Mia Lee returned to her cottage three times to check that her soldering iron was safely stored (it was, all three times) before she finally forced herself to pat herself all over to make sure her clothes were right, shut the door behind her, and cross the town square. She wore her cleanest overalls, one of her dad’s better shirts, and she’d polished her glasses.
She wished she hadn't done that last one because she could see all too clearly when she got to the town hall annex where the council usually met. Mia poked her head in, then almost backed out again—there they all were, squashed in among the stacked wood for the Holiday Fair booths that people had been steadily hauling up from storage in the basement, and stockpiling in readiness for set-up in the town square next week.
“Mia?” Sheriff Crow said, glancing away from her conversation with Judge Appel. “Business?”
“Um,” Mia said, her carefully prepared speech scattering completely out of her head, like roaches when you strike a light.
Sheriff Crow’s smile widened. “This is just a quick meeting—we decided it would be faster to crowd in here than to decide where else to go.”
The obvious choice, Mia thought, being Wolfe House, which had a beautiful parlor with a lot more room. Maybe it was all the tension in the air about the coming election, specifically all the wild talk about who might run against Mr. Preston for Defense Chief. Mia wondered if the council not meeting at Wolfe House instead was some kind of message. Saying what?
She advanced a cautious step, halting mid-stride when she picked out Felicité’s voice from the adult chatter. “ . . . but Mother, it really ought to be a council item. Kerry Voske ought to be paying for stable space, and—”
“Darling,” the mayor said, so low Mia almost couldn’t hear her, “I thought we agreed that we will use the name Kerry herself has chosen. As for the stable, Mrs. Riley says that Kerry works hard there, and more than makes up for the space allotted her horses. Which, she adds, have been included in the patrol rotation.”
“Only for certain people,” Felicité said in that crystal-tree chiming voice that Mia had distrusted ever since they were all small.
“But all the horses are reserved for certain riders,” the mayor responded reasonably.
“But Kerry picks. For those horses of hers. Mrs. Riley should be the one—”
“Dear, we’re all here, and ready to begin. Perhaps you should ready your scribe implements?”
“Of course, Mother.”
Mia realized she had been shamelessly eavesdropping only when the mayor turned around and looked down at Mia from the five story height of The Button Dress. “Mia? Have you an item to add to our agenda?”
Mia’s throat promptly dried up. From behind Mayor Wolfe, Felicité looked away, her mouth in a crimp of disgust.
Mia hadn’t been this close to Felicité since what Mia privately thought of as the Day of the Fruit Shed. The vivid memory of Jennie tackling Felicité, then tying her up and dumping her in that shed, gave Mia the courage to face the mayor and say, “Yes.”
“We will add you in, then.” The mayor turned her head. “I call this meeting to order.”
Her voice didn’t rise. Mayor Wolfe never yelled. But she got instant silence, into which she spoke with her customary calm, “We will begin with new business: Mia Lee has an item to present.”
Mia jumped at hearing her name so suddenly, the tools clipped to her overalls rattling.
A tiny noise of disgust from Felicité’s direction made the hairs on the back of Mia’s neck stiffen, and her armpits prickle. Great. Now she was going to sweat up this shirt.
So get it over with. Mia shoved her glasses up her nose, and faced the Judges and Sheriff Crow in preference to the Wolfe-Preston gang. “I think I need to go up the pipeline, maybe all the way up to the reservoir, though I hope not. For an emergency repair. I don’t think the drop in water pressure at the main pipe is water running low. It's too early for that. I think there’s a leak somewhere, and it’ll only get worse. Probably happened after that last quake.”
As she spoke, she gestured toward the eastern mountain ridge—and her hand managed to smack squarely into a stack of booth walls. A flare of pain flashed through her knuckles, and she recoiled—then stared in horror as the flimsy wood stack toppled slowly.
Mia lunged to catch it, but only succeeded in grabbing one side of the top wall, which torqued the stack so that the ones behind twisted sideways, knocking into another stack—and down went a second set, along with a basket of water canteens bouncing, clanging, and rolling everywhere.
This time Felicité’s sigh of disgust was louder.
“I’ll clean it up,” Mia started chasing after canteens—kicking two, which clattered louder than a thunderstorm in her scorching hot ears.
“Leave it be,” Mr. Preston said, looking like he was halfway between annoyance and laughter. “We’ll get it when we’re done here. What do you need, Mia?”
At least here, Mia was well prepared. “Judging by the amount of pressure drop it’s probably just a ding, but it might be a wrenched joint, so . . .” She rattled off the supplies she ought to take with her—if she only wanted to make one trip.
“Definitely an emergency,” Sheriff Crow said with a nod.
“We do not need to lose any more of our water than we can help, with the rainy season still weeks, maybe months away,” said Mr. Appel.
Mia began breathing freely when the mayor called for a vote, got unanimity, then nodded pleasantly at Mia. “You may indent at the North Forge for your supplies, Mia.”
Mia let her breath out. Now she could escape!
Then Mr. Preston said, “I don’t think you should go alone, Mia. We can send the regular patrol up with you. They can prepare to camp overnight, if needed—we’ll shift the patrol schedule.”
Mia shook her head. “I can manage! I’ve got a wagon, and I’ll be with Rusty, Ross’s burro. He likes me—I can manage him just fine.”
But then Sheriff Crow slowly shook her head. “I agree with the Defense Chief. We know you can manage the repairs, but the fact remains, Gold Point is going to be seeking retribution, probably sooner than later.”
Mr. Appel waved a hand. “They’ve got too much to worry about at home, digging themselves out after the dam burst, ha ha!”
“Still.” Mr. Preston crossed his arms. “I believe Voske will be—if he hasn’t already—sending teams to assess our status. Let's not have our town mechanic out there alone, an easy target.”
“I agree.” Judge Lopez rapped gnarled knuckles against the barrel perched a few inches away. “Whether or not Voske is in a position to attack is an ongoing debate, but I think this suggestion is a sensible one. Mia, we all know you’re the most competent person in town as far as handling the repairs is, but wouldn’t you like extra pairs of hands or two if you have to deal with huge pieces of sheet metal?”
Mia knew the patrol schedule by heart just because she liked knowing details like that. And the next patrol would include Mrs. Callahan. And Ed Willet. She stared in horror, wondering how to say without saying that she’d rather wait a day. Or maybe two, as Henry would be on patrol the day after. Camping out with Henry and his “jokes” would almost be worse than spending a night with Mrs. Callahan, who at least would nag Ed Willet into doing his share of the work.
Mia straightened her shoulders. “I don’t want to upset the patrol schedule—”
“That’s all right,” Mr. Preston said, obviously meaning to be kind. “You know we do it all the time, when necessary—”
“How about if I put together a team?” Mia asked, trying to hide her desperation.
She turned the sheriff’s way, to catch a meaning look—was she thinking of who was on the schedule, too? Mia wished she was good at understanding what people were thinking, like Jennie—“Jennie!” she exclaimed.
Mia couldn’t look Mr. Preston’s way—she knew he was glowering like a thundercloud behind her at the mention of Jennie’s name. So she said to the sheriff, “Jennie would be perfect.”
“She certainly has the free time.” Mr. Preston’s tone was corrosive, and Mia hunched up, feeling like she was ten years old again, so strong was the urge to stick her tongue out at him as far as she could.
Instead, she kept her gaze resolutely on the sheriff. “I bet she’d love to help. And Ross!”
Sheriff Crow said, “That is excellent thinking, Mia. With Jennie and Ross with you, I believe we needn’t worry about any Gold Point scouts you might stumble across.”
Mia bobbed her head, then retreated as fast as she could, nearly tripping over a canteen as she went. The last thing she heard before she got out the door was the canteen clanking into a barrel and ricocheting off. Mia hoped it bonked Mr. Preston on the head.
Jennie Riley finished cleaning the classroom, restacking the newly-scrubbed slates, and organizing the practice pads for Monday’s morning drill.
She’d performed every chore she could think of, with slow and meticulous care, but the rest of the afternoon lay before her as long as the shadows outside. And beyond that, the weekend loomed even longer.
She still felt that inward jerk pulling her to Ranger practice. How could it hurt so much?
She tried to scold herself out of it. She had her teaching, which she loved. She remembered distinctly telling her parents she was thinking of quitting the Rangers.
Yeah, but thinking about quitting and being kicked out—in front of the entire town—were vastly different things.
A noise at the classroom door broke her reverie. In relief, she exclaimed, “Mia! And wearing your dad’s second best council shirt? Is that for your date tonight?”
“No.” Mia blushed at the word date, and Jennie had to hide her smile. “I had to go to the council,” Mia said. “There’s a pipe leak somewhere up the line, and they tried to stick a patrol on to guard me. The next patrol.” Mia’s eyes widened behind her glasses, her voice tremulous with doom.
Jennie did a quick mental calculation, then whistled. “That would be a fun trip—Mrs. Callahan ordering everyone around, and Ed Willet no doubt with a couple barrels of hooch hidden in his saddlebag?”
“So I volunteered you,” Mia said quickly. “I hope you don’t mind.”
And suddenly Jennie’s weekend looked a whole lot brighter. “Mind? I’d love to go!”
“I kind of promised Ross, too,” Mia admitted. “I’ll ask him tonight.”
It was Mia’s turn to have a date with Ross. Awareness of that had added to the emptiness inside Jennie. But they’d promised to make this relationship work, and her reward was seeing the genuine happiness in Mia’s face after her dates with Ross.
“Dad said he’d make Grandmother’s crab dumplings,” Mia went on cheerfully. “Ross loves those.”
“Ross loves every food.” Jennie chuckled.
“Except ancient eggs.” Mia’s grin flared, and Jennie followed her out. “Want to watch me pack for tomorrow? I don’t want to forget anything I might need.”
Jennie knew that dinner at the Riley house would be late, to accommodate those doing Ranger candidate training as well as those on day patrol. “Sure.”
It wasn’t far from the schoolhouse to Mia’s cottage. She chattered the entire way, enumerating her ‘must’ list and how much each item probably weighed, keeping a running tally in her head. “One thing I learned on that awful expedition when Ross got kidnapped was that my pack was much too heavy. And while I will have a cart, and Rusty, I hope, I don’t think it fair to pile everything on the poor burro that I wouldn’t want to carry myself. So I’ll start with the sheet metal . . .”
Jennie half-listened as they threaded through Mia’s junkyard, then approached the cottage. Mia stopped short so suddenly that Jennie almost ran into her. “Wait.”
Mia dashed inside, shut the door, and a few seconds later, opened the door again. “Secrets,” she said tersely as Jennie entered.
