamers," he'd said. Her heart thumping with anticipation, she opened the pack. The first thing she found was a blood-smeared knife, which she set aside for Sheriff Crow. Under that was a strip of bloodstained jerky with a stainless-steel bolt and a tiny plastic dog stuck to it. Mia gingerly detached the finds, then tossed the jerky into the mulch bucket. An inner pocket held a pouch made of the slippery ancient cloth that melted when it burned, containing a pair of tarnished silver earrings set with moonstones. Beneath those were three matching stainless-steel forks. It was all valuable. But the real find was the plastic cup with a screw-in lid that had a tab that could be slid back and forth to create an opening. How clever! Another inner pocket held calculating devices: an abacus and a slide rule. She barely glanced at those, or at the empty canteen, crowbar, chisel, flint, and candle stubs, or the half-full can of oil. Then she found an intriguing object like a plastic clamshell. She worked her nail inside and flipped it open, revealing a mirror and a shallow container. A whiff of perfumed dust rose and vanished. She liked the tiny mirror. That would come in handy if you glued it to something long and flexible, to use for seeing around corners. She reached down farther. A coil of rope, a coil of wire, and a purple plastic comb. A folded sheet of flexible plastic to make a solar still to extract water from the ground. A handful of ancient coins in a clear plastic box, a pair of scissors with a bright orange plastic handle, and three chunks of steel pipe that could be melted for scrap. Not a bad set of finds. Mia was already mentally sorting her own stash of trade items and duplicate tools as she reached inside again. But when she touched the last thing in the pack, everything else fell out of her mind. Carefully, reverently, she pulled out a rectangular object swathed in more of that slippery cloth. She unwrapped it, revealing . . . A book. A precious, ancient book. It was battered, like everything from the ruins, but unlike most prospected books, it was intact. It was handwritten in beautiful script, but in an alphabet she didn't recognize. The second page had an incomplete diagram for a crossbow that could shoot six arrows; the blank spaces had notations in those unreadable letters. Why hadn't she thought of a multi-arrow bow already? She bet she could fill in those blanks and make a prototype. Excited, she turned the pages and found more diagrams. Some were enigmatic, but others seemed to be for defense or weapons. If everything in the book was this useful--including the pages and pages of unreadable text that came after the diagrams--Mia understood why someone had tried to kill for it. 3 YUKI A FLASH OF SILVER DISTRACTED YUKI NAKAMURA AS his patrol rode below the foothills east of Las Anclas. A lizard that shone like molten metal skittered out from between Fuego's hooves and darted into a crack in a scrub oak. Intrigued, Yuki leaned out to take a look. His rat, Kogatana, left her saddle perch and climbed up to his shoulder, as if she, too, was curious. He scratched behind her ears, and she rubbed her furry gray face against his fingers. Paco Diaz reined up next to him. "See something interesting?" "A silver lizard." The angles of Paco's face sharpened with interest. Sidewinder, his buckskin gelding, neatly pivoted on the narrow path and stepped closer to the oak. Paco's horsemanship was a beautiful thing to observe. He never had to give verbal commands but relied solely on the subtle movements of his body and the animal's response. Yuki shifted his weight forward and to the right, and Fuego moved obediently to the side. He slipped from his saddle. Paco's feet hit the ground with a soft chuff. Paco smiled, his brown eyes narrowed. "My mom and the other Rangers were patrolling here the other night. She said she saw a mutant shape-shifting reptile." "Really?" "It looked like a snake, but then it grew legs and ran away. Since she saw it in the dark, I'm thinking it glowed. Might be the same thing. If it's settled down in there, maybe it's pulled its legs back in." Yuki sent a silent message of gratitude to his mother for assigning Paco to his bow team after Paco had passed the archery test. They'd never talked much at school. But while patrolling together, they'd discovered that they both sought out new discoveries. Like this snake-lizard--anyone else would ignore it, except maybe to avoid it in case it was poisonous. "I'll take a look." Yuki took his glasses out of his pocket so he could see up close, then unsheathed his knife and angled it to reflect sunlight into the crack. Paco didn't push his way forward; when Yuki nodded, he stepped in closer, his muscular shoulder touching Yuki's. The "lizard" had indeed turned into a silver snake. It hissed