The Amethyst Road


In a society similar to ours in some ways and very different in others, 16-year-old Serena and her older sister, Willow, struggle to get by in a tough, crime-infested urban neighborhood. By birth they are half Yulang, half Gorgio, but are accepted by neither race. The sisters get no help from the Yulang, because Willow’s child was born out of wedlock and the family has been declared outcast. The Gorgios are even worse, trying to take the child away.

A run-in with social ...

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In a society similar to ours in some ways and very different in others, 16-year-old Serena and her older sister, Willow, struggle to get by in a tough, crime-infested urban neighborhood. By birth they are half Yulang, half Gorgio, but are accepted by neither race. The sisters get no help from the Yulang, because Willow’s child was born out of wedlock and the family has been declared outcast. The Gorgios are even worse, trying to take the child away.

A run-in with social services, aptly nicknamed the Cruelty, launches Serena on a journey that is at once an escape and a quest to reunite her family. With the help of a boy named Shem, who is on a quest of his own, Serena travels deep into the mountains, where precious gems are mined, and across barren plains, where white-clad Trident Riders are terrorizing anyone who is not Gorgio. Along the way, Serena finds the answers she seeks—and some she didn’t even know she was looking for.

The dynamics of racism and resistance are central themes of this modern adventure. Employing a mixture of gritty reality and richly drawn magical elements, this unique tale of selfdiscovery will captivate readers of contemporary fiction as well as fantasy fans.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Those who appreciate bold heroines unwilling to accept society's dictates might wish to join Serena on her quest." THE BULLETIN Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"Spiegler writes characters, arts, and slow-blooming romance with warmth and vigor." KIRKUS REVIEWS Kirkus Reviews

"Serena is a strong female character. . . . [The book] would launch a good discussion of racism." SLJ School Library Journal

"Richly imagined...This novel of self-discovery is an intriguing blend of gritty urban fantasy and magical realism." VOYA VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

"Unique in its smooth and imaginative blend of original blend of social grit and compelling fantasy-based spirituality." -BOOKLIST Booklist, ALA

Serena and her older sister, Willow, are struggling to survive in a rundown, crime-infested neighborhood. The girls, products of a mixed marriage-half Yulang and half Gorgio-are rejected by both races. To the Yulang, both are polluted by the birth of Willow's illegitimate daughter. To the Gorgio, the girls are at-risk teenagers, under scrutiny by social services, known as the Cruelty, who take pretty Yulang babies for adoption into Gorgio families. When the Cruelty seize Willow's baby, fierce and hot-tempered Serena sets out on a journey to reclaim her niece. More important, she hopes to find her Yulang mother who left the girls years earlier. Her mission is dangerous and difficult, but along the way, she finds support from unexpected sources, including Shem, a young man on a quest of his own; a Gorgio firefighter; a sharp-tongued wise woman; and a pile of amethysts, the stones that quench anger. This novel of self-discovery is an intriguing blend of gritty urban fantasy and magical realism. Clearly the culture of the Yulang, especially aspects of their language, music, and dress, is based heavily on that of the Rom (Gypsies), but the author has added other folkloric and ethnic elements to her richly imagined alternative reality. Although readers may find signs of too-hasty writing, with a few plot threads left to dangle, they will come away hoping to revisit Serena and Shem and to travel again in the Yulang caravans. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2005, Clarion, 328p., $16. Ages 12 to 18.
—Jamie S. Hansen
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Serena, 16, and her older sister, Willow, live in a crime-infested neighborhood in the city of Oestia. Born of a Gorgio father and a Yulang mother, they are accepted by neither race. Gorgios are richer, fair skinned, and better educated. The Yulang are darker skinned, poorer, and often travel in caravans. Willow and Serena are further outcast, or ma'hane, because of Zara, Willow's child who was born out of wedlock. When the social-service agency discovers that someone, probably one of Willow's lazy boyfriends, has put out a cigarette on the child's foot, the agency takes her. Serena runs away, desperately seeking her mother, who has been missing since her father's death three years before. With the help of a young man named Shem, she travels far into the mountains searching for Anchara, the mara chan of Serena's Kereskedo tribe. In exchange for her help, Serena must find something of worth. When the teen finally locates her mother, who has been delusional since her daughters were taken away from her, she realizes that she must be the one to take charge. Serena's knowledge of the Romanae language impresses a well-known Yulang lawyer, who advises Serena on a petition to get custody of Zara, and also asks her to apprentice under him. The book ends on the morning of Shem and Serena's wedding. Serena is a strong female character, able to help not only herself and her family but also her tribe. While the book gets bogged down with too many characters and subplots, it is an interesting look at Rom culture and would launch a good discussion of racism.-Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Appealing though overly earnest story about family love, romantic love and systematic racial oppression. Sixteen-year-old Serena lives with her slightly older sister and her sister's toddler. Serena and her sister are ma'hane: outcast from their own tribe because the child was born out of wedlock. A social worker finds an intentional cigarette burn on the toddler's foot and seizes her. Ruling-class, light-skinned Gorgios run the society; brown-skinned Yulang tribes (such as the Kereskedo, Serena's tribe, and the Parias, lowest of all) have little hope for justice. Each tribe has one profession (trading, music, etc). Despite cars and some random modern details (fax, tuna sandwich), the setting feels pre-Industrial and craft-focused. Sparring and helping each other, Serena and a young man from another tribe travel, collect gems and force their way into the Kereskedo tribe on the quest to reclaim the toddler and achieve their own life dreams. Spiegler writes characters, arts and slow-blooming romance with warmth and vigor. Unsubtle but heartfelt. (Fantasy. 11-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618485727
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/2005
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 336
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Lexile: 750L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Louise Spiegler lives with her family in Seattle, where she teaches writing and history at a local college. To learn more, visit