Jennie nodded, thinking of her own holiday gifts waiting to be worked on at home. At least she had plenty of time for them this year. Trying not to let that be a depressing thought, she perched on a stool, careful where she put her feet. The cottage was its usual wild disorder, with two engines sitting on Mia’s bed. The table had been covered by a bed quilt.
“Tool belt, of course,” Mia muttered as she carefully lifted the smaller engine off the bed, and set it on her chair.
Onto the empty space on the bed, she slung her tool belt. Then, in a whirl of motion while muttering under her breath, she jinked here and there about the room like a small dragonfly, picking up things, estimating weight and utility, then either piling them on the bed or placing them somewhere else in an order Jennie could not even guess at.
Watching Mia somehow cheered Jennie. Mia was so . . . so herself. She’d never in her life attempted to be anything but herself, a total contrast to Felicité, for example, who was so teeth-grittingly false that Jennie could never believe her even when she knew the girl was telling the truth. The mystery was, how Felicité could end up like that—her parents thought she was perfect—her entire family did—she was rich, smart, pretty, had the job she wanted, and yet Ma, who couldn't hear that sugary voice, said she was angry. What did she have to be angry about? Jennie thought she was just mean. She acted like she had been denied something that everyone else had, and she wouldn’t be happy until she took it away. No, that wasn’t quite it . . .
“Stench gun, eight ounces . . .”
That got Jennie’s attention—and she was just as glad. But . . . “Did you say stench gun?”
“Huh?” Mia looked up, holding a small object with a little tube-shaped canister attached. “Oh! Yes. Mrs. Alquist asked me to make something that would keep the coyotes away from her chicken yard. I thought, since canines have great noses, creating a really terrible stink would be like, I don’t know, an explosion is to our ears.”
“It didn’t work?”
“Oh, well, it seemed to worked fine. Too well. It stunk out the entire family, and they threatened to burn their house down. Luckily we had those two rains, which sort of washed the smell out somewhat.”
“What did you put in it?”
“Well, I started with essence of skunk—you know, collecting the carcasses from the fields, and added rancid fish oil, and—”
“That’s enough,” Jennie said, laughing as she raised her hands. “I’m gagging just thinking about the carcasses. How did you stand it?”
“I worked with a rag tied around my nose,” Mia said. “And it was really interesting, noticing my, and others’ reactions to variations in the mixture. Dad kept complaining if the wind shifted, until I shut all the windows on the cottage side of the surgery. I knew I had it about right when I was working on it, and my door was open, of course, and I happened to look outside, and the Scotts’ dog, which was trotting up Main Street, sniffed the air from about sixty-eight paces away, turned tail, and scampered fast.”
Mia sighed as she—carefully—laid the little gun on the bed. “Nobody else seems interested in trying it, unfortunately. But I love the design, so I’m trying to figure out how to adapt it in some other way. Maybe I can do that out in the desert if we have to camp. Nobody will complain about my experiments.”
“Ross and I will if you stink us out of our sleeping bags!”
“Well of course I’ll go downwind,” Mia explained earnestly, not pausing in her sorting.
Jennie remembered that they were not among the Rileys, and bit back the urge to explain that she was teasing. She knew that would fluster Mia, who back in their school days had often whispered “Was that a joke?” and then, on the schoolyard, asked how it was funny, listening intently to the answer and filing it away in her wonderful, fascinating, and sometimes bewildering mind.
Mia paused, scrutinized her clock, then let out a noise somewhere between a squeak and a sniff, flung some clothes on top of the tools rattling around on the bed, then said, “I gotta go, if I want to take a bath first.”
“But you look great,” Jennie said. “Didn’t you already have a bath?”
Mia clamped her arms to her sides and blushed furiously. “I want another one. Before a date.”
“Okay! I’ll walk you over to the surgery,” Jennie said, and when they parted outside, “Have fun! I’ll be over after breakfast tomorrow. How’s that?”
“Great!” Mia gave a frantic look around, as if unseen listeners lurked in the rows of corn in the pocket gardens, or perched on the surgery roof, laughing and pointing. Mia was definitely in date mode.
Jennie walked away, wondering how Ross was with Mia—if he was very different than he was with her.
Almost at that moment hoofbeats thudded on Main Street, and her neck tightened. Of course it was the Ranger patrol returning, and she just knew Indra rode among them. They passed on by, and she squared her shoulders and lifted a hand with a friendly wave, forcing what she hoped looked like an easy, casual smile.
She received quick lifts of hands in return, and then they were past, and there were Indra’s splendid shoulders bisected by his glossy braid swinging between them. Ross was dear, and amazing, and wonderful, and she liked sharing him with Mia . . . but she still couldn’t help but notice that Indra on horseback looked like a prince.
Ross said, “Of course I’ll go. You know how much I like exploring.”
Mia’s entire face lit up, and a light expanded in Ross’s chest when he saw how happy she was.
Then her head tipped, her short, silky hair brushed her smooth round cheek as she said, “I’m afraid there isn’t much up there to explore. Las Anclas has been sending people up and down those mountains for generations—ever since we first put in the pipes. Jennie can probably tell you how long ago that was. All I know is, we’ve got patches on patches on the pipes. Anyway, probably prospectors went along with the mechanics, too, but not since I remember. Because it’s so boring.”
“You never know when a quake or landslide might reveal something new,” Ross said. “And even if that doesn’t happen, you know how much I like being out in the open. Rusty will, too.”
“Good! Jennie will meet us after breakfast,” Mia said. “I hope we’ll be lucky enough to get it all done in a day, but just in case the leak takes us all the way up to the reservoir, we have to be ready to camp out.”
Ross agreed, though his pack was always ready to go. But he didn’t like to point that out. He didn’t want Mia to misinterpret, and think he had one foot out the gate, as if he wanted to leave Las Anclas. That was so far from the truth. He was always packed for disaster. His life had depended more than once on being able to jam his feet into his boots, grab rifle and pack, and run.
They stepped off the porch, Ross enjoying, as he always did, the sensation of a full stomach after one of Dr. Lee’s excellent meals. They were all excellent. He never argued with Mia, who didn’t like many of her father’s experiments, but in Ross’s opinion, Dr. Lee was ahead of so many of Ross’s camping experiences just by the fact that all the ingredients he used were fresh.
“So what do you want to do?” Mia asked, taking Ross’s fingers in her small, slim hand.
“Anything you like,” he said.
“Well, I feel like going to the cottage isn’t really a date, since we’re there a lot anyway, working on stuff,” she said, as they turned toward the south gates and began walking down Main Street.
A few people had put Advent wreaths in windows. In other windows, menorahs had been set up in anticipation of Hanukkah in a few days. Everything was beginning to look like the holidays. Mia smiled, clearly loving it all, then she turned to Ross, question in her face.
“What did the teenagers do in Gold Point?” Mia asked.
Ross flinched inwardly at the mention of Gold Point, but he hid the reaction, knowing how dismayed Mia would be if she saw. He’d get past it. He always had before, when he had a close brush with death, and things—sights, sounds, smells, especially words—would remind him. It would just take time.
“I know the Gold Point teens had places to go,” Ross said. “You should probably ask Kerry about them. I never saw any. What I did see were teenagers riding around the main streets in buggies. Couples, sometimes a group.”
“Where did they ride to?”
“Don't know. Far as I could tell they rode around in a big circle. Showing off their horses. Tricked out buggies. Each other, maybe. They’d stop and blab, then ride on. I never got close. When they saw me, they always stopped what they were doing and made me the center of attention, so I stopped going outside altogether, except to walk around the royal gardens.”
Mia sighed, gazing down at the toes of her boots. “I’ll never forgive myself for not going out to search that first night. Now I that I know you were all alone. Blind.”
“Mia, if you had, they probably would have caught you. If some predator didn’t nab you first. I was doing my best to be stealthy, following arroyos. There’s no way you could have found me.”
“That’s what everybody says, but still.”
Ross stopped her, put his hands on her shoulders, then bent and kissed her. And she kissed him right back, sweetness and fire burning a thrill right through him. He still couldn’t believe it, how easy it was with both his girlfriends. Easy until . . . it wasn’t.
When they broke for breath, she was the one who turned back toward her cottage, and they ended up as they often did, lying in her yard on a blanket, with the canopy of stars overhead, and the soft night air around them.
Even with all that freedom above and around, the hot kissing and touching usually kindled a sense of alarm that he didn’t understand except as invisible walls closing in. It was far worse with Jennie, especially when the inner heat flared up fast and bright.
With Mia, things went a lot more slow, and easy, because she was as scared as he was.
He was good with that.
They kissed, hands exploring and tender, then caressing and insistent, and kissed some more . . . then they lay there, her head pillowed on his shoulder, and he slid into sleep.
This time there were no bad dreams.
When he woke, Mia was already gone. By the time he got cleaned up, checked the burro and his feedbag, hitched his pack over his shoulder, and reached the surgery kitchen, Dr. Lee had plates of bacon and eggs ready, with plenty of coffee, and a generous helping of cinnamon-and-walnut coffee cake. Ross didn’t understand why this cake was called coffee cake when there wasn’t any coffee in it, but it tasted so good he was not about to argue.
They were just finishing when a tap at the back door brought Jennie. “Hi, guys,” she said from the porch.
Ross deeply appreciated how awesome she looked, her spectacular curves flattered by those jeans and the work shirt, with her sword strapped over her back, a long knife at her belt, and her Ranger boots below her jeans. She hefted her bulging pack. “I hope you two ate a light breakfast. Dad packed me enough eats for ten Tommy Horsts.”
Mia grinned up at Dr. Lee as she patted the hamper set beside the kitchen door. “And my dad stuffed enough food for twenty Mr. Horsts in here.”
Though Ross was so full he felt the back of his eyes bulging, he said, “It won’t go to waste.”
For some reason, everyone laughed.
“Let’s go,” Mia declared.
Ross gave up trying to understand humor. Who could ever joke about food? “I’ve got Rusty ready. All we have to do is hitch him up to the wagon.”
Everyone picked up their packs and they said their farewells to Dr. Lee before slipping out the kitchen door to head down to the stable.
When they reached it, the cart was waiting, with the hammered sheet metal pieces stacked in it, plus Mia’s soldering supplies.
Ross had just finished checking Rusty’s harness to make certain nothing pinched or cut off his wind when Kerry walked out of the stable. Seeing her—and Paco—always gave him that same inward poke that hearing ‘Gold Point’ did. It was all Voske’s fault. This reaction, too, would wear away in time.
“Where are you guys going?” Kerry asked.
Jennie stayed silent as Mia explained.