when the light struck it, then extruded legs and scrambled up the interior of the trunk. "What's going on?" The patrol captain, Julio Wolfe, rode toward them. "A shape-shifting reptile," said Yuki, knowing exactly what Julio would say next. Sure enough: "Did it attack?" Paco shook his head. "It grew legs and ran." Yuki waited for Julio's bored eye-roll, and he wasn't disappointed. It hadn't been that long since Julio had been in school with them, flirting with the girls and forgetting his homework. Now he was a Ranger, always talking about his "life of adventure." But to Julio, that meant training and fighting, not exploration or discovery. "Move along, Prince." Julio clapped Yuki on the shoulder. Yuki couldn't help stiffening. By now he should be used to the way people in Las Anclas were constantly, unnecessarily touching one another, regardless of whether they'd gotten any signal that it would be welcome. But even after five years the gesture felt as intrusive and rude as it ever had. And Julio knew perfectly well how much Yuki had grown to hate the word "prince." Mrs. Callahan rode up behind Julio. The dressmaker's face was sun-reddened. "My son, Henry, would never lollygag about on a patrol. Why do you always waste your time staring at useless bugs and worms?" That was another thing: the way nobody minded their own business. When a lot of people were crammed into a small area, it was natural that everyone knew what everyone else was up to. But on the Taka, they had understood that it was only common politeness not to mention your knowledge unless you were invited to do so. "I'd think your adoptive mother would have taught you better," Mrs. Callahan added. The nagging was annoying, but "adoptive" stung. It had been a long, hard journey for Yuki to truly feel that the people who had taken him in were his family, but he did. Yuki pocketed his glasses and rode out ahead, with Paco right beside him. "I know she wasn't trying to be rude," he said, trying to convince himself. Paco chuckled. "Nah, I'm pretty sure she was. Mom warned me that Mrs. Callahan hates patrolling. Puts her in a terrible mood every time. Don't let her get to you. Blood doesn't matter. Family is family." "Thanks." "Hey, Yuki . . ." Paco cleared his throat and spoke in Japanese. "How do you say 'lizard' in Japanese?" His inflection and pronunciation were so perfect that homesickness pulled at Yuki like a riptide. He steeled himself not to reveal his feelings, but Kogatana sensed them and nuzzled him, her soft whiskers tickling his chin. When he spoke, he made sure his voice sounded casual. "Tokage. Snake is hebi." "So, lizard-snake would be tokage-hebi?" Yuki nodded. "You're a natural. I've only been teaching you for a month, and your accent is already better than Mom's or Meredith's ever was." "I listen to the rhythm and timbre of your voice, not only the words. It's like learning a piece of music." Paco drummed out a beat on the saddle. "Do you speak Japanese with your family?" This time Yuki was prepared for the question. "No. Not for years. Mom thought I'd learn English and Spanish better if I practiced at home. And . . . I didn't try very hard to teach them." When he fell silent, Paco asked, "Because you didn't think you'd be here long?" "As soon as I can find a prospector who'll take me on, I'm leaving. A reliable prospector," he added bitterly. "Yeah, that was bad luck." "It was a bad decision. My bad decision," he admitted. "No, come on," Paco protested. "That guy took in the entire town." Yuki scratched Kogatana's ears, hiding his face. "I should have known he was too good to be true." He felt as angry and humiliated as if it had happened last week, rather than last year. That smooth-talking prospector, Mr. Alvarez, had seemed like the answer to his dreams. Sure he needed a smart, reliable boy for an apprentice. Absolutely he would teach Yuki everything he needed to know in return for a year of his work. Of course he'd show Yuki the world. It had taken some persuading, since Yuki still had a year of school left. But he'd convinced his mom and the council that this chance was worth interrupting his education. He'd been saving scrip from his job helping Mrs. Riley train horses, and he got himself fitted out with tools and supplies. His mom and the Rileys had pitched in to get him a horse. He'd said his farewells, promised to come back in a year or so, and set off with a dizzying sense of infinite possibilities. Mr. Alvarez, if that was even his name, broke out his favorite herbal tea to celebrate their partnership once they made camp. Yuki woke up the next afternoon with a splitting headache. Mr. Alvarez was gone, along with Yuki's horse and all his belongings but the clothes he wore. At least Kogatana had managed to evade him. She was licking Yuki's face when he woke