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6

Kick off, kick off your high-heeled shoes,
All made of Yulang leather.
Put on, put on these low-heeled shoes,
And we'll ride off together.
(Zimbali ballad)

Sometimes you know you are dreaming and the dream is so bad
you struggle to wake, kicking your way up to consciousness like a salmon
struggling up a fish ladder.
But this was different. I knew I was dreaming and tried to hold the
dream inside me, like a sweet biscuit on the tongue, before it melted away.
My mother held out her hand and helped me jump a mountain
brook. The water was so clear that every pebble shone in its bed like a
polished gem. I was small and straight as a boy, just above the height of my
mother's waist.
"For that leap, a mouthful of berries." She'd a bucket in her hand.
Dusky blue orbs crammed it to the brim.
"Greedy!" Mother laughed as I scooped out an overflowing handful.
The berries burst in my mouth, the sweet and the sour together. I beamed at
her and knew from her laughter that my teeth were purple with juice.
We kept climbing the slope of the mountain, under the high
canopy of cedar, hemlock, and fir. Beards of lichen drooped from the
branches of the trees. Sometimes Mother would hold me high, next to the
trunk, to draw the tangy resin of the cedars into my nose. Or she'd stop to
lay a twig under the belly of a banana slug to show me how the slimy thing
would curl and draw in its antennas.
From the dank, ferny mud we picked wild mushrooms with delicate fins.
Mother laid them carefully in her wicker basket for market. We foundscads
of them in this dream forest, far more than we'd ever found in waking life.
My short legs began to flag and I pulled on my mother's skirts.
"It's not far, Serena. Not far now, darling. I'll carry you a ways."
I leaned against the curve of her back, wrapped my arms around her neck
and my legs about her waist. With a heave, she stood and began to carry me
up the mountain. Leaves of yew and maple brushed my shoulders.
Spiderwebs caught on my face as I rested my cheek against Mother's thick
black hair and smelled the scent of wildflowers on her neck.
As I rode, I played with the charm necklace that had been her last gift to me.
I wore it in the dream, even though I hadn't owned it as a child. A perfect gift
for a Yulang girl, Mother had told me, because you can give the charms away
one by one. That is how we are connected to the world, she said. In love or in
hate, we always give.
It was still my most prized possession, in real life. But I must be mostly
Gorgio, for so far I had given away none of the charms. Not the cat hunched
to pounce or the dove with its head under its wing. Not the dog howling at the
moon or the eagle diving. And especially not the horse, which mother had
told me was the most precious.
In my dream, I tugged on her braids, the way Zara pulled on mine. "Why is
the horse so special?"
"Don't you know, love? Horses are the opposite of ma'hane. Horses purify.
They bring happiness. You give that only to one you hold as precious as a
traveler holds his finest stallion."
"You mean his finest car! Who has horse caravans anymore?"
Suddenly Mother stopped. "Look, Serena," she whispered. "Over there in the
A sunbeam had dropped through an opening in the canopy. Its light dripped
like honey. In the glow stood a fawn, gold from ears to hoof, gilded with light
as if worked from bronze or rose gold. And I knew, with my older dreaming
mind, it was astonishing good luck to catch a glimpse of a golden fawn. . . .
I was thrown hard to one side. A metallic whine drilled through my skull.
The small dashboard lights flickered. I was being pulled in a sickening
swerve. Then the swinging stopped. The seat belt jerked me back, vengeful
gravity claiming its own.
I was actually awake for a moment or two before I realized I was still in the
car. Next to me, in the driver's seat, was Shem, looking blue and shaken.
"What happened?" I croaked.
"A deer ran across the road. I nearly hit her."
He threw the gear stick into park, yanked the keys out of the ignition, and
threw them on my lap. "Shove over. You're going to drive."
He opened his door and got out. The air that drifted in was cold and earthy
with the smell of wet leaves.
Mechanically, I undid my seat belt, swung my door open, and stepped down.
When I was last awake, we had been driving through the outskirts of the city.
Now we were deep in forest land. Trees loomed dark and shadowy. Fans of
needles hung over us like tarps. The underbrush was gauzed with fog and a
watery dawn light was dimming the headlights, diffusing their glare in the
morning mist. I could smell burned rubber.
I hesitated before I took Shem's seat. I had never driven a car before, much
less one pulling a caravan. But anything I did could only be an improvement.
From what I had seen, Shem was even less equipped to drive than he was to
play a violin.
When I slid into the driver's seat, he was already beside me, with his head
tipped back and his eyes shut.
I jabbed his arm. "Wake up. You have to tell me how to drive this thing."
"I thought you were Kereskedo," he muttered sleepily. "Don't your people
"Not since I was ten." Though Mother had traveled, all right, I thought. She
just hadn't taken us with her. Crabbily, I poked Shem's shoulder again. "Just
tell me how and I'll do it. Your people travel, but you drive like you're from a
place where people ride elephants."
The boy gave a sleepy laugh. "It's not one of my talents."
I couldn't imagine what his talents might be. At least he admitted what they
He showed me the clutch and the gears and what you were supposed to do
with all of them. I had him go through it four times, which he did patiently
enough. That's the way I learn. I don't mind running through something again
and again, so long as at the end, I know it.
It worked pretty well for Romanae declensions. And to my surprise, it worked
for driving, too. After one false start, when I jerked the car forward and then
sent us slamming back against our seats, I managed to move the caravan
pretty smoothly from park into first and then second gear.
"You probably can't go much faster on an unpaved road like this," Shem told
me. "Feel the way it's lagging? That tells you it wants to go into third gear."
"This car wants things? You really do think it's an elephant!"
I felt pretty pleased with myself as I brought the engine into third without
much of a hiccup. It felt good. The speed was right. Though ungainly, the