“An escort, huh?” Kerry said. “How about if I ride with you, at least partway? Nugget needs exercise, and I’ve ridden around Las Anclas so many times I swear I know every bit of cactus by heart."
“Sure!” Mia exclaimed happily.
When Kerry turned Ross’s way, he said, “Saddle up.”
Only Jennie remained quiet.
Nobody sympathized with an ex-princess.
Kerry scorned fawning expressions of sympathy. She despised pity. But still, there were these . . . holes in her life, these little frustrations that crowded her day, that nobody else even noticed, much less understood.
Take brushing her hair. She’d rarely ever had to do it. She knew how, of course. Totally different from knowing how to pull a brush through your hair was doing it every day, especially after wind and sweat tangled it unmercifully, and your body was so tired every muscle ached, and you just wanted the maid to draw you a hot bath, then massage your scalp while you lay in the clean hot water with your eyes closed, soothed by the gentle tug on your scalp.
Well, the days of maids were gone. And while Becky Callahan was perfectly willing to brush Kerry’s hair for her, Becky had a very full life. She couldn’t be summoned by a snap of the fingers whenever Kerry wanted her.
And that wasn’t even considering the little braids done up so cleverly into a coronet, Kerry’s favorite style in Gold Point. It was elegant, and comfortable whether she was dancing or sparring. Whenever she tried to duplicate it, the braids would come down around her ears at the wrong times. And none of her braids were even, especially the ones in back. She hadn’t even considered what that looked like until the day Felicité Wolfe had said in that treacly voice of hers, “Very interesting style in parting, Kerry. A Gold Point fashion?”
Kerry had cadged a hand mirror from Becky, and craned her neck looking into her little mirror—to see her scalp looking like a ragged patchwork quilt under the lopsided braids.
Then there was the horror of laundry . . . but at least she'd recently been able to make a trade for that with Frances the Ranger. Mucking out the stable and caring for Frances’s favorite mount in trade for clean, pressed clothes seemed a fair exchange to her, after one nightmare experience with the scrubbing board and wringer. Frances said she actually liked doing laundry—it kept her arms in condition—and two people’s was as easy as one. But she cordially loathed the stable chores that Kerry didn't mind.
Anyway, though people readily sympathized over a bad haircut, too much of Jack’s holiday punch, or a squabble with a lover, but become a regular citizen after being the crown princess of Gold Point, and everyone blinked at her and said the same thing: What a lucky escape!
And she agreed. But oh, the truth was, she missed being a princess in so many ways.
Of course, there were also the ways she didn’t miss it. Besides the heads on pikes, she didn’t miss the false smiles, the empty compliments, the little-too-loud flattery that was obviously meant to be heard by the king.
At least nobody gave her that in Las Anclas. She could do with a little less distrust and snideness, but she’d learned to avoid the Horsts, Mrs. Callahan, and their friends among the townspeople. At least, she’d noticed, she wasn’t their only target. Ross came in for almost as much of it, though he’d twice saved the entire town. For that matter, Preston also came in for his fair share—which made Kerry grin.
She was grinning now as she felt a gentle poke against her calf. She looked down, and there was Wu Zetian, Felicité’s golden rat. Even though Kerry knew now that the rat spied on everyone, she didn’t care. It wasn’t as if she had anything to hide—except maybe if Sean visited, and he was already hidden. She bent down to pet Wu Zetian.
“I trust,” came the spun-sugar voice, “you are not contemplating doing something evil to my rat, Princess.”
Figured. The only person in the entire town who regarded Kerry as a princess was Felicité, and she said the word in that combination of sugar and sneer that she must have practiced for hours before her mirror. Kerry wouldn’t put it past her.
“Kerry’s going with us,” Mia spoke up.
“Repairing dirty pipes?” Felicité rejoined. “How very exciting for you, Kerry.”
Henry, lounging up in his black practice fatigues for Ranger candidate practice, gave a crack of laughter. “Can you handle the thrill?” he asked Kerry.
Henry was unexpectedly good-looking, in a bleached-skin sort of way. Sometimes Kerry thought it would be fun to take him away from Felicité, just to wipe the smugness off Preston’s daughter’s face.
Except what would she do with him if she got him? She distrusted Henry’s grin. It reminded her unsettlingly of her father’s grin—in spite of those even white teeth in those broad smiles, there was no humor whatever in the watchful eyes above.
Anyway, she couldn’t stand the thought of kissing anyone but Santiago, whom she still missed with an ache that seemed to get worse, not better, especially at night.
She turned her back on the precious pair and finished tightening saddle straps and buckles. “If she comes too close, bite her,” she whispered against Nugget’s neck.
But Felicité had sashayed off with Henry—probably because Jennie was there. “Cart’s all set. Everybody ready?” Jennie said, slinging her rifle over her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
So all in all, it was kind of a relief to be able to go through the gates with Ross and Mia, from whom she knew exactly what to expect. Well, she knew what to expect from Jennie, too: silence. But that was better than flattering lies, or innuendo.
The morning was fair and pleasant, the climb up the dry brush soon somewhat dull. Their pace, of necessity, was only as fast as Mia could check each join of the pipes snaking their way up the folding hills, first by look and feel for drips, and then by clanging a heavy wrench against the metal and listening to the sound underneath the raised pipes, and checking the soil for wetness around the half-buried ones.
Kerry had wondered how two such very different girls managed a relationship with Ross, and here she was getting a chance to see them all together, away from their families and the various personalities of Las Anclas.
She wasn’t surprised by the total lack of jealous looks, the little smirks and comments of covert competition or antagonism that she had noticed in so many people in Gold Point. Bankar had been a perfect example—only she had been loud, obnoxious, and brash.
The conversation was easy—if boring. Mia tended to exclaim about birds flashing colors and codes, and this two-headed snake, was it truly a subspecies, and that type of rabbit with its hedgehog crest of spines—with long, comfortable stretches of silence in between, except for the rustles and twitters of wildlife, the creak of the cart wheels, Rusty’s and Nugget's clopping hoof falls, and the other two's steady tramping while Mia clanged and banged.
Kerry kind of liked that quiet, because it was just quiet. Nobody had to exert themselves to please the princess. Jennie and Ross both scanned regularly, as was their habit; Kerry found herself scanning a moment after them, used as she was to an honor guard whose lives depended on keeping her safe.
What would have happened if she had taken an honor guard away from the ruined city that day? To begin with, Ross would definitely be dead. Jennie might be, as well. And Mia, too, if Kerry were pacing about as Las Anclas’s new queen . . .
Kerry shied away from that thought.
So she let Nugget have his head. He galloped off along cliffs and plateaus to explore and crop at grass, until she found herself looking down on the town from a gradually increasing incline, then she'd ride back to rejoin the others.
The sun had reached its zenith when Kerry was debating whether to call it a day. Then her stomach growled at the same time Ross said, “How about we lighten one of those packs and see what your dads put in for lunch?”
Kerry knew that Dr. Lee was an excellent cook, and she’d eaten once with the Rileys soon after her acceptance as a citizen of Las Anclas, and had found that that family, as well, prepared simple but excellent food.
“I should probably go back,” she said. “You packed for three.”
“Actually, we seem to have packed for an army,” Mia said cheerfully, hefting a sizable hamper.
“You’re welcome to join us,” Jennie said. It sounded determinedly polite, but not false. And Ross, at Jennie’s shoulder, was nodding, his glossy hair swinging.
So Nugget and Rusty chomped contentedly in their feedbags as the four delved into Mia’s and Jennie’s hamper and packs by turns, pulling out promising cloth-wrapped bundles that sent enticingly pungent scents into the dry air. Spicy fish cakes—seafood-vegetable pancakes cooked in egg and onion—two kinds of kimchi, spicy and savory-sour—spiced potato burritos—stuffed chilis with cactus—all appeared, and four healthy appetites made them summarily disappear, washed down by half one of the jugs of water flavored with a little lemon.
They set out again afterward with significantly lighter loads. Two hills later, they finally lost sight of Las Anclas altogether.
“It’s time to start scouting now,” Ross said.
“I was about to suggest the same thing,” Jennie put in.
“How about I do that,” Kerry offered. “In payment for that great picnic.”
When she saw the hesitation in both Jennie and Ross, she said, “One of you can come up with me. Nugget can easily take two of us since we’re not galloping or going a long distance.”
Ross and Jennie exchanged glances, and then Ross said, “I’ll go.”
Kerry remembered what a terrible rider Ross was, and braced her heels into her stirrups, then held a hand down. Ross grasped her by the wrist with his gauntleted hand so he could use the other to aid in scrambling up behind her.
Nugget shifted, ears twitching, and brought his tail up. “Nugget! Behave!” Kerry said sharply before the stallion could try to whack Ross right back off again.
“Pick the direction,” Kerry said.
“Standard spiral,” Ross mumbled, and Kerry suspected he was wondering if they’d insulted her.
She already had come to terms with the fact that she really wasn’t experienced alone on the road, though she’d had plenty of experience camping out during her military training. But she’d always had that honor guard, or her patrol mates—carefully chosen, she knew now, after lots of sleepless nights reflecting back. Carefully chosen so that there would be no Tom Prestons or Sera Diazes among them.
Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if she'd tried dating anyone with ambition. The guy would most likely have dumped her for no explainable reason, or suffered an accident. In fact, it could be that Father had scared them off before she even danced with them at teen gatherings.
There was a lot she’d taken for granted that had become clear in retrospect, but still, she couldn’t help poking. “So, is it that you two don’t trust me, or is it merely that you think I’m incompetent as a scout?”
When she looked at Ross, she usually saw only those long eyelashes as he glanced away or down. So when she met that black gaze straight on, it always acted on Kerry kind of like a thump behind her breastbone.
“Neither,” Ross said, as from behind came the occasional sour clang! from Mia’s wrench against the pipes. “It’s that there’s always a chance of a Gold Point scout team. And what if Santiago is on it.”
Another, sharper thud behind the breastbone. Here Kerry had almost gone a full morning without thinking about, or worrying about, or missing Santiago. “You think I’d betray you all,” she said, her voice coming out more sharp than she intended. “That I’d choose Gold Point, because of love.”
Ross shook his head. “It’s Santiago.”
“It’s Santiago what?”
Ross had begun scanning to either side, as behind them once again, a little fainter, Mia whanged another pipe.
“Wouldn’t want to put him in the position of making that choice,” Ross said.
That one was a real sucker punch. Kerry’s memory threw her right back to the last time she saw Santiago, and the gleam of moisture along his eyelids as he said, But if we’re ordered out to find you . . . and her own response, Shoot me first.