up. Yuki had tracked the prospector till nightfall, burning with fury, then reluctantly gave up. The man was long gone, and Yuki couldn't survive long in the desert without weapons or water. He'd been forced to walk back to Las Anclas, feeling like a fool with every step, and then had to face crowds wanting all the humiliating details. He'd had to return to school, he still hadn't finished repaying his mom and the Rileys, and the only prospector to visit since had arrived in a full suit of blue armor, claiming that the reflective paint she'd formulated would make her invisible to the deadly crystal trees that surrounded the distant ruined city. Yuki had desperately hoped that she was an eccentric genius rather than desert-crazy. He'd even let himself indulge in fantasies about exploring the city in his own suit of armor. But of course, as everyone had warned her, she hadn't been invisible at all. Now a new sapphire tree grew at the edge of the crystal forest. Fuego balked, and Yuki consciously relaxed his body. The red-gold gelding moved onward. "Prospecting's not the only way to see the world," Paco said. "You could sign on to a trading ship, the next time one comes around." Trading boat, thought Yuki, but didn't correct him. No one in Las Anclas had ever seen a real ship. "You swim like a fish," Paco continued. "And you fight like--like a Ranger. Traders always have guards to protect their wares. You could be a guard." "Yeah, but . . ." Even to Paco, there were some things Yuki couldn't talk about. His throat tightened at the thought of living on a boat, smelling the salt air and rocking on the waves, and never losing sight of shore. Being constantly reminded of the true deep ocean in a craft that could never get there would be like dying of thirst with a full canteen just out of reach. It was hard enough living on the coast, with the ocean breeze blowing straight into his bedroom window. "Traders don't explore," Yuki said. "They only go back and forth along the coast, buying and selling the same goods at the same towns. I want to see new things. Find new things." Kogatana nuzzled him again. Paco glanced at her, and Yuki could practically see him decide to change the subject. Paco fished in his pack and held out a tamale, still wrapped in corn husks. "From Luc's. He handed them out last night after we finished playing." "Thanks. Sorry I missed it. I had to help Mrs. Riley with Tucker. He got his hoof tangled in the fence, and he was panicking." "I figured it was something like that. We're playing again on Tuesday." "I'll be there." Yuki liked music, but he loved watching Paco. Most people dedicated themselves to work and training, and thought of things like music as something to squeeze into their spare time, if they had spare time. But while Paco worked and trained without complaint, he poured his heart and soul into his drumming. Watching him play was like watching Paco's mom, Sera Diaz, sparring, or his own mother shooting, or Paco's apprenticeship master, Mr. Ahmed, blowing glass: observing a master at work. Yuki choked down the tamale. Five years since he'd been shipwrecked at Las Anclas, and he still hadn't gotten used to having his mouth and throat burned by chili peppers. But since Paco was watching, he said again, "Thanks," and added, "it's good." The reverberating toll of a bell cut through the desert air--the signal for Lockdown. Yuki jerked his head up, the tamale falling from his hand. He halted Fuego and squinted against the lowering sun at the town walls half a mile away. His distance vision was as sharp as his close-up sight was blurry. He made out the sentries looking back and forth. Whatever the problem was, they obviously couldn't see it either. Julio rode up beside him. "Let's go to high ground. We'll have a better view." Near the top of the hill, they entered a copse of juniper, eucalyptus, and copper-barked manzanita. A few shrubs had black leaves with glowing yellow veins. As Fuego brushed against them, the "leaves" took flight, leaving the shrub a bare gray skeleton. A citruslike scent filled the air, masking the pungent smell of eucalyptus. When Yuki glanced back, the butterflies had settled back down, and the illusion was complete again. Yuki had never seen this before, nor the brightly colored scorpions nearby that seemed to guard a pulsating blue fungus. He lifted his scrutiny past the walls of Las Anclas that rose up like bars in a cage, to the plains and hills and maze of arroyos that made up the desert. Someday he'd be out there, away from the crowds and the sameness and the reminders of everything he'd lost. Just him and his horse and his rat, exploring ancient ruins, discovering fascinating relics, and studying the ways of strange animals and plants. Every step would be into new territory. "Rein up," Julio