caravan cooperated with me. And the road, though bumpy, was not too bad
for a forest road. I remembered Daddy rattling us up forest roads to trailheads
as if every joint of his little car were about to fly to pieces. That was a long
time ago.
Beside me, Shem was quickly falling asleep.
"Hey! Tell me where to go!"
"Just stop when you see a . . ." A snore escaped him. I slapped his arm.
"A what! Wake up!"
"A camp. Thirty, forty people. You'll know it when you . . ." He was out.
As I drove, the shadowy forms of trees took on definite shapes and color
began to seep into the forest. The road slipped away under my wheels. All I
heard was the rumble of the motor and the shushing of leaves against the
sides of the caravan. I felt grateful to Shem for falling asleep. The silence was
refreshing as a cool drink.
After a while, the road began to climb. We were heading into switchbacks,
but there was a good shoulder. No sudden drops, at least not too close to
my wheels. Those used to terrify me, when Daddy drove us out here.
We emerged from the trees, and I could see the thin edge of the sun peering
around the mountain's hulking peak. It brightened the sea of fog that lay in
the hollows and sparkled the dew on the hemlocks.
Shem had brought us all the way south to Mount Avo—Grandmother
Mountain—the sleeping volcano, that, on a clear day, you can see even from
Oestia, looming over the city like the shoulder of God. I'd forgotten how it felt
to be this close to it. As I drove, I caught glimpses of the long glaciers
running down from its peak and the blue shadows in its valleys. A shivery mix
of elation and fear bubbled up inside me. I remembered that strange
combination of terror and joy that the nearness of such grandeur had always
brought when I was a child.
But this time, I felt something else, as well.
It was hope. For this was where Anchara Pulchra was camped, the mara
chan of the Kereskedo tribe. The woman who could help me.
He was right, Shem, when he said gasoline was more valuable than gold!
The road plunged downhill again and we were back among the trees. But by
now the light was stronger, and the mist clung only in scraps.
A moment later, I caught sight of a boy carrying kindling. I slowed, easing the
car into low gear, so I could watch where he went. He was following a faint
path downhill. My eyes followed and I saw the bumper of a caravan half
concealed in a hollow. Hanging from its side mirror was a brass owl—the
protective symbol of the Kereskedo tribe: Don't try to trick us, it says. We
can see in the dark. A long blue magpie feather was woven defiantly through
the amulet.
I pulled into a turnout and brought the car to rest. Sounds like the hammers
of disgruntled trolls pounded and knocked under the hood, then sighed into
I held Shem's keys in my palm close and tight for a moment before dropping
them reluctantly into his coat pocket. This was as purifying as the smell of a
baby's head or the galloping hoof of a beautiful horse: my foot on the gas, the
dirt road slipping away under my wheels. I wished I could just let the road fall
away behind me for days and weeks together, for, despite my flickering hope,
I felt suddenly unready to bring my suit to another like Nico Brassi.
There was nothing for it. I nudged Shem awake.
"Is this Anchara Pulchra's camp, do you think?"
He blinked, looked about, and nodded.
I stepped out of the car onto the moist and muddy surface of the forest road.
Morning had just broken. The sun was still a hot, new-struck penny in the
sky, but the camp was already astir. The Yulang never sleep, I thought. At
Nico Brassi's the men were probably only now stumbling off to bed, while
here at Anchara Pulchra's they were up before the sun.
The boy I'd seen by the road raced up to us. He stared rudely, then reeled
downhill, calling, "Avo Anchara! Travelers! Zimbali!"
Shem had gotten out of the car just in time to hear this. I saw him flinch as
the boy named his tribe.
Before I could wonder at this, he grabbed my arm. "What do you bring?"
"A gift." He frowned. "Come on, Jalla—what's your name, anyway?
"Serena?" His mouth quirked. "Good name. Though maybe not for you. Well,
your serene highness, surely you know there has to be a gift?"
"Of course I know that!" I spluttered. But in truth, I had forgotten. What kind of
ignorant, Gorgio-bred girl would he think I was? I felt angry at him for finding
me out.
"Well? What will you give the mara chan?"
"Give her? Don't be ridiculous! What have I got to give?" I was still in my
slippers—no coat, no pack, no wallet. He could see I had nothing! "Don't you
have anything in the caravan you could let me have?" I'd certainly heard
things crashing about in the back every time we plunged into a pothole or
hove up against the root of a tree.
"Nothing I can spare. And you're the one asking for help, Jalla. Not me."
I stared at him in disbelief. What was he expecting me to do? Offer my
fingernail clippings? Chop off my hair? Pull out a tooth? How could he be so
I stomped back to the car and yanked open the door. Under the glove
compartment, where I had shoved it last night, was Shem's violin. I pulled it
out and waved it at him.
"How about this? You can spare it. There's a pawn ticket for it right in your
pocket! Besides, you can't even play it properly! It's worthless to you."
He drew in a soft hiss of breath. "Even you know such a gift has no value."
He didn't say it sharply, but his words cut because I knew they were true.
He'd told me the night before that the instrument meant nothing to him. To
give a present to someone only because you didn't care about it yourself—it
was worse than miserly. It showed meanness of spirit. And no trait was held
lower among any of the tribes than being mean-spirited.
"No Yulang would give such a gift," he added, and this time he couldn't keep
the scorn out of his voice.
"I know that," I muttered. But I didn't know it the way Shem did, as taken for
granted as the blood running in his veins. And because of that, I would
always be foreign, even among my own mother's people.
I turned to put the violin back in the cab.
But my hand clung stubbornly to the handle of the case, and I couldn't let it
go. Real was real. I had to give something. Anchara Pulchra was my thin
straw of hope. I couldn't go to her empty-handed and hex my chances before
I'd even asked. If it shamed me to give the worthless, so be it. As long as I
got her help.