Yeah, if he did shoot her, she’d be right out of worry, or anything, but then, but where would that leave Santiago, whichever way he chose? With a lifetime of Worst. Memory. Ever.
“Okay,” she said, letting her breath go in a rush. "That's fair." And because Ross shifted his weight so awkwardly when turning from side to side, which she could tell from Nugget’s stiffened muscles and ear flicks was irritating to the horse, she said, “How about I watch inside and you outside?”
So she did, while considering Ross’s surprising response. It shouldn’t be surprising, given all that time he’d had to spend with Santiago in Gold Point. In fact, in some ways, Kerry wouldn’t bet against Ross knowing more details of Santiago’s life than she did. Especially about his family, which she’d had little to do with. That was another of Father’s indirect controls—her loyalties were to stay firmly and solidly with him.
The occasional clanks had become faint. Ross lifted a hand toward the north, and Kerry shifted her hips to guide Nugget in a circle. They were entering more rugged territory now. Ross gestured up toward the tops of the hills. The sea was a thin strip behind them. Along the north slope crystal trees had spread, here in patches or clumps, there in long groves. They gave those wide berth.
Two rounds they made, and she began to recognize this clump of rock, the top of those eucalyptus growing along a ridge that might long ago had bordered some road. Flashes along the high treetops caught Ross’s attention, then he looked away. Nugget’s ears stayed upright.
Kerry began to wish she’d gone back to town directly after lunch. “Do you really think there’s danger of Gold Point doing anything but digging out?”
“Nobody thinks there’s danger until it’s there,” Ross said. “I like to pick the ground if I can.”
Yeah, that made sense. That was thinking like Father, picking the ground. In fact, Ross really did have the kind of strategic vision that Father most appreciated—in himself.
Kerry thought about that dam blowing up, and smiled. Then the urge to smile vanished like smoke. Even if Ross had settled into Gold Point, how long would he have lasted after coming out with another example of vision? Father could amuse himself treating Ross like a prince in order to toy with him or turn him, but just let Ross come up with a princely idea, and see how fast he got tossed into the hell cells.
“I think they found it,” Ross said. “I haven’t heard Mia whacking the pipe for a while.”
Sqau-w-w-wk! A sudden scolding of birds to the right caused Ross’s head to turn sharply. Kerry also whipped her gaze to the right, arm ready to form a shield—in time to see a band of flying cats with their flaps outstretched swooping into the treetops a second before another explosion of birds flapping skyward.
Something large moved through the grasses below, then away.
The wind had kicked up, she noticed as Nugget’s pace increased slightly. He smelled water.
“Weather’s changing,” she said as she loosened the rein, and led the horse around a gigantic upturned slab of ancient cement amid tumbled rocks and scrubby bushes. “I hope Mia can fix that leak before too long, or you guys are going to have a wet night.”
A stream trickled down from the heights above, carving its way downward. Nugget bent his head to slurp. Kerry used the opportunity to dismount and stretch legs and back. Ross had already slid off the stallion’s rump, and scrambled straight up the side of the cement slab. Kerry lifted her face to the strong, keen wind—until the reins tightened in her hands.
Nugget had raised his head from the water, ears alert, back, alert, back.
She drew in a breath to yell to Ross “See anything?” but he had ducked low, his body still. He glanced back and held out a hand, palm down to keep her in place, but she wasn’t having any of that.
She whirled the reins around a scrubby branch. Moving as quietly as she could, and keeping her head low to the sparse grass, she moved directly up behind Ross, then, cautiously poking her head around his shoulder, gazed downward, eyes narrowed against the wind.
She stiffened, horror electrifying every nerve as she stared at the red-haired figure dressed in Voske crimson, black, and gold leading the line of people in tracking mode over the rough terrain—straight toward Jennie and Mia far below, Jennie bracing her back against a pipe with her feet jammed into a rock. Directly above and beyond the section of pipe they worked on, the ground stretched away smoothly in a vast landslide, the raw earth like a slash across the side of the hill below, dirt having flowed under the raised pipe all the way to a grove of crystal trees.
Ross slid down and turned a shoulder, leaning against the massive cement slab so that he could not be seen from those approaching the girls. “You recognize them,” he said. “It’s a Gold Point scout troop.” His tight voice verged on accusing.
“It’s worse than that,” Kerry said. “I mean, I still don’t think Father is sending out scout teams against Las Anclas—not to grab random people. Spying, sure. There’s too much to do at home.”
Ross stilled, listening.
Kerry talked quickly. “The redhead is my cousin.” She spat out the word. “Maire—daughter of Aunt Feorag, Father’s sister. Until she tried to take the throne when Grandmother died. You rode directly under her skull. Maire still thinks she should inherit because Feorag was older than my father. You remember how I told you that my half-sister Deirdre became a problem after she got her stormbringer power? Well, Maire—who was born with her electric shock power—made Deirdre look like an angel. She’s always been mean, a liar, and swanked all over Gold Point insisting on her rights as a princess. Father finally sent her to one of his smaller towns to learn ruling, but she ran away when she didn’t get to give orders. Father didn’t even order a search party. I think he was hoping she’d disappear.”
Ross was listening, but she could see him still mentally assessing everyone’s positions—the oblivious girls working with sheet metal on the damaged pipe, the approaching line with a string of horses following the last of them.
Kerry talked faster. “Look, Maire joined up with some really nasty bounty hunters, the kind who prefer to bring severed heads for the bounty because they’re less trouble than prisoners. But Father would never trust her with any important target. So that can’t be a bounty hunt. They’re just being nosy. Or looking to rob someone.”
Silence from Ross, who checked himself over—yes, his pack was back with Rusty. All he had were his knives. Kerry could practically read his mind.
Kerry talked quicker. “That guy behind Teo? That’s Helmut. He got driven out of town when he switched from torturing wild animals to someone’s pets. He doesn’t see colors normally—he sees in the heat spectrum, so nobody sneaks up on Helmut Chang. And all the rest of her gang are just like them, murderers who think the more blood the better. You can’t possibly go up against them and win. Nobody can—except an entire company.”
Ross didn’t seem to be listening. Or he reached a decision as her words whipped away on the wind: he cupped his hand around his mouth.
“Don’t,” Kerry said, reaching for his arm. He backed away, his eyes narrowing. “The girls won’t hear you against the wind, but Teo will.”
“Why? What’s his power?”
“Have you met any dogfaces?”
“Once. Foxfaces, several,” Ross said.
“Teo can’t talk—he has a dog tongue as well as the muzzle. But he has a dog nose. He can smell like a hunting dog. Dog hearing, too. And he knows me,” Kerry said bitterly. “The only reason why they aren’t on their way here right now is that the wind happens to be straight behind them, blowing this way. But that won’t last past him picking up our scent on the ground.”
Ross had clearly plotted out his trail, and began scrambling down toward the landslide.
“Don’t, Ross,” Kerry said urgently. “Don’t you hear what I’m saying? They are bounty hunters. Mia and Jennie aren’t Gold Point targets, nor do they have bounties on them—”
“Thanks for the warning about the nose. I’ll stay downwind.” Ross gave Kerry a grim look. “If I go now, I’ll make it to Mia and Jennie before they do.”
“Ross, there’s a better than fifty-fifty chance they’ll be perfectly fine. But there’s a hundred percent guarantee you won’t. You know there’s a bounty on your head,” Kerry said, and it was absolutely true, though for some reason every word she said sounded unconvincing in her own ears.
Ross had begun sliding down the cement at almost breakneck pace. He paused, flashed a glance up over his shoulder, then said, “But holding hostages against surrender is standard Voske tactics, right?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
Kerry yelled, “Fine! Be an idiot!”
She picked her way furiously down the slope next to the cement block, sick with defeat and anger and confusion. She might not be much of a scout, but she could see that the girls were completely oblivious to their danger—trusting to Ross and Kerry to keep watch, as Mia fussed with her tools and bits of steel.
Kerry scanned between Teo, who paused, sniffing, and the girls, and Ross. Maybe Ross would make it to the girls in time for them to . . . what? Teo would surely smell them.
At that moment, Maire’s point scouts—hidden from view until now—emerged from behind a bluff maybe a hundred feet from the girls. One yelled something, and then fired a warning shot. Jennie’s head jerked up, and then, as Kerry watched in amazement, Jennie whirled around, had Mia flat on the ground and a rifle at her shoulder a second before two more shots pinged the rocks by the girls. She fired, reloaded, fired again.
Ross had been faster than Kerry had thought. He rounded the near edge of the landslide below, bolted flat out toward Jennie and Mia, ignoring the blast and whine of two bullets—then reached the girls.
Crystal trees, Ross, Kerry urged mentally, holding her breath.
And then what? Maire’s gang would have them surrounded in no time.
“There it is,” Mia had exclaimed. “Quake slide, just as I thought.”
She bent down and peered at the place where the pipe had taken a hit from a bounding boulder, it looked like. A crimp in the rusted metal had broken open to emit a thin but steady stream of water.
“Can you fix it?” Jennie asked.
“Oh, yes. That piece right there will be perfect over it. Fit up tight, hammer it flat, clamp, and solder for extra protection,” Mia said happily, the plan of action as clear as could be. “I guess we can sit over here. Wait for Ross, and then it’s no more than an hour and we’re done.”
Jennie looked from the pipe and back again, then said, “Why wait for Ross? I can handle this, if I just have to hold it flat against the pipe. Unless you wanted to sit over here for a reason.” Her eyes narrowed in her considering teacher gaze. “Something on your mind?”
Mia felt the horrible betraying blush. She knew it would happen—and she knew Jennie would read her like a book. She couldn’t read anybody, but the opposite was so not true.
“Come on, Mia,” Jennie coaxed—as if Mia was still ten. “Show me what to do, and we can talk as we work.”
Mia yanked the thin strips of steel out of the cart in order to make the clamps. As she flung the sheet metal over the pipe, enjoying how it reverberated with a whortling sound, she decided to get it over with. “It’s about dating.”
“Dating? Okay,” Jennie said as she steadied the thin strip for Mia, who slid the clamp she’d designed over both ends, and left it loose until she had the metal patch in place. “But didn’t you say you had fun last night?”
“I did! We did. But . . .”
Mia waited while the other strip crashed over the pipe. She knew she was fussing—she could handle these clamps one handed while steadying the patch with the other. Well, maybe not such big patches, but . . . “It’s about sex,” she said to the sheet metal.
“Sex,” Jennie repeated, in her friendly, neutral voice—the one she used when Dee, Nhi, and Z started technical interrogation about stuff Mia had never wanted to hear. Until now.
