Ross Juarez scanned the crowded town square of Las Anclas as warily as if they were an anti-Changed mob ready to run him out the gates.
He almost wished they were. He’d know how to handle that. But his first holiday in his new home was unexplored territory, and far more nerve-wracking.
The square had transformed overnight into a holiday marketplace lined with decorated booths selling gifts for Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year and winter celebrations he’d never even heard of before.
And that wasn’t all. Every single person in that crowd knew how to give a present. Even if they were young enough to have never done it themselves, they’d grown up with gift exchanges. Ross was the only one with no idea what he was doing.
Then he spotted a slim figure poised as if waiting for the battle to begin. Kerry Ji Sun Cho, who had once been Kerry Voske, crown princess of Gold Point, also seemed to be inspecting the crowd for ambushes and enemies rather than gifts and friends.
While Ross knew he looked as uncomfortable as he felt, she appeared cool and haughty. But he bet she didn’t feel so cool inside. She must have given presents before, so she couldn’t be worried about doing that wrong. But he knew she was as certain as he was that some day King Voske would return to Las Anclas. And the two of them—Voske’s renegade daughter and the prospector she’d helped to bring down his empire—would be first to get their heads put on pikes.
Kerry whipped around as if she’d felt Ross watching her. Like a pair of magnets, they drew closer until they stood together at the edge of the crowd.
“Expecting assassins?” Kerry’s slanting eyebrows rose, adding to her tone of offhand joking.
“I wasn’t.” Ross scanned the crowd for weapons. “Are you?”
She dropped the light tone, leaving only raw honesty. “Always.”
“I didn’t mean—” Ross broke off, frustrated. She’d been teasing, like normal people did, and he’d replied way too seriously. Now she probably felt as weird as he did. “Yeah. You’re right. Your father will send some eventually. But probably not today. Anyway, that wasn’t it. I’ve never given a gift before. I don’t know how. And—”
Ross stopped himself before adding, “I feel stupid.” Kerry could probably see that for herself.
The sardonic twist to her sharp features smoothed into genuine sympathy. They’d only known each other for a few months, but they’d learned a lot about each other in that short time—first while Ross had been Voske’s prisoner, and later when they’d fled through the desert after she’d broken him out and helped him blow up the Gold Point dam. She’d given up her life in Gold Point to save his, but she hadn’t done it for him. She’d made that sacrifice for Mia, if she’d made it for anybody, but mostly she’d done it because it had been the right thing to do.
What did you even call that sort of relationship? Friendship seemed both too much and not enough. Ross and Kerry didn’t make arrangements to spend time together, like Kerry did with Becky, Mia, and Meredith. But in those seven nights in the desert, they’d learned what haunted each other’s dreams. He bet none of her other friends knew that.
Kerry tucked a strand of hair into her braid. The blue-black gloss reminded him of Mia’s carelessly clipped bangs, just as the shape of Kerry’s eyes made him think of Mia’s eager gaze from behind wire-rimmed glass. But while he could often guess what was on Mia’s mind by watching her face and body, Kerry’s cool expression was less a window than a mirror of polished steel. She might be thinking about him or friendship or gifts or assassins, or something else entirely.
“Giving holiday presents isn’t that complicated, Ross,” Kerry said, simply but without condescension. “If you’re going to a party with the person you have a present for, it’ll have a time for gift- giving. If you’re not, give it to them alone on the day of whatever holiday they celebrate.”
“Right,” Ross muttered. “Got it.”
It was obvious once she’d explained it. But the whole idea of holidays, of crowds, of families—of all those things at once, of how important they were in Las Anclas, and of how he was the only person who was experiencing them for the first time—made his brain lock up like a rusty engine.
“And if you don’t know what they’d like to get, ask someone who knows them well,” Kerry advised. With that, she lifted her chin high and stepped into the crowd. People cleared a path for her without seeming to notice that they were doing it. If Ross had plunged in like that, he’d have collided with six people at once.
I’ll ask about Jennie first, Ross thought. Lots of people knew her well, so she’d be easiest to start with.
He didn’t pursue Kerry, as she and Jennie found each other’s company awkward at best. But he spotted one of Jennie’s adopted sisters at a booth selling potted plants, her head of prickly black hair bent over a writhing scarlet eater-rose in a glazed blue pot.
Ross made his way to her through the crowd, gritting his teeth against the ever-present murmur of danger, danger, danger thrumming through his body and mind.
Yolanda Riley looked up from the rose she’d been teasing with a fingertip. Its hungry petals snapped shut on empty air. “Hi, Ross. Need a guard flower? This one’s nice and lively.”
Ross shook his head. “No. I want a present for Jennie. Do you know what she’d like?”
“You picked the right person to ask!” Yolanda looked as de- lighted as if he was doing her a favor rather than asking for one. “She could always use a good weapon. Or maybe jewelry. She loves that, too. But she can’t wear it in training, so that would be a special occasion thing.”
Giving presents is complicated, Ross thought to the absent Kerry.
Something for special occasions made sense for a Christmas present. But he didn’t want to saddle Jennie with a gift she had to be so careful with that she couldn’t have fun wearing it, like the embroidered shirt of Paco’s that Ross had borrowed for the dance, only to spend the night worrying that he’d spill something on it.
That wouldn’t be a problem with a weapon. But he happened to know that Jennie was already getting one from someone else. And while he was sure she’d love it, she’d gone through a lot of bad times recently and they’d all involved fighting. He didn’t want to risk a present that might come with unhappy memories attached.
About the Authors: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. She lives in Southern California. Sherwood Smith is the author of many fantasy novels for teenagers and adults, including Crown Duel and the Mythopoeic Award finalist The Spy Princess.