Shem had gotten sick of waiting for me and was already halfway down to the
camp. I hurried after him, sensing it wouldn't do to arrive trailing after him.
The people here didn't know me. Why start off with the impression that I had
to walk a pace behind?
These people didn't know me.
I stopped in my tracks.
They didn't know I was ma'hane.
My heart skipped a thump, and then I was rushing through stripped
huckleberry bushes in my haste to catch up with Shem.
Down in the hollow there were tents spangled with dew, laundry lines
stretching from tree to tree, and nine or ten caravans, all parked a little
distance from each other under giant cedars and hemlocks. Orange-, yellow-,
and rose-tinted slabs of fungus stuck out of the tree trunks. No one here
would be foolish enough to eat any of these, even if they weren't poisonous;
Yulang food laws declare them out of bounds, because they grow in the air
rather than on the ground, as proper mushrooms should. There, I thought. I
do know something. I tried to take heart from this shred of knowledge.
Only the boy who'd spied us on top of the hillock, an old woman, and a few
shadowy girls were in evidence. I pulled my shoulders back and smoothed
my rumpled hair. They don't know me. I must look my best.
But even as I thought this, I managed to stumble over a tree root and my
slipper somersaulted away. My foot squelched in the damp mossy dirt. The
boy who'd announced our coming gave a hoarse caw of laughter.
"Here's a real traveler come to you, Grandma," he
mocked. "Ready to cross the Big Mountain in her soft bedroom slips."
The old woman cackled as I hopped after my slipper. She was
squat as the huge iron pot on the hook over the fire. The hook hung from an
iron pole planted in the ground. Though many caravans now had kitchens, I
remembered that cooking on the iron was considered the best way to prevent
pollution, and traditional Yulang bands still stuck to it.
The boy prodded the fire with a long stick. A haze of damp cedar smoke
eddied in the air. The scent bit pungently and my stomach clutched with
hunger. What were they cooking? Would they offer me some?
"Our city cousins think little of mountain wear," the old lady observed. Her
eyes—one bigger than the other—examined me under brows so black they
looked like greasepaint. The map of wrinkles on her face scrunched in
One of the girls, wearing the long skirt and headscarf of a married
woman, swung up to the fire. She was lugging a heavy kettle full of stream
water. "The garb's easy to explain." She giggled. "Hopped in their car right
after the wedding night, I'll bet. Too dazzled to change into walking boots."
My mouth fell open. If the men had been around, a young wife like
her would never have spoken so. But now her words brought only a ribald
laugh from the old woman and a light cuff on the ears.
I snuck a horrified glance at Shem.
To my annoyance, he'd ignored the innuendo and was bowing to the old
woman. She waved a hand in regal acknowledgment and looked expectantly
at me.
It had been a long time since I'd been at a Yulang camp. And then I'd come
invited, welcome and beloved as all Yulang children are. Now I came citified,
unwed at marriage age, with a muddy slipper in my hand, a filthy sock on my
foot, and nothing to offer but trouble.
"Respect, Avo," I began.
The old woman stiffened and drew herself upright. "What do you
No smile and wave for me. Even so, despite her unfriendly tone,
the story of Zara and the Cruelty man was as ready to spill as wine from a
bottle. I nearly launched into it right then and there.
I opened my mouth—and fortunately, remembered what I should do instead.
"I've brought you a gift," I said.
The old woman's face remained impassive, but she folded her fleshy arms,
waiting to see what I produced.
I glanced nervously at Shem as I approached her. His eyes
registered the violin case in my hand with unmistakable disgust. I supposed
he hadn't noticed that I'd picked it up again.
I sighed. Even without Shem's withering look, I realized that I
couldn't give such a gift. It just wasn't in me.
I set the violin on the ground and left it there.
One of the matriarch's eyes shot a look at it, while the other eye wandered
slowly behind. I licked my lips nervously. What now? I had to do something.
But what else did I have to give? My brain felt gummy. If only Mother were
here! I thought with longing. She'd tell me! No etiquette of the traveling tribes
was secret to her!
Then, from wherever I'd left it when I was rattled awake, the dream I'd been
sent that morning poured back into my mind. The perfect gift . . . because
you can give the charms away one by one. I drew a sharp breath and my
hands flew to my collar.
Brushing my hair aside, I felt for the thin golden chain and twisted it until I
touched its clasp. With some difficulty I unhooked it with my ragged
Holding the chain taut, I laid it on the log by the fire, taking care
that it not slip into the cracks in the bark. My eyes flew from one charm to
the next. The Yulang have deep associations with each animal—associations
that I only partly remembered. To pick the wrong one would be worse than
giving nothing at all! It would be an affront.
And Anchara Pulchra would have to be satisfied with her gift if I was to have
hope of her help. I'd have to choose carefully.
I felt the old woman's eyes on me and hoped that I hadn't betrayed my
Which charm? The cat was Zara's favorite, and I would never part
with it. The snake a certain insult. The howling dog with his bristling chest
was so exuberant that I could hardly give him to this ancient, menacing
woman. Nor could I give the rabbit, a harmless, fleet—not to mention
delicious—beasty. I could hardly see anyone catching and skinning Anchara
Pulchra. Nothing of the soft-haired, twitching sacrifice about her! The
scavenging eagle? The shy dove? I was starting to feel frantic. No. None of
them was right.
There was only one I thought might do, but it could easily be as
offensive as the snake.
The old woman shifted impatiently.
No help for it now. I would have to take my chances.
I unclasped the hook, dropped the golden charm into my palm, and held it
out to the mara chan. Squinting, Anchara Pulchra leaned forward and
examined the eight pincer arms of the golden spider picking its way across a
fine-spun web.
Her frown plunged her lips into deep black gullies.
I held my breath, silently cursing myself. A spider! Good thinking, Serena!