Mia paused while she banged the worst of the crimp out of the pipe, and then Jennie steadied the unwieldy sheet metal patch against the pipe. Water promptly began dribbling around the edges, but they ignored it as Jennie braced hard against a boulder—probably the very one that had made the crimp—and held the sheet metal in place.
Mia began tightening the clamps. “Okay,” she said, because she was never going to get a better moment. “There’s kissing. That’s great. Then there’s . . . call it exploring the territory.”
“Exploring the territory, got it,” Jennie said.
“I love exploring the territory—once we get there. After kissing,” Mia said. “But after that, there’s, well, call it, the Sepulveda Arroyo area, and . . . and the Lookout Hill area—ugh. That’s embarrassing. No, call it all just . . . prospecting.”
“Well, what if you both want to go prospecting, but you stop right at the, uh, dynamite zone. Who’s supposed to go first? What if you do, but the other person suddenly doesn’t want to?”
“Mia,” Jennie said with a grunt as she steadied the sheet metal against the water flow so Mia could winch the clamp tight. “Can I just say I don’t get it? Your dad is the most easygoing—”
“Don’t say normal,” Mia said between gritted teeth. “Don’t. Or easy. Because none of this ever felt normal. I’ve never felt normal. Hearing that everybody else does makes me feel even weirder. Okay?”
“Got it. I’m sorry,” Jennie said so promptly and sincerely that now Mia felt terrible. “Look, Mia, I’ll just say this. Whatever you and Ross do together is normal. For you. Normal can be different with different people And as it happens—”
Mia braced herself to hear that Ross had no problems with sex when he was with Jennie. Because of course nobody would, Jennie was Jennie. Effortlessly good at everything.
“As it happens, I think Ross has safety issues. I think when he gets to a certain kind of intimacy, suddenly he’s vulnerable—unsafe. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” Mia exclaimed, relief almost overwhelming. “Yes—”
“Mia.” Jennie’s voice changed. “Get that clamp done fast, okay?”
Before Mia could straighten up, Jennie had out her rifle. Mia turned, the wrench flying from her fingers as she goggled at the old woman and the guy coming at them from the far side of the avalanche. Both armed.
The woman leveled a shotgun at them. “Throw down those weapons and hands high!” she shouted.
“Go away,” Jennie called back. “Or I’ll shoot.”
Instead of answering, the woman pulled the trigger. Mia goggled at the puff of smoke, then cowered, hands over her head as pieces of the boulder exploded, stinging her face. At first the sudden danger had seemed unreal—but that sting changed things fast.
“Hit the dirt!” Jennie snapped, and fired back.
Mia did as ordered.
The two people took cover, and shot back.
It seemed forever, but the part of Mia’s mind that calculated everything insisted it was about three minutes and seven shots later, with pauses for reloading on both ends, when rapid footsteps approach. “Run, Rusty.”
Ross! The sound of a smack on the rump, and the burro’s little hooves could be heard galloping away, the cart rumbling and jouncing after. Don’t shoot the burro, don’t shoot the burro, Mia pleaded between her folded arms, then hard fingers clamped around her upper arm and Ross said hoarsely, “Over the pipe, quick.”
Mia got to her knees, her shoulder blades crawling up her back in expectation of a bullet, but from the lack of firing, Ross had chosen a moment when the attackers had to reload. He boosted Mia up and over the huge pipe, practically tossing her to the far side. She scrambled to get her legs around first and tumbled down to land with a splat. Then Jennie and Ross vaulted over simultaneously, shots ringing out a heartbeat after they slid themselves expertly down and dropped to their feet.
“Not the pipe!” Mia muttered as bullets whanged and pinged.
Then Ross’s gauntleted hand closed tightly around her fingers, and she and Jennie paced Ross as he led them down the remainder of the landslide toward . . . a grove of singing trees.
Mia let a squeak escape as the trees began chiming sweetly. Ross threw back his head, his face leaching of color, but his step didn’t falter as he led them straight to the trees . . . closer . . . closer . . .
The chimes fell silent, and they steadily moved closer—ten yards, twelve, eight . . .
A huge cobalt blue tree reached skyward on Mia’s right, glittering, still, sinister, and deadly. On Jennie’s left, a copper-colored one—the shade of a fox pelt.
They moved among the trees until they reached a little clearing with a long, chest-high pile of cactus-covered ground—probably a fallen fence, or the remains of some kind of long, one-story building.
They skirted around that, careful of the bright, winsome green of shooting cacti. On the other side, a tangle of strangle-wort and tigergrass. Beyond that, a small but growing fungal circle kept the cacti at bay.
Then Ross sagged between Jennie and her. Mia met Jennie’s worried gaze as together they lowered Ross gently to the ground, and then hunkered on either side of him. Presently he opened his eyes, squinting as if against a titanic headache, and murmured, “We should. Be okay.”
“Are you okay?” Jennie asked.
“I can handle a small grove. Mostly wild animals. Except for two.” Ross struggled up.
Now that he was safe, Mia remembered their peril. She turned away from Ross to look back at the enemy. Most of them were obscured by the big pipe stretching across the ground in either direction. Heads bobbed back and forth as the enemy searched for them.
A horrible sound rose, a long, triumphant howl, an eerie blend of wolf and human.
“What was that?” Jennie whispered.
“That will be Teo,” Ross muttered. “At least we’re safe in here.”
Human figures began vaulting over the pipe and coming at the run. Not two of them, but a whole stampede, seemed like an army. No, thirteen. Four women, five men, four who didn’t dress for gender identification.
"Teo?" Jennie prompted.
At an imperious gesture from a slender teenage girl—looked maybe eighteen or nineteen, ruddy red hair, and a thousand freckles—the thirteen began efficiently circling the grove of crystal trees, weapons at the ready.
"Who is Teo?" Mia asked, though she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.
The girl advanced fearlessly, then stopped when the trees began to tinkle and chime. She threw back her long hair, and stood in a commanding pose, one hand on a jeans-clad hip, a tight leather jacket outlining her form.
“Ross Juarez!” she yelled.
“Oh, hell,” Ross said softly, forehead resting on his hand.
“My friend Teo here smelled you. Your scent is all over Gold Point, as I’m sure you know. Especially in the hell cells.” She laughed. “Let me introduce myself! I am Princess Maire Voske. I should be Crown Princess Maire, and I will be, but that’s between Uncle Ian and me.” Her voice dropped corrosively on the words Uncle Ian. “Right now, it looks like that’s gonna happen real soon, thanks to you.”
Mia whispered, “Who is she?”
“In a sec,” Ross whispered back. “Let her get the rest of her threats out.”
Maire raised her voice. “So here’s how it’s gonna be. You surrender and come out now, and I’ll guarantee you make it back to Gold Point alive. The bounty on you is dead or alive, but I really think Uncle Ian prefers you alive. I’m sure you remember how much he likes his little shows.”
She paused—but if she expected an answer, she could wait until the next Ice Age, Mia thought.
“The thing is, the bounty on my Cousin Kerry—” That came out downright nasty. “Is ten times higher. I could probably demand, and get, Lake Perris once I drag her in by the hair.”
“What you want to bet she means that literally,” Jennie murmured, looking sick.
“Not taking that bet,” Ross whispered back.
Mia swallowed, then wished she hadn’t, because her stomach roiled even worse.
“Teo says her scent is on this hamper here. So I know your girlfriend is around here somewhere. She might even be watching.”
“Girlfriend?” Mia squeaked—and then remembered what Kerry had told her about her lie to her father, in order to save Santiago’s life: that she had fallen in love with Ross and was running away with him.
“In fact, I’m so sure she is that I can promise you this. If she turns up, then the two of you will make it alive to Gold Point. I’m not going to say how alive.”
Her crew shouted with laughter at that.
“But . . . alive. Further, if you come out now, then your two buddies in there can go free. They have no value to me. We’ll even let them finish up fixing this water pipe here. We wouldn’t want my future town to go thirsty.”
Another mean laugh rose.
“But if you make me wait, then I’m going to take my boredom out on you, beginning with them first, while you watch. Because we princesses don’t like being kept waiting.”
She paused again, and this time her followers stayed silent.
“You’ve got no water. No food—we have it right here, and we’re just about to sit down and enjoy it. So you’re going to be coming out eventually. I’ll give you until sundown. And then we’ll have to start getting creative.”
She waited about half a minute, and when Ross didn’t move, she turned on her heel, making a casual gesture. Half her gang moved away with her, talking and laughing back and forth as if the entire thing was a picnic. The rest stayed where they were, weapons ready.
Mia scowled, imagining those creeps going through all their packs looking for stuff to steal. Fingering her tools, and pocketing the best ones. Then gobbling the rest of the food in the hamper. Now Mia wished that Dad had put in a bunch of his worst experiments. Only with her luck, those awful people would adore pumpkin pancakes with cherry syrup, and turnip bread-pudding.
Mia fumed—until she heard Ross’s breath hissing. She stared, appalled as he banged his forehead gently against his white-knuckled fists, then he slowly stood up.
“Ross? What are you going to do?”
Ross didn’t answer Mia. One look at the hopeless expression on Ross’s face, and Jennie knew what he was going to do.
As Mia breathed on a high note, “Ross, no, no, no, no!” Jennie launched herself up and tackled him to the ground.
His head snapped back and he landed hard, arms outflung. “Mia, sit on his shoulders,” Jennie said, fear making her desperate.
Mia flung herself across Ross, sobbing, “No, no, no,” into his armpit.
Ross struggled underneath them, but Jennie sat astride him. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“Didn’t you hear her?” Ross pleaded. “She’ll let you go.”
“And you believe her?” Jennie snapped, terrified because she knew, without a doubt, if she let Ross up he was going to go out there, thinking it was the only way to save her and Mia. “I don’t even know who she is, but I don’t believe her. She’s having way too much fun with all her death threats.”
Mia raised her tear-stained face, her fogged glassed crooked. “We’ll figure something out. After dark.”
“Can’t.” Ross’s voice flattened. “Kerry told me about these guys.”
As he talked, Jennie’s mind streamed with thoughts. First, Kerry had abandoned them. Of course.
Well, if she was telling the truth, Jennie had to admit that Kerry was in an impossible situation. There was no chance whatever that she would be anything but a target to anyone even slightly familiar with Gold Point. Voske surely had wanted posters plastered all over his empire—and no doubt he lured every traveler who came through with bags of gold if they brought back his daughter. Ross, too.
Kerry had the only horse. She was probably halfway back to Las Anclas right now. The question was, what, if anything, would she do next?
“Let me up,” Ross said, and made an effort to shift.
Jennie locked her muscles hard. She could see Mia doing the same. “No, Ross, no,” Mia cried, her face muffled in Ross’s shirt. “I won’t let you go.”
