Please do us a favor and let us steal your attention for a second. Because one of our most anticipated books of the month, season, year is just around the corner, and it really does have it all. An intricate plot, a beautifully developed, lush, and complex world, and a mesmerizing cover to match. That’s right—if you saw Michael’s latest book haul, you might’ve guessed, but we’re talking about Heidi Heilig’s FOR A MUSE OF FIRE!
We were SUCH huge fans of THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE duology, and this series starter might be even better. In FOR A MUSE OF FIRE, Jetta grapples with dangerous powers, using her own blood to bind souls to the puppets her family uses in their shadow plays, making them both famous performers and the harborers of a world-changing secret. It’s a magic that’s long been outlawed and forgotten, so even in the midst of war and rebel, she cannot let her powers be discovered.
Epic, right?! We were totally sold on synopsis alone, but if you need more convincing, we’re bringing you a first look at the first few chapters below! And a bonus: This story is told in all different mediums, so you can also get your first look at that brilliance as well! Happy reading!
Some people say that all the world’s a stage.
But here, a shaky scaffold in the paddies
Can hold a universe inside an hour.
For on this humble platform of bamboo
A shadow player paints an epic tale.
She works behind the silk, and at her back
The flames throw embers at the velvet sky.
Sweat beads her brow, but triumph lights her eyes
As darkness dances for the fiery muse.
Across the pale swath of silken scrim
Her shadows cast a story like a spell:
Great dragons battle tooth and nail with wolves,
A humble peasant takes a prince’s throne,
The gods themselves, of life, and death, and knowledge
Walk among the mortals that they serve.
Beyond the veil of silk there is the crowd
And in her world, they can forget their own:
The way the foreign merchants seem to prosper,
Their fortunes tantalizing, out of reach.
The rebels stalking all sides in the jungle.
The armée men, too quick to draw their guns.
Better to escape inside a story.
For most, it is the only way they can.
So for an hour the audience is rapt.
A hundred people laugh and cry as one.
Applause comes like the gust of monsoon rain
That falls upon the thirsty, eager earth.
They cheer for her—the master of the shadows—
A girl who’d leave this broken land behind
Like ash and eggshells from a phoenix, rising,
Or the tattered body of a soul set free.
The most thrilling moments in life are when everything comes together.
The delicious chords when harmony joins melody. The way a scrap of leather, a shaft of light, and a clever player can make a shadow come alive. Or the roar of an audience after a show—when they become a creature with many heads and one heart.
Sefondre, the Aquitans call it—to coalesce. I love that word. Madame Audrinne once used it to describe our performance as she toasted us in the parlor of her plantation. I’ve remembered it ever since.
Will it happen tonight at La Fête des Ombres? The signs are promising. The weather is holding clear—just right for the outdoor stages. Papa’s voice is rich and steady as it floats through our roulotte’s carved scrollwork; he is singing a story song as he drives. Beside him on the bench, Maman keeps perfect time on the thom. Inside, I direct the little shadow play that flickers on the silken scrim that makes up one side of our roulotte. A thick stack of flyers lies next to me, ready to tout tonight’s show. And I’m wearing my best costume—a scarlet wrap with ruffled edges, a red silk shawl draped artfully over the rippled scar on my shoulder, and a striped corset in a nod to Aquitan fashion. My dark hair is swept into a twist, the stray ends patted down with a touch of oil, my eyes smudged with bone black and my lips with lucky red. A compelling picture for the Aquitans in the audience: local color, foreign polish.
Everything is nearly perfect. All except for the ghost of a kitten that won’t stop pouncing on my fantouches.
I don’t know where she came from, or where her body is. The little arvana must have crept into our roulotte when we stopped for a quick meal on the edge of town—tempted by our food, no doubt. Then again, does it matter why or where? There is no shortage of spirits in Chakrana. The more pressing question is, how can I get her to leave?
Being easily distracted is one of the tamest parts of my malheur, and I can’t afford any distractions tonight. Not at La Fête des Ombres.
“Shoo,” I whisper for the third time, fluttering the stack of flyers at her, but she only scampers behind one of my pillows. Spirits usually aren’t so persistent—unless they smell an offering. But I have put away the rice and the incense too—nor am I about to offer her any blood.