Why didn't you choose a cockroach while you were at it? What unbelievable
ignorance have you displayed now?
The old woman raised her head and looked me straight in the eye. I braced
myself for instant denunciation, outright dismissal.
Instead, the matriarch burst out laughing.
I let my breath out. A touch flickered against my elbow, and I
turned to see a surprised grin on Shem's face.
Anchara Pulchra held out her hand. With the other, she walloped
my upper arm.
"I'm the old spider spinning out the threads, am I? Is that what
you've heard? You're a bold girl, I'll give you that."
Limp with relief, I dropped the spider into her palm.
The old lady's smile disappeared. "Next to a gift of love, a gift that reveals
true thoughts . . . It pleases me to know what people think." Her eyes met
mine. "I accept this gift."
She leaned over and patted the log. I picked up my necklace and fastened it
securely around my neck before sitting down across from her.
"Now tell me what you've come for. Quick, before the menfolk are
up." She shot a sidelong glance at a young woman who was mashing the tea
in an aluminum pot. The girl met her gaze and the two of them burst out
laughing. I understood by this that the men would not rise for hours. Shem
shifted uneasily from foot to foot.
Anchara jabbed a stubby finger at him. "Sit, bridegroom. Her
troubles are yours now." She laughed again, mockingly. I stiffened. The old
woman glanced at me, and I could see she was enjoying my discomfort.
Shem was oblivious. He just sat down beside me, quite matter-of-
factly. How could he! Bridegroom indeed!
For my part, I shrank away from him. What had made Anchara presume
such a relation between us? It made me feel as if I had just trod barefoot on a
worm. It must have been that stupid girl's joke! How could Anchara believe
that nonsense? I couldn't speak a word for shame.
But Shem, at least, should have.
I glanced at him slantwise. Even this inept boy must have seen
that words were needed! Such a mistake couldn't be let stand.
But his face betrayed no awareness whatsoever. I could have slapped him.
Suddenly I remembered how enamored of him Janet had been. Was
Anchara's mistake just the sort he expected people to make? Did everyone
assume that if he was with a girl, she must be madly in love with him? I
studied him a moment, feeling irritated and resentful. There was no denying
he was handsome. His skin was dark, his lashes and brows darker still, and
his mouth was generous and expressive. Like many of his tribe, he wore a
small gold hoop in one ear, which shone beneath his cropped, curly hair. I
bet he had gotten a lot of mileage out of his looks, not to mention that grin of
his, which seemed to put you in league with him, whether you wanted to be
or not.
All this only made Anchara's presumption more embarrassing. For I could
see, just a little, how these things could make you forget the wretched violin
playing, the rotten driving, and the suspicion that there really was nothing he
could do properly at all. Not even correct Anchara—the dolt!
"What's your name, then?" the old woman rapped out.
I turned my attention to her, even more flustered now that she'd
seen me lost in thought over my companion. "Serena Wallace," I said, with
all the dignity I could muster.
"Wallace?" The old woman looked at Shem with a baffled
expression. "Why would you be named Wallace?"
Shem shook his head and held up his hands. "I'm not. It's not my name."
Now I flat out glared at him. What he said was true. Wallace was
not his name. And this truth only served to cement the lie that we were bride
and groom, flesh and blood. So Shem, who had been so delicate about truth
when it was not his to tell, was not above a light trick or two!
"Whose name is it, then?"
"My father's, of course," I said.
Anchara nodded. "Half Gorgio. That explains it. I hold no evil
thoughts on that account, Jalla. But what was your mother's name? That's
what matters."
Anchara's face slammed shut like a book. "Ma'hane, then,
through your sister."
I gaped. How could she know that? Perhaps I should say it was some other
Silvani family she was thinking of.
The old woman read my thoughts. "Why pretend otherwise? You're outcast.
What was your sister's name again? Ash, Elm, something . . ."
"Willow," I said sourly.
"And who sent you to me? I can see you're not just passing
"Nico Brassi."
A snort. "Ah! Nico. I must thank him. He sends me all his trash."
I jumped to my feet. "I'm not trash!"
"The ma'hane verdict says otherwise." She looked down at the
spider in her hand. "Still, your gift speaks for you. A little. Sit down. You may
tell me why you came, impure or no."
I sat back on the log, trying to swallow my indignation. To no
avail. When I spoke, my voice was trembling with it. "My niece has been
taken by the Gorgios."
"And I want to know how to get her back."
Anchara cocked an uncharitable eye upon me. "Wisdom to the
worthy. Which you surely are not. What is it you need?"
I forgot I was a humble petitioner. "What do you think I need? I
need help, of course! I need to know what to do! I need someone to speak for
I stopped and looked at her unsympathetic face.
She thought I had given them a reason to take Zara. I could see it clearly in
her mismatched eyes. Just like Nico Brassi. My misfortunes were my own
fault. She wouldn't help me!
"But that's not what you want to hear, is it, Avo? I've tried for help from Nico
Brassi, and now from you, and I can see my mistake. I'm crazy even to ask.
Why do I need the Gorgios to wipe their snot on me, when you Yulang are
tripping over each other to do it? What I really need is the ma'hane verdict
wiped away! As long as I'm outcast, you've no more interest in helping me
than helping a stray dog!"
A sharp kick on my ankle brought me up short. I knew it was Shem, but I
was fuming too much to wonder why.
Anchara Pulchra's face was hard as stale bread.
"You're wrong," she said coldly. "I would always help a stray dog."
My anger was so big in my chest I thought I would burst. I opened my mouth.
Shem kicked me harder.
"But nothing. Ma'hane is ma'hane," the old woman
continued. "Even your words show your nature! I cannot wipe ma'hane clean.
It cannot mix with those who are untouched any more than one washes
underclothes in a tub for dishes. It needs an extraordinary person doing an
extraordinary thing to overturn the tribunal's verdict." She gave me a withering
glance. "And that is not you, Jalla. Be satisfied."
She turned her head pointedly away.