Ross banged the back of his head against the ground. “What’s the use in all three of us getting killed by these maniacs?”
“They’re going to do it anyway,” Jennie said fiercely. “Better later than sooner.”
Mia raised her head, her glasses at a crazy angle. “Besides. How safe would Jennie and I be in the middle of these crystal trees if you go all the way out there?”
“Right,” Ross breathed. “Yeah. Right. Okay. I won’t go.”
The girls moved off him and he sat up, dusting grit off himself. Jennie wanted to fold her arms around him because he looked so miserable, but she kept her hands down by her sides. She wasn’t sure if it was a bad or good thing to let the enemies continue to assume that Ross and Kerry were a couple.
No, it was definitely a good thing. If these bounty hunters knew the truth, they would definitely use her and Mia against Ross. Right now she and Mia were considered baggage. How to use that?
She had to think! Her tongue moved thickly in her mouth, and she wished she’d taken a swig from the canteen before wrestling with the sheet metal. But at least they were together, and that line of clouds was coming nearer. With any kind of luck they meant rain. If they got soaked, they could suck the water out of their clothes, at least.
Yeah, things could be worse, and meanwhile they needed a plan.
“What can we do?” Mia asked, looking as miserable as Ross. “I know this is my fault. They had to hear me banging on those pipes from a mile away. I should’ve just been crawling under to feel every one . . .”
“All thousand or two thousand?” Jennie said. “I don’t think so. It was just rotten luck that they happened to be out there.”
Ross glanced to each side. “We need better cover. I’m afraid they’re going to start potting at us when they get bored enough.”
“Agreed,” said Jennie. “I don’t know how much gunpowder and ammo they have, but we better assume lots—and that includes what we brought in our packs. I suggest we start digging.”
“What if they see us?” Mia asked.
“They can only see from this side of that long bumpy thing. If we keep our backs that way, and dig by shoving our heels into the dirt, maybe we can get down a few inches below ground level. We just need to minimize ourselves as targets, since they can’t get inside the grove. What does everyone have in their pockets?”
“I’ve got my two boot knives,” Ross said. “Not much good for digging.”
“All I’ve got are my slide rule, two small wrenches, a screwdriver, and oh, here’s my failed experiment.” Mia patted the little pistol that she’d slid into a loop on the outside of one leg. “I didn’t want it in my pack where it might accidently leak—“
“Hey Ross,” came Maire’s voice, as she strolled back, swigging something from a canteen. “I really don’t like waiting. So I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen to you if you push me into it. Have you ever skinned a rabbit alive . . .?”
Halfway back to Las Anclas, Kerry stopped worrying about Maire's gang being on her heels, but she was still uneasy. Unsettled. Yes, she’d done the right thing, the practical thing—but she'd failed to convince Ross to do the right and practical thing. Somehow, her failure rankled in a big way, an important way. And finally, the way she’d left him . . . yelling like that . . . from someone like Bankar, she would have called it flouncing.
Her reasoning was rational. Sensible. Given different circumstances, she could hear her father applauding her quick decision to cut her losses and get away safely. She couldn’t fight them all. She couldn’t fight half of them—and neither could Ross, with no weapons but a couple of little knives.
She had never won a childhood scrap with Maire, who had always been bigger and meaner. Maire had enjoyed flicking sparks off any steel or metal weapons Kerry called up, just to see Kerry recoil from the shock.
Maire found other people’s pain funny. Unless Father was really angry with an execution victim, he sat through it because he felt that Gold Point had to see that he always kept his promises. But before Maire had been sent away, she had loved watching torture. She always howled with disappointment when the victims died too soon. According to Min Soo, her mother Feorag had been just as bad—if not worse.
There was no way to win against her, Kerry had known all her life. Some of her worst nightmares featured Maire’s laugh, her long blood-red hair flinging around arrogantly.
And did Ross listen? No. Kerry fumed. Ross was stubborn and impossible. There was no chance he was going to win against Maire’s gang. None. If he wasn’t dead already, at best he’d managed to retreat into those deadly crystal trees with Mia and Jennie, but how long could they stay in there?
Kerry found herself getting more and more restless—and angry—the closer she got to town. When she rode in through the gates, she avoided meeting anyone’s gaze: if they said anything, she would bite their heads off.
Only what to do?
She could keep her mouth shut. Her father would have expected her to—and that realization made her angrier.
So reframe the question. What would Sean do?
Get help. She knew that for truth. If Sean couldn’t offer help, he went for help, always. Until it was too unsafe to do so, thanks to Father’s threats. Well, no one was threatening Kerry here.
So whom should she go to? The obvious choice was the Defense Chief.
She burst out with an angry laugh, startling a cat walking along the eave of the harvest barn.
She could not imagine any possible good outcome from her—Kerry Ji Sun Cho—reporting to Preston that that Jennie Riley and Ross Juarez were in trouble. Preston would laugh in her face. Maybe he’d spare a thought for Mia, who was an excellent mechanic, but somehow she couldn’t see that bully bestirring himself.
As she rode down Main Street toward the stable, Nugget’s head low, she passed the surgery—the surgery!
What could Dr. Lee do? She wasn’t sure, but one thing she did know, Dr. Lee would listen. In fact, he’d listen even if it wasn’t his daughter in jeopardy.
She clicked to Nugget, urging him to a tired trot the last distance to the stable, where she looked around in desperation.
When she spotted Mrs. Riley brushing down Penny, she ran over to make sure that Jennie’s mom could see her face, and said, “Can you groom Nugget for me? It's an emergency. I have to get to Dr. Lee.”
Mrs. Riley took the reins. Kerry yelled, “Thanks!” and bolted up the back way to the surgery.
She banged on the kitchen door until Dr. Lee himself showed up, wearing his house slippers. Groaning with impatience at the reminder of local manners, Kerry kicked off her boots, then stepped inside, and to Dr. Lee’s waiting face, said, “Mia’s in trouble. And Jennie, and Ross—and it’s all his stupid fault—” Her voice cracked.
“Sit down, Kerry,” Dr. Lee said calmly as he poured out a glass of water. “Drink something. Take a breath. Begin again.”
Kerry thumped onto Mia’s customary chair, a weird voice inside her wailing in fury. Where was that coming from? Kerry knew that one thing she possessed more than anyone else was control. Cool, emotionless control, because if you didn’t—if you slipped for a second—you were dead, dead, dead.
She shut her eyes, hot tears stinging as they escaped down her face. She gulped in a breath and held it. Then drank off the rest of the water, its coolness washing down into the shuddering, boiling rage inside her.
Calm. Control. You’ve got this. Lives depend on you.
She opened her eyes then, and said steadily, “I rode away. I left them. But I didn’t see what else I could do.”
And out it all came.
With it the anger boiled up again, and she finished furiously, “If they'd been a bunch of Norms, even with weapons, I would have gladly attacked them with only him and his little knives as backup. I told Ross who they were. What they do. That the girls would probably be all right, because there is no bounty on their heads. And we all know there’s a huge one on his. But he just had to give in to weakness—”
“Hold on a moment, Kerry.” Dr. Lee held out a hand. “Let’s talk about why it’s weak of Ross to go rescue his friends.”
“Because they can be used against him! Every time! Isn’t that the meaning of weakness?” she said fiercely.
“Looked at from a purely military standpoint, it could be considered so. But then from the purely military standpoint, loyalty—real loyalty—that can be counted upon every time is an equally powerful force. Ross is loyal to his friends, though he’s just learning how to have friends. I myself don’t regard that as a weakness.”
Kerry pressed her lips together, knowing that except for Santiago (she had to believe that it was true) nobody at home—at Gold Point—would have risked their lives for her rescue. Not as Kerry Ji Sun Cho, that is. As the crown princess, the entire army would have scrambled because the king was watching, ready to order death or reward.
But there had been no king watching Ross. Just one ex-princess, who did her best to talk him into . . .
She said, “What now? I know better than to go to Tom Preston. He’d probably declare a holiday if he thought Ross and Jennie were taken out by Maire’s gang.”
Dr. Lee frowned up at a fly buzzing along the window trying to get in, then said, “Tom is angry with Jennie—or rather with Jennie having been the agent of conscience, shall we say. Before the entire town. But I agree, he might be looking past this situation, seeing it as a feint for the army he expects will attacks us sooner than later. He is responsible for the entire town, and knows that your father is going to retaliate when he’s able. I’d never be able to argue with that, and to attempt it would take valuable time. So let’s walk over and call on Sam Riley, who happens to be off patrol duty today.”
Kerry felt a weight lift that she hadn’t been aware of. Almost giddy with relief, she paced beside Dr. Lee the short distance to the Riley home, where they soon sat around the table with Mr. Riley, Jose—home for lunch after Ranger practice—and Yolanda.
Here, at Dr. Lee’s gesture, Kerry told it all again. This time, she was proud of her succinct military report, without a single waver in her voice.
Kerry liked Mr. Riley. He reminded her of an oak tree, so tall and mighty and quiet. Everyone was drawn to its benevolent shade. He sat there listening, his strong hands cradling a cup, then he raised his dark eyes. “How many did you say Maire Voske has with her?”
“I didn’t count them exactly—and the numbers change all the time. She can never hold onto followers,” Kerry said, mentally picturing that line. “But including the two point scouts, I’d estimate between twelve and fifteen.”
Mr. Riley looked slowly around the silent faces, then said, “I think this is a family affair. Dante? I won’t ask you to compromise your vows. But we might need your services as a doctor, and to hold the horses.”
“Let me close the surgery,” Dr. Lee said.
Mr. Riley turned to everyone else. “At least we know how to find them—follow straight up the pipeline. Jose and Yolanda? Fetch any of your cousins who are at liberty, and let’s saddle up.”
The rain struck, a roaring torrent that drowned out the enemy’s taunts and threats, but it also quickly filled in the trenches the girls had been laboriously digging by pushing soil into ridges with their feet while he tried to block them from being seen. Still, going doggo in liquid mud would be better than sitting upright as targets when this gang decided to entertain themselves with shooting practice. That they hadn’t already made Ross wonder if they were low on ammo. Or maybe they just like toying with prey.
He felt sick when he looked into Mia’s frightened face. He knew she had plenty of courage, but that was when she knew what to do.
They needed a plan, and he had nothing.
Jennie’s gaze shifted constantly, and Ross knew that she, too, was constantly making and discarding wild ideas. He muttered during a sudden deluge, “Soon as the sun goes down. If we get a downpour like this, be ready to move. I think it's the only chance we've got."
Both girls gave tiny nods.