At least she isn’t interfering with the play itself. Her little paws, formed of flickering orange flame, pass right through the silk and leather of my fantouches, my shadow puppets. The souls I’ve tucked inside them ignore her better than I do. They dance in the air, between the scrim and the palm-oil lantern, going through their choreography with minimal direction from me.
They know the play by rote. It’s the one we perform every time our roulotte crosses into a village—a traditional folktale about long-lost lovers meeting under the moonlight. A little taste of our skill, a way to drum up an audience as we travel through town. The two lovers are played by jointed leather dolls no larger than my hand and ensouled with the spirits of hummingbirds; the moon is a disk of gold silk stretched over a circle of green bamboo, buoyed up by the spirit of a carpenter bee. But I can’t take my eyes off the kitten’s ghost as she bounds back and forth across the floor of the roulotte.
Thankfully, I’m the only one who can see her; she casts neither light nor shadow to the small audience we’ve already gathered. I catch glimpses of them through the scrollwork: a rambunctious pack of Chakran children, barefoot on the road, a pair of older men walking slowly side by side. A modest group, but there is delight on their faces as they watch the graceful dance of light and dark: the lovers meet and part and meet again, moving in time to the music, and all without stick or string. Just as it says on the flyers. That is what sets us apart from all the other troupes in Chakrana, why some people say the Ros Nai is the best shadow troupe in the country—maybe even the empire.
I grimace as the kitten starts to climb the scrim: the praise might not be so effusive if the audience knew how I controlled my fantouches. Souls and spirits are the realms of monks and their magic, and all the old ways are forbidden ever since La Victoire, when the armée pulled Le Trépas from his bloody altar and imprisoned him in his own dark temple. If they knew what I was doing, I could be thrown in the cell beside him. Though it chafes, Maman’s refrain is the most important line I’ve ever learned: never show, never tell.
We keep our secrets close. There is a latch on both sides of the door to the roulotte, and when we perform on stage, my parents guard the wings. Despite the danger, I can’t afford to stop. When my brother joined the armée, my parents and I had to find a way to keep performing without him—especially after his letters suddenly ceased, along with the money he was sending home each quarter. No one would pay to watch a show with only one puppeteer—not if we were using the traditional methods.
But even if we could, I don’t want to go back to the way things were. There is a thrill in fame. Besides, who would look at me and guess what I could do? I am no tattooed monk, no nécromancien, no power-hungry monster who thinks herself a god. I am just a shadow player. Le Trépas and I are nothing alike.
The three-strike rhythm of Maman’s thom brings me back to the play—this is the part where the lovers lose each other.
“Cross left,” I whisper to one fantouche—or rather, to the soul inside her—and she obeys. She must—I’m the one who gave her life. But the kitten follows, clawing at the trailing silk of her dress. “Go away! Not you,” I add quickly to the soul of the bee; slowly, the moon drifts back to the center of the scrim.
This has gone on long enough. I can’t let the kitten’s antics throw me off. I have to concentrate—not only on this little shadow play, but on tonight’s performance: The Shepherd and the Tiger, on the main stage at La Fête des Ombres. The most important performance of my life, though I’m trying desperately to pretend it’s just another show. There are whole minutes where I have myself convinced. I am a very good actor.
But it comes back—it creeps in, just like my malheur: the knowledge that our performance has to be magnificent. We need sefondre tonight. We must do well—no, better than well. We must be the best.
For just like our sugar and sapphires, shadow plays are prized in the empire. Usually, the rare troupe that can tour must gather quite a sum to make the passage across the Hundred Days Sea. But this year, in honor of the Boy King’s eighteenth birthday, he will be taking a grand tour to Aquitan, and General Legarde will be choosing the best shadow player to send with him. There, in a land of light and luxury, Legarde’s half brother—Le Roi Fou, the Mad Emperor—is enamored of fantouches d’ombres. They say he pays a lead player their weight in gold for a single performance, and that once he smashed his throne for kindling when his favorite troupe ran low on fuel for light.
