CERISE leaned over the tea-colored waters of Horseshoe Pond. Around her, massive cypresses stood like ancient soldiers at attention, the knobby knees of their roots straddling the water. The Mire was never silent, but nothing out of the ordinary interrupted the familiar chorus of small noises: a toad belching somewhere to the left, the faint scuttling of Edge squirrels in the canopy above her, the persistent warbling of the bluebill . . .She rolled up her jeans and crouched, calling in a practiced singsong, "Where is Nellie? Where is that good girl? Nellie is the best rolpie ever. Here, Nellie, Nellie, Nellie."The surface of the pond lay completely placid. Not a splash.Cerise sighed. A long wet smudge flanked by swipes from clawed paws marked the mud five feet from her. Nellie's trail. When she was fifteen, tracking rolpies through the swamp was an adventure. She was twenty-four now and trudging through the Mire in the middle of the night stumbling into water and sinking up to her ankles in sludge was a lot less fun. She could think of much better ways to spend her time. Like sleeping in her nice warm bed, for example."Here, Nellie! Here, girl. Who is a good girl? Nellie is. Oh, Nellie is so pretty. Oh, Nellie is so fat. She is the fattest, cutest, stupidest rolpie ever. Yes, she is."No response.Cerise looked up. Far above, a small chunk of blue sky winked at her through the braid of cypress branches and Mire vines. "Why do you do this to me?"The sky refused to answer. It usually didn't, but she kept talking to it anyway.A chirp echoed overhead, and a white glob of bird poop plummeted from the branches. Cerise dodged and growled at the sky. "Not cool. Not cool at all."It was time for emergency measures. Cerise leaned her sword against a cypress knee, anchoring the scabbard in the muck, shifted her weight, pulled the backpack off her shoulders, and dug in the bag. She fished out the tangle of a leather face collar. It was designed to hug the rolpie's muzzle and the extra strap locking behind her head guaranteed the beast wouldn't get out. Cerise arranged it on the mud for easy access and extracted a can opener and a small can.She held the can out and knocked on it with the can opener. The sound of metal on metal rolled above the pond. Nothing."Oh, what do I have? I have tuna!"A small ripple wrinkled the surface about thirty feet out. Gotcha."Mmmm, yummy, yummy tuna. I'll eat it all by myself." She locked the can opener on the can and squeezed, breaking the seal.A brindled head popped out of the water. The rolpie sampled the air with a black nose framed with long dark whiskers. Large black eyes fixed on the can with maniacal glee.Cerise squeezed the top of the can, letting some of the fish juice drip into the pond.The rolpie sped through the water and launched herself out onto the shore. From the bottom up to the neck, she resembled a lean seal armed with a long tail and four wide half legs framed with flat flippers. At the shoulders, the seal body stretched into a graceful long neck, tipped with an otter head.Cerise shook the can. "Head."Nellie licked her black lips and tried her best to look adorable."Head, Nellie."The rolpie lowered her head. Cerise slipped the collar on the wet muzzle and tightened it. "You'll pay for this, you know."Nellie nudged her shoulder with her black wet nose. Cerise plucked a chunk of tuna from the can and tossed it at the rolpie. Razor-sharp teeth rent the air, snapping the treat. Cerise swiped her sword off the ground and tugged on the leash. The rolpie lumbered next to her, wiggling and pushing herself across the swamp mud."What the hell was that? Breaking out in the middle of the night and taking off for a stroll? Did you get tired of pulling the boats and decided to take your chances with Mire gators?"The rolpie squirmed along, watching the can of tuna like it was some holy relic."They can bite bone sharks in half. They'll look at you and see a plump little snack. Brunch, that's what you'd be."Rolpie licked her lips."Do you think tuna grows in the mud?" Cerise plucked another chunk and tossed it to Nellie. "In case you didn't know, there is no tuna in the Edge. We have to get our tuna from the Broken. The Broken has no magic. But you know what the Broken does have? Cops. Lots and lots of cops. And alarm systems. Do