Chapter 7
What will you give me, oh darling, my son,
What will you give me, my darling young one?
(Kereskedo song)

Anchara gathered herself together, pulling her mug of hot tea in toward her
belly. It was a sign that she would offer no hospitality to me.
My skin prickled, numb with shock. What had I done? I'd known Anchara
was a person to approach with etiquette and every show of respect. A minute
before she had been ready to listen. Now she would not even share a spot of
hot water. I'd thrown away my chance for the sake of a few angry words.
Though surely she'd deserved them, I thought rebelliously. But for this, I was
going to leave empty-handed?
I tried to rise but couldn't.
Anchara smashed her cup down. The tea splattered. To my horror, she
grabbed the fringes of her shawl and began to shake them at me. This was
how old women threatened pollution. In a moment it would be the skirt
flapping and she'd be casting the taint upon me. It would have been less
humiliating if she had just hit me with a rock.
"Begone! I'm finished with you! You're not welcome here!"
Miserably, I rose to my feet. Perhaps Nico Brassi was right. My
family brought our troubles on ourselves. Me as much as Willow.
I turned and trudged stupidly back toward the road. My slippers made
sucking noises in the mud—a fit accompaniment to my ignoble retreat.
No one had ever threatened to cast pollution upon me before. I
didn't know a single person that had ever happened to. What was wrong with
me? Was I really so bad?
I looked over my shoulder to make sure Anchara had stopped. With great
relief, I saw that she'd sunk down again on her stump, muttering.
Shem was watching me thoughtfully. My ankle was sore where he'd kicked
it, but I hadn't the spirit to be annoyed. He'd been trying to warn me, of
course. Warn me that my big mouth was chewing up my chances, as it
always did. Amazing, that even someone I'd known less than twelve hours
could see that, but I seemed unable to keep it in mind. He'd brought me all
this way to help me and all I'd done was embarrass him. For this I felt a tiny
glimmer of guilt.
But I reminded myself that Shem really had no troubles compared with mine.
He could easily tell Anchara's band I was a hitchhiker and, despite what they
thought, he didn't really know me. There would be an end of it and good luck
to him.
I set my foot on the forest road and strained my eyes to see where it went.
Nothing but endless stands of cedar and spruce, thickening and darkening
into the far distance. A pang jangled my stomach. I couldn't even remember
the last time I had eaten. How was I going to make my way through the
forest without food, without even boots on my feet? Where was I going,
Miserably, I turned around again. I didn't mean to. Anyone with any self-
respect would have marched off without a backward glance. Why couldn't I?
Anchara looked enraged. In a second she really would curse me.
But Shem was still watching me calmly, with his chin cupped in his hand. I
couldn't read anything in his expression.
My eyes caught his. Three true things, I thought. He'd asked, I'd told him,
and he'd brought me here. Our bargain was finished. It was useless to look
for more help.
But all of sudden, he stood up, walked over to where I stood. With a
businesslike gesture, he took me by the arm and led me back to the fire,
where Anchara still sat watching me with a hostile gaze.
"If she goes, I must go," he said. "But I haven't given my gift yet,
Avo Anchara."
I could only stare.
The old woman peered at Shem distrustfully. "Well?"
Shem let go of my arm. He took off his jacket and his vest and
folded them neatly and laid them on a wooden crate by the fire. Like most
Zimbali men, he wore suspenders over a white shirt. Tied fast to one
suspender was a small leather bag.
Anchara watched closely as he untied the bag, pulled its drawstring loose,
and poured its contents into his hand. I caught the gleam of gold and heard
its heavy chink. I, too, was watching him narrowly. He hadn't said anything
about a hidden bag of gold last night when he'd turned out his pockets and
demonstrated himself to be poor but honest!
But I hadn't time to wonder at that. For when he opened his hand, even I
knew enough to be shocked.
He held out a strand of heavy gold coins stamped with the head of
an ancient emperor—real wealth to any who knew. They were all strung
together on a wire that could be twisted and untwisted at will but broken only
by extraordinary force. It was Kereskedo braid gold, meant to be woven into a
woman's hair and never given away except on her deathbed. And then only to
her daughters. Mother wore such coins. I'd often helped her weave them
through her braids, after she'd washed her hair. They were the reason I would
not let myself believe her dead. Because if she had died, her tribe would be
honor bound to return the braid gold to me and Willow.
How had Shem come by the gold? If a woman has no daughters, a son might
inherit. But he would give them immediately to his bride. They belonged
properly only to women.
But to give them away as a gift? And for one of the Zimbali tribe to
possess them at all?
The old woman raised a bristly eyebrow.
She lowered her mug of tea onto the log without looking at it,
perching it at an angle that tempted fate. Then she cupped her hands and
Shem dropped the gold into her wide palms. The coins clinked against each
other as they fell.
Shem yanked my arm, and I took this to mean I should sit down