They also say he bathes in a magic spring, and the water is the only thing that keeps his illness at bay. While gold is tempting, we have that here in Chakrana. What we do not have is a cure for my own malheur—that thing only an emperor might dare name madness. Of all the things that stand in my way, the ghost of a kitten cannot be what stops me.
So I draw out the pin that holds my shawl over my shoulder and prick the pad of my thumb. Blood wells like vermilion ink, and all around me, stacked on their shelves and bound in their burlap bags, my fantouches rustle. Even the lovers shudder—the moon trembles—though they do not stray from their positions by the scrim. They have had their taste of my blood—it’s what binds them to their new skins, what makes them obey. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hunger for more.
The kitten spirit hungers too. At last she turns from her pursuit of the golden moon.
Lowering my hand gently to the stack of flyers, I draw the symbol of life on the top page—a line and a dot, like the sun on the horizon. A path to a new body for a hungry soul. Already others are drifting in through the scrollwork, glowing like embers, drawn by the scarlet liquor of my blood: vana, the littlest spirits—flies or mosquitoes, once. But the kitten is faster. She pounces, and with a flash of light, her arvana disappears into the page.
At last. Later, after the show, I’ll burn the paper to set her free. Then she can fade after three days and find rebirth like any normal soul. For now, I can fold her up and tuck her under a pillow. But the page slips from my fingers.
Usually souls take a moment to adjust to new bodies, but the kitten is not wasting time. The flyer leaps into the air as though caught by a breeze, bounding once more at my fantouches. And this time, in her new, unwieldy paper skin, she blots out half of the show. Frantic, I grab for her, my own shadow falling over the lovers—an arm, impossibly long—before I can snatch the flyer out of the light of the little oil lantern. Then a knock on the front panel of the wagon makes me jump.
“Jetta?” Maman’s voice. Only now do I realize my parents have played the last notes. The show is over. Quickly I crush the flyer in my fist, snuffing the lantern as Maman slides the panel open. She peers into the gloom, but with my fist tightly shut, there is nothing for her to see—not now. Still, her eyes are suspicious. Does she know? “We’re almost there.”
“Yes, Maman,” I say, but she doesn’t close the panel. The paper tickles my palm. “Do you need something?”
She scrutinizes my dress, my face, my hair. Then she casts her eyes to the pile of puppets on the floor beside me, the fantouches set aside for tonight’s performance. They are still bound tight in burlap and silk—the shepherd, the tiger, the herd of sheep. I breathe easier now; those spirits, she knows about. “I need the performance to go well,” she says at last. As if I didn’t know.
“It will, Maman,” is all I say.
She looks about to say more, but then Papa’s voice floats in, gently chiding. “Meliss, stop distracting her.”
Maman bits her lip, but she nods, the lines around her eyes deepening as she gives me one last look. “It’s almost time for the flyers. Get ready.”
At last she shuts the panel, but inside I curse. Where had the hour gone? I push the crumpled flyer under a pillow to deal with later. Then I gather the lovers and the moon, tucking them into their little burlap sacks. Had they even performed the ending? Quickly I press my eye against the scrollwork and curse again, this time aloud. No wonder Maman was worried. We have lost what little audience we’d gathered.
No matter. They aren’t the ones we need. At least that’s what I tell myself, though any performer knows that the bigger the audience, the better the show.
Pushing the thought from my head, I pull the lever that closes the wooden shutters over the scrim. At least now there is nothing left to distract me. Taking one last look in the mirror, I pin my scarf back over my scarred shoulder as I run through tonight’s play in my head. I can’t afford to get it wrong. It is another old tale—the swineherd and the tiger—but I’ve rewritten it just for the festival. New words flowing over familiar notes.
In my version, the swineherd has become a shepherd to honor General Legarde—the Shepherd of Chakrana, they call him since La Victoire, though we do not have sheep in our country. I hope my sheep fantouches look convincing. Still, the leader of the rebellion is the Tiger, so the story hasn’t changed much. But a slip of the tongue would humiliate us—lucky it is Papa who sings the story songs. He never slips. I’m told they mock swineherds in Aquitan, calling them simpletons. I don’t know why. Pigs are very clever. Back in Lak Na—our home during the rainy season, when the fields were green and the roads too rutted to travel—not a week went by but some brassy old sow escaped her pen to wallow in the cool mud of the paddies and gorge on black crabs.