Abruptly as it had begun, the downpour lifted.
“What’s that you’re chatting about?” came the taunting voice, as the departing band of clouds tumbled slowly overhead to the north, leaving the crystal trees pure and shining, musical drips falling all around. Far off to the right, a shaft of sunlight slanted down, touching the hills with golden color, and striking a rainbow from hill over the unseen ocean, the rainbow's hues reflected in the prisms of the crystal trees—which had gone colorless, Ross noted.
He shut his eyes and reached carefully for the trees again, though his head was still tender from ripping down the veil so violently when he ran with the girls into the grove. The trees had gone doggo in their own way—they were waiting for those ruddy, beating life-forms to step closer. Ross’s head panged, memory a palimpsest over the weird mental landscape: Voske’s elite team meeting his crimson tree.
He opened his eyes and tried to shake off both. This was a small grove, mostly animals, whose music was simple. He sensed curiosity, free of malice. As always, he caught flickers of memory from the two humans: a peddler, lost in fog, and a very old tree had been a wanderer whose memory images had blurred into a succession of sunny days, gold and green hills by turns. They wanted . . . company.
In a weird—impossibly weird—way, this grove was like a family.
Seen this way, the crystal tree world appeared deceptively benign. But he knew what the trees were capable of. He wasn’t sure he could survive it if he somehow lured Maire’s gang into seed pod range the same way he’d lured Voske’s covert strike team at the end of the battle. But if he could save the girls, it would be worth it.
He opened his eyes, and discovered that the trees had restored their colors again. He caught Jennie’s gaze, narrow, searching, steady.
“No,” she said. “You are not throwing away your life for us.”
“Right,” Mia said, her eyes bewildered and her mouth unhappy.
“I would never,” Jennie enunciated, “forgive you.”
“That, too.” Mia’s voice was small.
“Whatever we do, we do together,” Jennie said, low and determined.
“Yes,” Mia breathed.
Ross nodded, unable to meet their eyes, because he might still have to make that dash anyway. Especially if Maire’s people began shooting.
“Well, Ross?” Maire taunted. “Or are you waiting for Princess Kerry? I give it a fifty-fifty chance.” As laughter gusted all around, Maire said, “Well, say twenty-eighty. The Voskes are practical that way, and I hear there are plenty of pretty boys in Las Anclas. She might be picking her new squeeze right about now. Still, for an entire kingdom--and the pleasure of getting my hands on that snot--I think I can settle back to wait a while longer. But I’m going to be requiring some entertainment . . .”
Right now that entertainment took the form of describing what she did to enemies who gave her trouble. But any moment she’d start shooting in order to drive them out.
Time for a shift in tactics: stall.
“I give it a 100% chance Kerry’ll show up. With Las Anclas’s army,” Ross shouted, breaking into her litany of grisly torment.
Maire hooted with derision. “Tom Preston? Send an army to rescue Kerry Voske’s outsider rat of a boyfriend? Oh, see me trembling!”
Ross grimaced. Of course Maire would have grown up hearing plenty about Mr. Preston and the hatred between him and King Voske. So she didn’t believe Mr. Preston would stir on Ross’s behalf any more than Ross did.
Even so, he saw her beckon to someone out of sight behind a tumble of rock and barrel cacti, and mutter something. Whereupon the person—Ross recognized the old woman who’d been on point—ran off, at least to establish a far perimeter, if not to scout all the way down the pipeline
It was probably inevitable that they would think of that, but Ross now wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
“Do you think Kerry went to get help?” Mia asked suddenly, her gaze downturned.
Ross remembered that Fine! Be an idiot! He couldn’t stand to kill the hope in Mia’s face, but he couldn’t lie, either.
“I hope so,” he said.
Once Mia was sure—fairly sure—that Ross was not going to sacrifice himself to those horrible people, she didn’t feel so much like she was going to throw up.
So she had to make time crawl a little faster while Jennie and Ross thought of an escape plan. That’s what they were good at. Unfortunately, the sorts of things she was good at were of no use now. So she counted things—thirteen enemies, twenty-three trees, two new, four older (or at least taller; maybe that brown one had been a bear not long ago) and the rest indeterminate—how many barks or yips or howls Teo made before Maire said something back, too low to hear, but it was clear they had a code.
She wished Helmut wasn’t a murderer. She’d love to have a Helmut in Las Anclas. His power was so cool, and would be such a help. Horrible people didn’t deserve cool powers. She wished there was a way to give them stupid powers, and save the cool powers for people who could appreciate them. People who would do interesting things with them. Figuring out new ways of torture was not interesting. It was just horrifying. All you get is pain and fear. You’d think they’d get tired of the monotony.
After another band of rain washed through, hard enough for Mia to pinch her nose so it wouldn’t run into her lungs and open her mouth to the sky, when sun peeped through, the ochre sun shaft was at the slant of impending sunset. A cloud swallowed the shaft, then dark began falling fast.
Mia couldn’t dry her glasses since every inch of her was wet. But she kept sending surreptitious glances southward, to see towering thunderheads, so big and dark it was difficult to estimate how fast they were moving. If they shifted west out over the ocean, she knew the three of them were in worse trouble.
Jennie sighed. “I wish I knew Kerry better.”
Ross muttered, “Maire’s right about Mr. Preston.”
“I know,” Jennie said. “I fully expect him to find some reason not to send anyone. Which is why we have to come up with a plan ourselves.”
“Dad would,” Mia whispered.
Ross and Jennie looked her way, both with expressions like she’d grown an extra nose.
Mia whispered, “If Kerry went to my dad. He’d listen.”
Jennie’s gaze turned thoughtful. “You’re right, Mia. But he’d still have to get it past Mr. Preston—especially with half the Rangers on maneuvers.”
“Well, Ross?” Maire yelled. She was now a silhouette, barely visible against the dark background. “Need some incentive?” She raised a rifle to her shoulder, then started as lightning crackled in the south.
“Oh, wow,” Mia exclaimed, falling back onto her elbows into the mud. Looked like they wouldn’t have to worry about the sky clearing.
“This might be it.” Ross was barely audible as he and the girls pressed flat to the ground.
“What about Teo?” Jennie muttered. “He keeps circling the grove.”
“Damn,” Ross said to the mud. “I didn’t see that. Been listening to the trees. I guess we wait until he passes right there and starts to circle away. Then we go straight north, away from the pipe. They’ll probably deploy south and west, toward Las Anclas.”
Mia shifted in the mud as her slide-rule poked into her rib. As she leaned onto her other hip, her calf caught on the—“Stench gun,” she whispered.
Mia waited out a rumble of thunder, as Ross and Jennie inched nearer, so their dirty, smeared faces were close together. Mia whispered, “Stink him off our trail.”
“Can you?” Jennie asked. “How far does the squirt reach?”
“Not far. It’s not meant to be a weapon. Just a deterrent. But to a dog nose, it’ll be like . . . like . . .”
“Like that,” Mia said, when she could hear again. “Only worse. I’ll squirt to either side and behind us, in a wide arc.”
The rain hit then, altering abruptly to a roaring hammer of hail that caused a stream of barely audible curses from Maire’s gang, who were of course all in the open, with no vestige of shelter. Mia thought of drowned gunpowder and wet drawstrings on bows. The gang still had their powers—they were still dangerous—but the odds she’d calculated had shifted slightly, from totally impossible to heavily improbable.
“Hold onto my belt,” Ross said against her ear as the hail increased, stinging her face and hands. “When I tell you, lay your stink trail. Wide as you can.”
Her heart scrambled around in her chest like a rat in a cage, but they were together, the three of them. Whatever happened, they would stay together. If she had to die, she would be with Jennie and Ross.
She slid her hand down her gritty overalls and pulled the stench gun from the loop, though her fingers were fast going numb from the hail. Her other hand slid down the hard contour of Ross’s flank to his belt loop, and she forced a finger through and crooked it as best she could.
Then began a nightmare of crawling. When lightning flared Mia flattened alongside Ross into immobility, the deluge so thick they could neither see nor be seen.
Impossible to calculate how many feet they actually moved, and she wondered what exponent a fear factor might be expressed as in an equation when estimating distances . . . .
Ross’s hand swept over hers. Then away.
Trusting that that was her sign, Mia held her breath and pulsed a squirt from the stench gun to the left. Another, 180 degrees away to the right.
And so on, back and forth, always in a slightly different direction, including directly behind, to broaden the reach of the powerful reek.
In spite of the horrendous downpour, the stink still was strong enough to claw at the back of her throat. She had no idea if the canister was empty or not—she just kept shooting until a sudden howl of sheer rage penetrated the roar of the storm.
Teo had found the stench.
Ross sped up his crawling, and Mia elbow-squirmed after.
Lightning flickered—and Mia froze when a boot planted right in front of her face.
Jennie had one second in the incandescent glare to see a hulking figure standing directly over Mia, gloating as he hefted a club. But then, miraculously, the hulk lost his balance—was that a quake?
She didn’t care. Jennie’s gut tightened as she whipped up her free hand, and pulled.
The club yanked right out of the man’s hand and spun away to splash into the mud—then Ross yelled, “Down!”
Jennie had half-rose, but she went flat as, over her head, a sound more terrifying than any she had ever heard in her life chimed with irresistible ringing—
All around, seed pods exploded. She pressed her face into the mud, every muscle tense as she waited for the prick of glass—then the pain.
But nothing happened. Nothing happened . . .
And then the screams began.
They seemed to go on forever, all around, as lightning flared and thunder exploded across the sky. Jennie forced her yammering mind to calm, to think. The first thing she became aware of was Ross utterly limp at her side.
It took every vestige of courage in her to raise her head, to reach with her free hand over his tangled hair to his cold, clammy face turned downward into the running water. She pulled his head to one side to free his nose of the swampy mud, and whispered a wordless prayer of gratitude when he drew a shuddering breath then coughed.
Meanwhile: no chimes. She leaned over Ross. “Mia, there’s a club right behind me. Keep guard while I get Ross away.”
Mia didn’t question, though Jennie glimpsed her pale, anxious face in the darkness, glasses askew.
Mia scrambled up, and felt around for the club as Jennie slipped her hands beneath Ross’s armpits and began to pull.
The darkness was not yet ink, but close. Jennie felt behind her with her boot, and terror wrung through her when she encountered the shoot of a crystal tree busy growing out of what felt like a torso. She gritted her teeth and pulled harder. Get away! Get away! Get away! Two, three, four steps, then Ross’s head half-lifted, he got his knees under him.
“Away,” he muttered hoarsely.