beside him. I did so, warily, fearing Anchara would snarl at me to get moving.
But the wise woman was too interested in the coins to care.
"If this is stolen," she whispered, "I'll send a curse to dog your
"It's not stolen."
"Then how does the musician tribe come by it?"
"My grandmother was Kereskedo. She bore only sons. My father
gave it to my mother, who left it to me when she died. I was their only child.
They both died when I was small." He said this dispassionately, as if it were
only a matter of record. Perhaps that was what it was to lose your parents
young. I had already passed through the arch of my twelfth year when my
father arrived home in an army coffin, and I could still feel the hole it had torn
in my heart.
The woman glanced at me. "Then why does she not wear them?"
"She is ma'hane." Shem answered so quickly I suspected he was
warding off any objection of mine. Such as "Why would I? I only met him last
night!" Though he had no need to worry. I would have to be really stupid to
call attention to myself that way.
"Then why stand by her?" Anchara peered at him shrewdly. "You
must fear the taint yourself, Jal, my lad?"
Shem drew breath but answered without hesitation. "There are
ways to avoid pollution, Avo. But a bargain is a bargain, and I have made a
bargain with this girl. The mara chan of the Kereskedo must know that we
honor our bargains. Even we Zimbalis. I—" He bit his lip, and I saw how fast
he must be thinking. "I hope for the day things may change," he concluded
with a shrug, as if consigning his future to the hands of fate. I watched him in
amazement. He had transformed himself into the kind of man the Yulang
sympathize with most—the man who has suffered at the hands of fate and
mischance and bears his suffering bravely. In this case, the man who marries
badly and makes the best of it.
He was clever.
But what was it all for? His expression reminded me of those of the old men
who played chess in Plaza Ridizio, determined no one should guess their
next move. Once again, he'd spoken nothing but the simple truth, and it only
served to strengthen a lie. We had a bargain, true enough: I'd spared his
family business, and he felt he had to pay what he owed me. But that wasn't
the bargain he'd conveyed to Anchara!
Why was he doing this? What use was it to him, pretending we were wed?
Whyever it was, Anchara seemed satisfied with his explanation.
The young man had the misfortune of marrying an outcast. Of course he
would not entrust his family treasures to her.
"And what is it that is worthy of such a gift?"
"Listen to the girl's story, Mara Chan. Perhaps you'll change your
mind and help her."
I couldn't believe it. Kereskedo gold to overcome Anchara
Pulchra's bad opinion of me? Was he insane?
"Why are you doing this?" I burst out.
A thin smile spread across the old woman's face, showing a sliver
of teeth. "There's your thanks, Jal. Would you really give such a gift for this
ungrateful girl?" She looked long at him, then shook her head. "No, you want
something more. Am I right?"
Shem spread his hands, palms up, and bowed. It was a gesture of
respect to elders, but he did it as if he was sharing a joke with her, as well as
acknowledging the truth in her accusation.
Anchara gave a bemused laugh. "I like the way you bargain. I like
to be surprised." She turned to me as if I'd just become visible again. "All
right. I'll listen. But mind your mouth."
I did. As dispassionately as Shem, I told her what had happened
to me and my family.
When I finished, Anchara Pulchra sniffed. "How old are you, Jalla?"
"Sixteen. Just."
"Old enough to be wed, but not old enough to know your elbow
from a matchstick. Here, girl, shall I tell you your greatest stupidity?"
I knew I didn't have a choice. I nodded.
"Biting that Cruelty man and leading him on that mad chase. Fool! Do you
even know if he lives?"
The fear I'd kept at bay came hot and close, breathing down my neck.
"No, but, Avo, that was an accident, when he fell down the stairs. I didn't do
Anchara's mouth pulled down like a flounder's. "And since when does that
matter?" She sucked her lips with yellowed teeth. "If you hadn't run, you'd be
in a cell and no mistake about that. Still, if he's not dead, there might not be
a charge—"
"Can't we find out?"
The old woman fixed me with her larger eye. "We? If I chose, I could find out."
She let this sink in. Then: "If you are lucky—if!—and the man is not dead,
then your problem is easily solved."
"The Cruelty took the little one, you say?" She looked at me scornfully. "They
count on your ignorance. Anyone of legal age in your family can declare they
are willing to raise the baby, and the Cruelty must allow it. That's law. Of
course, to the Gorgio you are not of age yet. Not competent to care for the
child. But your mother . . ."
"She's left us. I don't know where she is!"
"True. I recall something of the sort. Don't you have an aunt?"
I shook my head.
"A grandmother?"
I thought of my father's mother in her Gorgio mansion.
Anchara's voice took on a slightly kinder note. "Do you even know
if your mother is alive?"
"Of course she is!" Even to my own ear, my voice twanged like an
untuned guitar string.
The mara chan looked at me heavily. "Well, if she really is alive,
as you say, I can find her. Any of the Kereskedo tribe I can find."
I forgot everything but the mad happiness that gushed into my
heart. This was better than I'd dared hope! Anchara must have been the