The memory brings a smile to my lips—my brother and I, splashing and shouting through the pale green rice to chase pigs away from our own dinner. But my humor fades quickly. Akra is gone. And I’ll never see Lak Na again either—at least, not if tonight goes well.
“Jetta!” A knock on the front panel, and Papa’s voice. “It’s time!”
Turning from the mirror, I gather up the flyers. We don’t usually use them—so few Chakrans can read, at least in the villages. But this is Luda. This is La Fête.
This is the most important show of my life.
I pin my lips into my best smile and open the back door of the roulotte. The ruddy light of sunset floods in, warm on my skin. We have passed right through town. Fallow fields unroll before me on either side of the road. Half the year, they hold rice; I can still see the earthen walls that regulate the river water. But now it looks as though someone planted bullets in the dusty earth, and up sprang an encampment d’armée.
Waxed canvas tents march across the field in neat rows, bounded by a picket lined with horses—those great foreign beasts, all muscle and fire. Soldiers walk briskly to and fro, most of them Chakran, except for the officers. A pang hits me—the last time I saw my brother, he was wearing a uniform like these men do. I blink away the emotion, raising my eyes to try to drain away the threatening tears. Then I see it, in the center of the encampment: the red wolf flag flying over the general’s tent. Legarde is here.
My heart quickens, and I search for a glimpse of him. I’ve seen him before—on the posters that commemorate La Victoire, of course, but also years ago, here in Luda, from very far away. He was surrounded by a cadre of soldiers, watching the show on the main stage. That was before we were good enough to perform there. This year, we have top billing.
This year, Legarde will see us.
The stages are just past the encampment, between the armée and the river. It’s time for me to collect our audience. Making sure my shawl is still in place, I step out onto the little platform at the back of the roulotte, pulling my shoulders back and tilting my face to the light. Then I cock my knee so it slips from the ruffles of my sarong; might as well do all I can to catch the soldiers’ eyes.
“Messieurs!” My voice is pitched to carry; it floats over the camp. Soldiers look up at the sound. They stare; I smile. And there it is—that intoxicating thrill of having an audience in the palm of your hand. “Tonight, on the main stage, come and see the greatest troupe in Chakrana, the Ros Nai!”
I toss a fistful of flyers like confetti. For a moment, they flutter, buoyed by the warm breeze. Then an explosion rips the air in two.
In the town of Luda, a dingy theater called Le Perl slouches in a back alley near the docks. To judge by the carved marquee and the cracked gas lamps, it must have been beautiful, once. Now there are puddles in the alley and holes in the roof, and a crooked sign reading girls girls girls over the peeling door.
Inside, it’s hot as hell, with twice the temptation. On a scarred stage lined with stained curtains, a local girl with black eyes and a blond wig croons a sultry song to the light, lazy notes of a piano. Her voice is smoke and brass, and the footlights fall to pieces on the sequins of her hem. Slowly she removes a single glove. In the wings, the other girls whisper as they wait for their turns on the floor.
EVE: It’s so humid.
CHEEKY: Then pull your knees together.
Their laughter is sweet and rough.
EVE: The way my thighs rub? I’d kindle a fire.
CHEEKY: Can you do it on cue?
In the audience, men wait just as eagerly. They are crammed around rickety tables, soldiers with soldiers, civilians with their own kind, and each side avoiding the other’s eyes. With the rebellion gaining strength, they might be enemies outside these walls, but Le Perl is a place for forgetting such things.
The drink helps with that. So behind the battered wooden counter stands a boy in his element, making sure the liquor flows despite the rationing. His first name is always Leo, though his last name changes depending on who he’s talking to; the Aquitans prefer his father’s, the locals know his mother’s. And in his face, a bit of each side. But he sells anyone drinks and tickets, both at outrageous prices, though the winks and jokes are free.