Lightning flared again, now farther away to the north, as the storm roared past. Jennie saw a tableau: horses and figures all around, and near, Mia with the club at the ready, Ross getting a foot under him. Jennie caught his hand, Mia caught his other, and the three stumbled downslope about fifteen paces before one of them slipped in the mud, pulling the other two down.
Ross rolled over, face to the sky, eyes wide and sightless as Jennie knelt, peering around during another lightning flash. It flared away, striking glinting echoes in the otherwise glass-clear trees, including a cluster of new treelets back where they had just come.
Then two cross bolts whined eastward. She glimpsed four or five scampering figures as horses rode after them. Antlered horses—
“Jennie?” her father’s welcome voice roared above the rain.
“Pa!” Jennie sat up dizzily.
A confusion of silhouettes closed around them as Jennie and Mia scrambled to their feet on either side of Ross’s prone figure.
More distant lightning was enough to reveal dear, familiar faces—Jose. The quake? Dr. Lee, glasses winking and flashing like Mia’s. Yolanda. Two Lee cousins. Several cousins.
And Kerry. “Are you okay?” She swung down from Penny and rushed up, every bit as bedraggled as Jennie was herself. “Ross? What happened to Ross?”
“I’m.” Ross sat up slowly. “All right.”
“You don’t look all right,” Kerry said dubiously, leaning her hands on her knees. Then she turned her head to address Jose. “That was awesome, what you did to the ground.”
Everybody began talking at once, but Jennie shut them all out as she peered at Ross, wishing she could see him better.
As the rain slackened, Jennie turned to Kerry. “Thank you. For what you did.”
“Forget it,” Kerry said roughly. “Really. Forget it.”
Riley relations from both sides of the family had swiftly gathered and joined the rescue company—twenty in all. Nobody had questioned Mr. Riley at the gate, Kerry had noted. Perhaps they assumed he was taking them on a patrol, or a ride, though everyone could see the storm coming by the time they left.
As the rescuers and rescuees began the long, weary ride back down the pipeline to the southwest while the storm battered its way to the northeast and away, they began to piece together what had happened.
Kerry half-listened to the voices around her, but inside she kept thinking: We nearly weren’t in time.
And, I nearly wasn’t in time.
When the rain lightened enough for them to kindle lanterns without them blowing immediately out, she kept stealing looks at Ross swaying on the back of a horse, Jennie sitting with him, her arms clasped around him. Mia, anxiously facing their way as she bobbed along behind her father on his pony.
From the few things she overheard from Ross, Mia, and Jennie, Kerry could easily fill in the blanks by what she knew of the gang’s usual mode of operation: Helmut easily keeping track of the three of them by their heat signatures as they tried to decoy Teo and crawl through the mud toward what they thought was freedom. Maire’s glee at the prospect of taking them by surprise. The sharpening of knives preparatory to game playing.
Then Teo met Mia’s stench gun.
Kerry remembered Teo howling and dancing around, clawing at his face. That was what rescuers had seen first—then one of Maire’s new hires about to brain Mia. But Jose flung himself off his horse, and as lightning flared, he made the ground ripple, shaking Maire, Helmut, and the big guy, the latter losing his club to Jennie’s telekinetic power as the others took one look at the rescuers, and ran.
Straight into the crystal trees.
“They turned translucent,” Ross mumbled. “They do that. Sometimes.”
No one spoke for a while after that, though Kerry saw some grimaces.
She hid her face in the upturned collar of her coat when they came to the old woman who had been sent to watch and warn. The would-be sentry sat by the side of the road where the rescuers had left her, tied up, wet, and miserable.
Mr. Riley’s keen sight and one of the Lee cousins’ keen hearing had pegged the old woman first, and before she knew it, they were on her. They’d tied her up and rode on, knowing that they were on the right track for sure.
The company pulled to a halt next to where the woman sat on a boulder. Mr. Riley swung down from his saddle, and approached the woman while pulling a hunting knife.
He cut the ropes binding her. “Run,” he said. “If we ever see you around here again, we will shoot first.”
The only sound was the woman’s footsteps splashing eastward into the darkness.
A cousin rode up as Mr. Riley mounted again. “We chased the four runaways down to the river, where they threw themselves in, and we couldn’t see them anymore,” she reported.
“Good work,” Mr. Riley exclaimed, echoed by many of the others around Kerry.
“What if they go to Gold Point?”
“I don’t think bounty hunters with nothing to show for their journey are going to go anywhere near Gold Point,” Mr. Riley said. “I expect they will keep running, if night predators or a flash flood don’t get them first.”
He began to ride, and they picked up their pace slightly, lanterns swinging back and forth, casting golden light on the road. As the moon peeped out from behind the clouds, then shone fully, they began to trot, the lights of Las Anclas visible on the horizon.
Nobody spoke much—the faces surrounding Kerry were all sober, and she wondered if they, too, were thinking about close calls. Though they wouldn’t be thinking about the same sorts of close calls.
When they got in sight of the gate, Mr. Riley put up a hand, and once again they halted. “I think the less said about this, the better. There is enough political strife what with the election coming soon. We rode to fetch Mia and her helpers because of the storm. And when Mia is ready to go back to recheck her pipeline, a patrol of us will go with her.”
Everyone murmured in assent.
Kerry was glad she’d kept her gloating to herself. Maire was dead! Teo, Helmut, Taleena—the Serial Killer of Lake Perris—all dead! Maire’s entire inner group, always the first ones to get first crack at their style of “playing.” When she thought about them twisting in agony into crystal trees, she wanted to howl in triumph, and dance, and throw a party for the entire teenage population of Las Anclas—with the Rileys and Lees invited, just because they had been so awesome.
But the way they were acting, it was as if someone worthwhile had died. Well, they had no idea how horrible those people had been. Kerry thought about the news she’d have for Sean when he showed up next, and grinned into the darkness.
They were all dry, and warm, with hot milk and honey to drink as they sat in Mia’s cottage.
“I’m so glad that Rusty turned up,” Mia said to Ross as she curled her toes in her slippers.
“Mrs. Riley told me he was just wet, but nothing else wrong with him,” Ross said. “But I gave him a couple carrots anyway.”
“I hope I’ll find my tools waiting when we go back.” Mia sighed. “When I go back. You guys don’t have to. Dad made it really clear that I’ll have an armed posse with me—and you know the only thing we’ll see will be some tadpoles.”
Ross could hear the forced cheer in her voice, as if she could will everything to be fine. But the way she covertly—and Jennie steadily—watched him, he figured he looked like death warmed over.
Well, they were the ones who’d had to see him after his crimson tree got those elite warriors of Voske’s. The shock, the white agony—multiplied—had scoured the contours of his bones in a way he could never forget, all the sharper because he had been the cause.
He knew the girls didn’t want to ask because he hated talking about it, but he owed them. He would always owe them.
“It wasn’t the same,” he said, feeling for the words.
Sure enough, Mia’s expression altered from fake smile to concern, and Jennie’s face shuttered. “You know how terrible it was. That first time. This . . . this time, it was the trees who lured them in. All I did was keep the seed pods from shooting in our direction, and of course as soon as the seeds hit the water they dissolved. It’s only live flesh they grow in.”
Mia shuddered. Jennie’s jaw tightened.
“But here’s the thing. Because it wasn’t me doing it, I was a witness, and yeah. It was bad—really bad—when those people got hit.” Ross stopped, his breath catching at the remembered pain in the tree realm, the music still resonating through his bones, but it had remained tree music—even welcoming. Not the psychic shrieks of anguish amplified by the crystal of his lonely, ignorant, desperate crimson tree.
“The weird thing is, they didn’t die in the way we think. They are still alive, but in a different way. So different. Alive as part of the grove. I could feel all that . . . oh, call it hot fury draining away, with the pain, once they had crystalized. The cruelty. I mean, they’re still mad. But I think, in time, that’s going to pass. And they’ve got the animals as company. And the peddler. And the old one.”
Ross shook his head slowly, still feeling drained, as always after dealing with the trees. “I think it could’ve been worse.”
“A lot worse,” Mia said, hands clasping her cup close to her chest. “And Kerry did go to Dad! I knew she would. She’s turning out to be an awesome friend. I knew she would.”
Ross noticed Jennie not saying anything, then the talk shifted to Mia’s schedule and the pipeline and then everyone was done with the milk. Mia yawned first. Ross caught it from her, and they all decided to call it a night.
Mia leaned up quickly to kiss Ross, then handed him her empty cup. “Will you take that to the kitchen for me?”
“Sure.” He kissed her back, knowing that Jennie wouldn’t mind.
Sure enough, she was grinning as she walked out the door.
“G’night, Mia,” Jennie said, and to Ross, “I’ll walk you to the surgery.”
They threaded through Mia’s wet yard. Behind her curtains her silhouette could be seen against the glow of the window as she got ready for bed.
Jennie’s hand slipped over Ross’s and their fingers interlaced. Then Jennie said, “She could have told you she was coming back with help.”
“Huh?” Ross asked. “Oh. Kerry.”
“She didn’t. She tried to argue with you. Didn’t she.” It wasn’t even a question.
Ross sighed. He was too tired, and already he hated the subject.
Then Jennie bumped shoulders with him. “It’s okay, Ross. You don’t have to answer that. Your silence pretty much tells me what I wanted to know. And don’t think I hate Kerry, or blame her. It’s Gold Point I blame. Or the Voskes. You notice no one thought of going to Mr. Preston, who has been a great defense chief since before we were born. Who’s supposed to look out for everybody equally. But there’s enough Gold Point left in him that Pa and Dr. Lee pretty much felt the same way we did about going to him.”
Ross sighed. “I’m just glad it’s over.”
They reached the surgery, and stopped on the porch, which Dr. Lee had left lit. Jennie turned to search his eyes, then apparently was satisfied enough with what she saw to lean in. Her warm, soft lips, so different from Mia’s but just as exciting, sent a pulse of heat through him.
Then she stepped back. “Get some sleep.” She handed him her empty cup.
He stacked the three together as he went inside, slipped off his boots, and padded to the kitchen, where he found Dr. Lee sitting at the table.
“Just put those in the sink. I’ll deal with them in the morning,” Dr. Lee said. “How are you feeling? Can I get you some headache elixir?”
The fact that he asked—that he listened to Ross’s mumbled answer—somehow made Ross feel better than the clean clothes and the warm milk had, and in a way, warmed him even more than the kisses.
He knew he’d feel differently about those when his body didn’t ache in every bone and muscle. And that was the thing—he had tomorrow’s date with Jennie to look forward to. And then after that, another date with Mia. And here was Dr. Lee sitting up, just to see if he needed anything.
“Thanks,” Ross said. “I’m good.”
And it was true.