ordered. Everyone dismounted. They'd reached the top, but it wasn't quite high enough to see inside the town walls. Yuki indicated the tallest tree, a thick juniper. "Shall I climb it?" "Do it," said Julio. "Kogatana, stay." She twitched her pink nose at Yuki, but stayed on her perch. He climbed, shoving past the pungent needles until he could see. There was no fighting in the streets, and nothing seemed to be damaged. From this perspective, Las Anclas appeared insignificant, a small part of a far larger world. He started down. About ten feet from the ground his palm punched through the bark as if it were paper. Something gave an ear-scraping screech, then a line of pain slashed across his palm. Yuki jerked back instinctively, and lost his grip. He twisted in the air and landed in a crouch, his teeth banging together. Owls launched out of the hollow, slicing down with their talons and the razor-sharp quills at their wingtips. Yuki's sword and crossbow were still on his horse. He made a dash for Fuego. But before he got there, an owl dove at Sidewinder, claws tangling in the horse's antlers. The owl screeched, and Sidewinder squealed and bolted. Every horse followed, stampeding into the woods. He watched in dismay as Fuego galloped off, Kogatana clinging to her perch. He drew the only weapon he had left, the knife at his belt. The useless knife--owls swooped overhead, easily evading his reach. Paco snatched up a fallen branch and swung at an owl striking at Julio's eyes. It veered away, then grabbed the branch in its talons. Paco tried to shake off the owl, but it held fast, flapping its wings and screeching. He flung down the branch and went to grab another. An owl dove at Paco's unprotected back, its wingtips slicing down. Yuki lunged out with his knife, knowing he'd be too late. A crossbow twanged. The owl thumped to the ground. Mrs. Callahan had managed to grab her bow before the horses bolted. "Fall back!" yelled Julio. "They're protecting their nest." The patrol ran into the woods. The owls didn't pursue them. They found the horses in a glen, clustered around Fuego. Belatedly, Yuki reported, "I didn't see anything going on in town." "It's probably a false alarm. But let's play it safe." Julio began pointing at patrollers. "You three stay with the horses. You two come with me. And you . . ." Yuki's elation when Julio pointed to him and Paco dissipated when Julio's finger moved to include Mrs. Callahan. He sent them to a boulder-strewn promontory. "Keep watch over there. Stay low, and don't create a silhouette for someone to shoot at." Yuki sat in a narrow niche between two boulders, the only place that offered both cover and a view of the plains below. He pointed to a smaller promontory higher up. "Kogatana, watch." The rat scurried off. Paco settled down next to him, and Mrs. Callahan plumped herself down on his other side. She wriggled into a comfortable position, shoving him against Paco. Yuki gritted his teeth, embarrassed, then forced himself to relax. He felt Paco vibrate with silent laughter. "Are you okay?" Paco's breath was warm on his ear. "Your hand is bleeding." "It's fine." Mrs. Callahan snapped, "What were you thinking, Yuki, sticking your hand into an owl's nest?" He shrugged and twisted his handkerchief around his palm. How much more of a signal could he send? On the Taka, people had often been in tighter quarters than this, but that only made them more mindful of not intruding on each other. Mrs. Callahan was still going on about Yuki's carelessness, and he tried to shut her out. It wasn't hard, when he could focus on the press of Paco's arm, his body so close that Yuki could inhale his scent of clean sweat. "That nest was perfectly camouflaged, and he was climbing down," Paco pointed out. "You wouldn't have seen it either." Mrs. Callahan ignored him. "Yuki, you should have sent Kogatana to scout. Isn't that what you have her for? Your problem is that you only make an effort with things that you care about. Take that garden of yours. I saw four giant tomato worms munching away yesterday." Yuki pretended to examine the slash across his palm. Of course she'd been watching his garden. Everyone watched everything. If he locked himself in his room, pulled the curtains, and coughed, the next morning three people would offer him honey and lemon juice. "And dandelions everywhere," she went on. "Isn't the weeding your--" "Mrs. Callahan!" When she stopped talking, startled, Paco said, "Thank you for shooting that owl." She looked slightly abashed. "Oh, well, don't mention it. Anyone who had their crossbow would have done the same." As silence fell, Yuki felt Paco shift his weight. Strong brown fingers took the handkerchief from Yuki's hand, where he'd been twisting and twisting it. Paco untwisted the handkerchief, then rewrapped and tied it