Between mixing rounds, he checks his watch—a gesture that looks almost absent, but for the fact that he checks it again just a few minutes later. When a knock comes at the theater door, LEO goes to open it. EDUARD DUMOND stands outside in his uniform, a rifle slung over his back. He is the armée questioneur—the kind less at home with words than with implements. LEO ushers him in like they’re old friends—but LEO has grown up around people who had to pretend for a living.
LEO: Eduard! Sava? Come in, quickly, quickly!
As the soldier enters, LEO glances over his shoulder toward the street—a quick and practiced look—then shuts the door firmly.
How long has it been? A year? Too long, anyway. Ah, wait!
LEO holds up one hand.
You remember the rule? No guns past the bar.
EDUARD jerks his chin at the pistol tucked into LEO’s belt.
EDUARD: You have a gun.
LEO: And here I am, at the bar. (A small pause.) This isn’t a new rule, Eduard.
EDUARD: But this is a new rifle.
LEO (laughing): I won’t scratch it!
EDUARD: I mean a new type. It’s called a repeater. Seven shots before reloading. A new invention. Very expensive.
LEO: Courtesy of the armée scientist, eh?
EDUARD: The armée has no official scientist.
LEO (laughing again): Perhaps they grow the guns in the fields, then, next to the sugar. Either way, I’m guessing if you lose yours at a burlesque, the general will shoot you with his.
EDUARD: You know how he is.
LEO: I do. Oh, I do.
LEO’s grin has an edge to it now. He nods to the stage.
Then again, you know the girls. If they see I’ve let a rifle past the bar, they’ll disarm the both of us. And they’ll take our guns too.
EDUARD: All right, all right.
Making a face, EDUARD hands over the new rifle. LEO puts it behind the bar with the others—almost a dozen, now. La Perl is more popular with the soldiers than the shadow plays. Then LEO claps his hands and gestures to the greasy bottles on the back shelf.
LEO: Bien, now to more serious matters! Do you still drink l’ouragan? I’ll mix you one so strong you’ll hardly remember you had a gun in the first place.
With a flourish, LEO mixes the drink, heavy on the rhum, pouring the glass full to brimming. As EDUARD makes his careful way toward an empty table, LEO checks his watch one last time. Then he ducks behind the bar and pulls open a dirty trapdoor. He has just tucked the last rifle into the crawl space when the explosion rattles the grimy glass of the chandelier.
Quickly, he slams the trapdoor shut and sweeps his hand across the bottles on the back of the bar. As the glass shatters on the floor, he draws his gun and smashes the butt of the weapon across the bridge of his own nose. Wincing and swearing, he leaps over the counter and runs down the hall, shouting back over his shoulder to the murmuring audience.
LEO: They’re getting away!
As the blast ripples through the air, the wagon lurches forward, throwing me into the road.
My shoulder crunches as I hit the dirt, and my breath is knocked free like a tooth. Gasping, I push myself up on one elbow, my hair tumbling loose from the comb. Dust coats my teeth, stings my eyes—our roulotte vanishes into the cloud kicked up by the wheels.
“Papa!” Can he hear me? All around, there are screams, cries, the pounding of feet. Servants and cane cutters push past their employers, all of them running in the same direction. Those who can’t run are screaming too—not in panic, but in pain. Dazed, I pull myself up to keep from being trampled. The shifting smoke near the stages hides the worst of it, but in the dark clouds I can see the bright souls of dead men.
Had we arrived a few minutes earlier, we might have been among them.
I am bleeding from half a dozen scrapes—I must be. The little vana drift closer, hopeful. I ignore them. A fire is raging along the riverbank: the stages blown apart in blazing smoke. How? Any shadow player knows the fear of flame—indeed for me, it is not a fear but a memory… the choking smoke, the searing heat, the acrid smell of burning hair…
The scar on my shoulder is burning, but it’s only where I connected with the road. I swallow the sourness of it all. But in the theater, fire creeps in by stealth, not force: a draft taking a curtain, the gas leaking from a lamp. In the theater, there are no explosions.
This wasn’t someone’s mistake.
Rebels. It must be. We’ve all heard the stories. Sabotage. Assassination. Guerrilla attacks. As quick and deadly as their leader’s namesake: Legarde’s enemy, the Tiger.