person I was looking for these long years. The one person who could find
Mother out in the great unfriendly world!
If—the thought rose unbidden—if Mother wanted to be found.
I pushed away that evil suspicion, as I had many times before.
It was so simple! Once I had reunited with Mother, we could get Zara back.
Of course we could. I turned to Shem, forgetting all my distrust, and beamed
at him.
He looked surprised, but a smile broke through his impassive expression. A
true smile, too.
I leaned toward the old woman and seized her hand in mine. Hers
was strong and heavy as a kitchen weight, cut and creased a hundred ways.
I kissed the knuckle, as I'd seen my mother do to Yulang elders.
"Thank you, Avo Anchara! You don't know what this means to me!
How soon can you find her?"
Anchara Pulchra yanked her hand away. "You need sharper ears,
Jalla. I said 'I can,' not 'I will.' You are still ma'hane. And angry. And wrong-
headed. And if your man had not spoken for you, you would be miles away in
the mud by now. It will take time and trouble to find Galeah Silvani. And I
shall only go to that trouble if you work for me first."
"Work for you!"
"As I said."
The sun was well up in the east. Somewhere, Zara was awake, in
the hands of strangers. In a nursery or an orphanage, where children expect
no words of kindness or arms to nestle in, and where no one will come when
they cry. The pain of it winched the breath tightly in my lungs.
"But I need to get to Zara right away!"
"So? You refuse?" The old woman looked from me to Shem and
slapped her palms together sharply. "Then the bargain is off."
"But I can't wait! The Cruelty may have given her to a Gorgio
family by then. Who knows what they'll do?"
"I am growing weary of you, girl. Did you think I would wave a
branch and shake my skirts and the baby would be returned? You are
ma'hane! Why can you not understand such a simple thing?" She spat. "Pah!
Set your mind to my service, or leave now!"
"Take it, Serena." Shem sounded exasperated. "Last night you
had nothing. Now you have the help of the mara chan herself."
I was barely able to swallow my indignation. But I kept silent. For
once, Shem had spoken the unalloyed truth.
"Work doesn't frighten you, does it?" he added. I heard scorn in
his voice.
I shook my head. "What must I do?"
The boy who sat by the fire, tending the embers with a stick,
looked up at me, smirking. "Hauling boulders, Ma'hane. That's the price for
the mara chan's help. For dirt like you, that is."
The old woman reached over and smacked the boy's ear
hard. "Shut your mouth! Baby tyrant, are you?" He whimpered with pain.
Then she turned to me. "Not boulders, girl. I'm no slaveholder. Collecting
gems from the streams and the caverns. Nothing to break the back of a
healthy girl like you. But important for us. We must have them to sell at the
harvest market in Eurus Major." I looked at her in surprise. Eurus Major was
the eastern capitol of the province—two hundred miles inland. "The Gorgio
prospectors are laying claims and waving papers to keep us off the best
land," Anchara continued. "And what they don't have by law, they take with
bribes. We must work hard and work clever to grab what's ours. And all the
gathering must be complete astride the time."
"Gathering what?"
"Agate and thunder eggs. Tiger's-eyes, rose quartz, obsidian on
the volcano, carnelian, and onyx—like that. To be tumbled and set as quickly
as we can. Jasper, too. Anything that will sell." She gave me a shrewd
look. "Why that moon-calf face, girl? Are you ashamed to do this?"
"I thought—I thought you were traders. Don't you travel like the others and
buy what you sell?"
"We've already sold all we bought during the collecting season. It will not be
enough to feed our people through the winter. So we turn our hand to what we
have the gift for. Stone setting. Gold working. Now, before the harvest
markets end."
I supposed I had known that not everything the Kereskedo sold had actually
been bought. I'd heard Gorgios complain of it—how the Yulang poach fish
from the lakes, timber from the forests, and gems from the earth. Stealing.
Scavenging. Hiding their finds away. Even Anchara admitted that Gorgio
prospectors had permission papers and we didn't. It was as my teachers
said—no respect for the laws.
A dull heat began to glow in my face: despite all my years at the Lyceum
Romanae, I was fated to be a Magpie indeed. Catch as catch can . . . The
taunts of Janet's friends had proven true.
But if I was to have the mara chan's help finding Zara . . .
I swallowed the bitter thought and tried to meet the old woman's eyes.
"I'll work for you, Avo Anchara. Tell me what I must do to gain your help."
The old crone looked at me thoughtfully, watery eyes glittering. "Find me
something of worth, outcast. That's all I ask. Something rich to see our folk
through the cold winter. Surely you recognize the gems that will bring us a
good price, daughter of Kereskedo traders? Surely Galeah would have
instructed you."
"If only!" I burst out bitterly. But then I caught Shem's warning eye.
"I'll do as you ask, Mara Chan."
But if Anchara's help was to hang on my knowledge of this or that sparkling
rock, I was in trouble. The names of the gemstones she had rattled off like
well-loved incantations were nothing but names to me.
I recognized none.

Copyright © 2005 by Louise Spiegler. Reprinted by permission of Clarion
Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.
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