securely. "I should have asked," he said softly. "Sorry. I know you don't like that." Yuki shook his head. "I don't mind." With Mrs. Callahan listening, he couldn't add, I don't mind when it's you. 4 Jennie JENNIE RILEY PROWLED ALONG THE SENTRY WALK at the back wall, crossbow loaded and ready. Her neck twinged as she scanned from the golden hills to the east, across the fields of corn and vegetables, to the desert sands that dropped away toward the thin line of the ocean, glimmering silver in the midday sun. She spotted a wisp of dust rising up, and tensed even more--someone coming around for a flank attack? But it was only a deer, taking advantage of the deserted bean fields to munch on the crops. Except for the honey-birds darting back to their hive in a mesa oak, all else was still. Though nothing had happened for hours, her muscles were still locked for action. The Rangers said that waiting for battle was harder than fighting. She bet that they were right, but she wouldn't find out today. Even if the Rangers were ordered to ride out, Jennie would stay behind, stuck on the wall. Waiting. She spotted a rock lying on the sentry walk, ready to trip someone. She held out her hand, tensing slightly as she pulled with her mind. The rock leaped up to smack into her palm, and she tossed it over the wall. When Lockdown first rang, her blood had fizzed like ginger beer, but after hours' worth of boredom, it had gone flat. So had everyone else's, apparently. All along the wall, people were chatting, wiping sweaty faces, and watching the hawks circling lazily in the sky. If I were King Voske, this is when I'd attack. That was the one thing she wouldn't prefer to waiting. One of her grandfathers had been killed when Voske had first tried to take Las Anclas, eighteen years ago. Jennie had been a baby. She pushed her thoughts in a more cheerful direction--they had a stranger in town, and that was always interesting. Maybe she could interview him for next week's Heraldo de Las Anclas. Jennie loved it when Mr. Tsai, the printer and librarian, used one of her stories in the one-page newspaper. "You always manage to find an interesting angle," he had told her. "Better than the usual 'Six-Eyed Mutant Goat Spotted by Mill!' or 'Whistling Zucchini Sprouts in Olive Grove, Dogs Howl!'" Jennie's little sister Dee appeared, in company with her two best friends. They were on duty to fetch and carry ammunition, but you'd never know it from their bored expressions. The weaver, Ms. Salazar, also looked like she wished she were somewhere else, with her aura of glittering light illuminating how awkwardly she held her bow. To Jennie's amusement, the Terrible Three arranged themselves in order of height. They were nothing alike--Dee with her hair clipped into a cap of tight black curls, Nhi Tran chewing on a long brown braid, and Z Kabbani flicking a dead leaf from her red-brown bangs--and yet the way they all looked hopefully at Jennie made them seem more similar than different. "Do you need more arrows?" Dee asked. "I could run and get some." "We all could," Z said. Nhi nodded so hard that her braids bounced against her skinny body. Jennie tried not to laugh as she hefted her crossbow. "Not till I've shot some of the ones I have." Nhi let out a dramatic sigh. "I thought a Lockdown would be more exciting. But I bet it's exciting where the Rangers are!" Z said sarcastically, "At their training grounds, waiting for orders?" Dee poked Jennie in the ribs. "Is that where they are?" Dee and Nhi fixed her with expectant gazes. Z scowled at the adobe floor as though a secret message was carved into it. "Probably." Jennie waited for them to get to the point. In her experience both as a sibling and as the interim teacher, younger sisters were not exactly subtle. Or patient. Z scowled harder. So she was the one with the problem. Nhi lifted her chin high. "The day I turn sixteen, I'm going straight to Sera Diaz to say, 'Captain, I'm ready to start Ranger training.'" "You better hope you don't Change first," retorted Z. Jennie stepped in. "I'm Changed." A flurry of sparks arose as Ms. Salazar sent a sharp glance her way. "I've been training with the Rangers for two years, and not once have they said anything about it." "See?" added Nhi. "Captain Diaz isn't prejudiced." Z muttered, "She isn't. But everybody knows that Defense Chief Preston is. And he's the Rangers' boss." She sucked in a breath and glared at Jennie. "I don't see why you have to be a Ranger. You were going to be a teacher. You're good at it. You're the best teacher we ever had." Jennie said gently, "That's not very fair to Grandma Wolfe." Excerpted from Stranger by Sherwood Smith, Rachel Manija Brown All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.</anon> </opt>

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