The soldiers guessed before I did; as the audience and performers flee to the town, the armée runs toward the scene, pulling their rifles over their shoulders.
The roulotte is heading that way too. Water buffalo have terrible eyesight; Lani must have panicked at the sound of the explosion and simply started running. Hitching up my torn silk skirts, I race after her alongside the soldiers, bare feet pounding the road.
Sharp stones prick my heels; my shoulder is starting to ache, the skin scraped raw. As I run, vana gather in my wake. Arvana too—bigger souls like rats and birds, crawling up out of the earth, dipping down out of the sky. Their fiery orange glow swirls in the air around me. The soul of a dog follows at my heels. Beautiful. Distracting. Gritting my teeth, I put on more speed, but I can’t outrun the spirits. Nor can I close the distance between myself and the wagon. Lani is charging ahead through the smoke and the crowd. Can my parents stop her? Do they even know I’ve fallen? “Papa!” I call, but my cry is lost in the sudden crack of gunfire.
Flashes ahead, in the smoke. Beside me, a soldier stumbles, his pale face going paler still as he drops to his knees, clutching the spreading red stain on his uniform. Biting off a scream, I careen off the road and into the fields: I do not want to be a target, and I do not want to watch the man die—to watch his soul spring free. But another soldier races by, shouting orders. “Fan out!” he calls to the other men. “Take the full field! You and you, follow me! Use the wagon as cover!”
My ragged breath hitches as I recognize him—General Legarde.
He speeds toward the fire, toward the roulotte, and his men follow his lead. For an irrational moment, I am giddy. Legarde is a hero. He will keep us safe. And ahead, Lani has finally veered from the conflagration, scared by the sound of gunfire or the scent of the thickening smoke. But as the wagon bounces off the road and down into the dry paddies, it lands with a crunch and the rear wheels splay sideways.
The back stair of the wagon hits the dirt. A broken axle. Lani stumbles, lowing, as the roulotte plows to a stop. Papa is flung forward over the bar; Maman pulls him back onto the seat. I turn course, stumbling down the embankment into the field, dodging furniture and instruments and half-eaten picnics, abandoned by the audience as it fled. But the soldiers are heading the same way, trying to put the wagon between themselves and the rebels.
Gun smoke and dust mix with the drifting ash of the fire. The soldiers aim a volley into the haze, and the rebels shoot back. Ahead, another soldier drops to the dust, leaving his akela standing over his body in shock—a column of golden light, the soul of a man. But Legarde doesn’t spare a glance for the soldier’s body and cannot see his soul. He only leads the living toward the stricken roulotte.
As we approach, Lani tries to run too, straining against her harness, but the wagon drags in the dusty fields. My parents are trapped in the crossfire. I’m close enough to hear Maman screaming; she covers Papa with her body as he tries to cover her with his.
Gritting my teeth, I drag my hand across my bloody shoulder. She’ll forgive me, won’t she? She has to, if I save her life.
I don’t slow as I reach the roulotte, spirits still swirling behind me. With one hand, I grasp the doorframe and scramble through it—with the other, I leave a scarlet mark on the back step. At my heels, the soul of the old dog leaps. As I pull the door shut behind me, there is a flash of light in the dark of the wagon—lightning only I can see.
“Up,” I whisper, and the floor seesaws; souls are so strong, and dogs are always eager to please. “Not so much!” Then outside, another round of rifle fire. Lani leaps forward again and the wagon follows, buoyed by the spirit inside.
We roll through the rutted field, but the wagon no longer bounces and swings; the ride is smooth. Are the wheels even touching the ground? The dust and smoke give us cover, at least, and in the confusion, who would notice a wagon’s wheels? I peer through the scrollwork to see if we’re being watched. Then I scream as a figure bursts out of the haze and leaps onto the wagon.
I scramble away from the wall, pressing myself into the silk scrim as the roulotte sways with new weight—not once, not twice, but three times. Dirty fingers worm through
the scrollwork as the men find handholds. Frightened eyes peer in.
“Help me,” one says—his voice is high with youth and panic. I can hear his ragged panting, smell the sour sweat of fear on his sooty country clothes.
Behind us, the call comes—Legarde barking orders. “They’re on the wagon!”
My eyes go wide in the dark; my heart is pounding like Maman’s drum. Are these the Tiger’s men clinging to the side of the roulotte? They sound like boys. Then again, my brother was my age last I saw him, when he left to fight rebels like these. And their age didn’t stop them from bombing the stages. Should I pry their fingers loose? Before I can decide, a bullet crunches through the wagon, whistling past my ear. I flatten myself on the floor as one of the rebels falls screaming into the field.
Then the wagon tilts upward as Lani heaves herself up an embankment. I slide back against the door, and it swings open wide on the hinges. There are the soldiers, surrounding the fallen rebel, rifles at the ready. But Legarde is still chasing us—this is not how I wanted to be seen. “Arret!” he shouts.
I raise one bloody hand. “Don’t shoot!”
“Stop the wagon, now!”
“We’re trying!” But as the roulotte rights itself, another shot sounds, much closer; one of the rebels returning fire. I slam the door shut and latch it as Legarde takes aim.
We’re back on the road. The sound of hoofbeats on stone means we’ve reached the docks. Two rebels still ride on the wagon, one keening in fear, the other clambering up toward the roof—to hide or to shoot? I scramble to the front panel, sliding it open. Fresh air swirls through the smoky haze in the roulotte as we careen past the seedy bars and dance halls on the edge of town. “Papa! We need to stop!”
“She won’t!” he calls back, but Maman is staring at me.
“We were stopped, Jetta!” Her eyes are fiery as damnation. She grasps my bloody hand. “What did you do?”
My mouth falls open, but no answer comes. Then, straight ahead, a man bursts out of an alley and stops in the middle of the street. His nose is bloodied, and a group of soldiers is right behind him. At first I think they’re chasing him—is he another rebel? No, he’s dressed too finely, in Aquitan style, though he doesn’t look foreign—not quite. “They fled to the fields!” he shouts to the soldiers, pointing directly toward us. Then his eyes widen when he sees Lani barreling down on him.
“Out of the way!” I scream. Papa hauls on the reins, but Lani has the bit in her teeth. One of the soldiers pulls a pistol out of the strange man’s belt, aiming at her—or at us? “No!”
The strange man swears, grabbing for the gun, forcing it upward and firing at the sky. Lani snorts, startled, and skids to a stop just inches from his outstretched hand.
The rebels leap from the wagon, but where can they go? This new group of soldiers is standing before them in the street, and Legarde is charging over the embankment behind us. “Stop them!” he calls, and the soldiers obey, surrounding the two rebels before they can reload their weapons.
The stranger ignores them, reaching up to Maman, blood still running down his face. “Come with me.”
I half expect her to protest, but Maman scrambles down—though she doesn’t take the hand he offers. Papa follows as I crawl through the opening on the front panel and onto the seat, scraping my raw shoulder on the frame. The stranger holds out his hand again, impatient; now that I’m closer, I realize what is so strange about him. The word surfaces in my mind before I can banish it: moitié, the Aquitans say, mixed, and always with a sneer. I can’t meet his eyes lest he see the thought on my face, but he’s watching Legarde approaching, not me. I put my hand in his—my legs are shaking, unsteady—and he pulls me away from the scrum.
“Wait, Leo!” One of the nearby soldiers steps in front of us—the one who’d aimed the gun. He’s still holding on to it, the barrel pointed somewhere between the ground and Papa. As he stumbles closer, I can smell the alcohol on his breath. “The general might have questions.”
“I’m sure he will, Eduard, but does he want my answers?” The stranger—Leo—leans in toward the soldier like a conspirator. “Maybe you stopped the wagon. Maybe you caught the rebels. Who knows? Maybe that will cancel out the part where they stole your new rifles.”
Without waiting for an answer, Leo steps around the soldier and hustles us down the side alley, past the sign: girls girls girls. For a moment, I hesitate, but then I see Legarde, striding up to the wagon, dragging the stricken rebel by the collar.
“Don’t look back,” Leo says, pulling me along behind him. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”
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