you have any idea how hard it is to steal tuna from the Broken, Nellie?"Nellie emitted a small squeal of despair."I don't feel sorry for you." Tuna was a pricey commodity. It took four days to get to the Broken, and crossing the boundary between the Edge and the magicless world hurt like hell. Of the whole family, she and Kaldar were about the only ones who managed to do it. The rest of the Mars had too much magic to cross through the boundary. Trying to pass into the Broken would kill them.Cerise slogged through the mud. Growing up, she was always told that her magic was a gift, a wonderful, rare, special thing, something to be proud of. The magic might have been a gift, but in moments of despair, as she sat poring over the ruins of the family's finances, she saw it for what it really was - a chain. A big heavy shackle that kept the family locked in the Mire. Were it not for all that magic, they could've escaped into the Broken long ago. As it was, the only way out of the swamp lay through the border with the Dukedom of Louisiana into the Weird, where magic flowed full force.Louisianans used the Mire to dump their exiles. Criminals and troublesome bluebloods, anyone too inconvenient to keep but too risky to kill, were sent to the Mire. And once you crossed that boundary between the Weird and the Mire, the Louisiana Guard made sure you never made it back.The vegetation parted, revealing the dark water of Priest's Tongue Stream. A green Mire viper lay in the mud. It hissed as they approached. Cerise hooked the snake with her sword and tossed it aside."Come on." She threw another bite of tuna to the rolpie and led her into the tea-colored water. Cerise wrapped the leash loop tighter around her wrist and slid her arms around Nellie's narrow neck. "You get the rest when we get home."Cerise clicked her tongue and the rolpie took off down the stream.TWENTY minutes later, Cerise shut the gate on the rolpie enclosure. Someone, probably the younger boys, had made a reasonable attempt to repair the chain-link fence, but it wouldn't hold if Nellie decided to ram it. In the twisted creeks and rivers of the swamp, rolpies were vital. In some places, the water was completely stagnant and the swamp vegetation blocked the wind. The rolpies pulled the light swamp boats all over the Mire and helped save gasoline.As long as a human was present, Nellie was an excellent rolpie: obedient, sweet, powerful. The moment you took the person out of the equation, the silly beast freaked out and tried to take off.Maybe she had separation anxiety, Cerise reflected, starting up the hill toward the Rathole. Segregating Nellie into a smaller enclosure would just lead to disaster. Knowing her, she would bray night and day, because she was alone. And reinforcing the big fence would be too costly and take too much labor.Cerise chugged up the hill to the Mar family house. Water dripped from her clothes and squished between her toes inside her boots. She wanted a hot shower and a nice meal, preferably with some meat in it. Things being what they were, she'd settle for fish and yesterday's bread. She'd have to oil her sword, too, but that was part of living in the swamp. Water and steel didn't mix very well.The Rathole, a sprawling two-story monster of a house, sat on top of a low hill. Fifty yards of cleared ground separated the house from the nearest vegetation. The kill zone. Fifty yards was a lot of ground to cover when you had rifles and crossbones trained on you.The ground floor had no entrance or windows. The only way in lay up the stairway to the second-floor verandah. As she approached the stairs, a small shape slipped from behind the verandah's colonnades and sat on the stairs. Sophie. Lark, Cerise corrected herself. Her sister wanted to be called Lark now.Lark gave her a weary look from under dark tousled hair. Her skinny legs stuck out of her capris like match-sticks. Mud smudged her calves. Fresh scratches marked her arms over the old bruises. She hid her hands, but Cerise was willing to bet that her nails were dirty or bitten off, probably both. Lark used to be a bit of a neat freak, as much as an eleven-year-old girl brought up in the swamp could be. All gone now.Worry pinched at Cerise. She kept her face calm. Show nothing. Don't make her self-conscious.She came up the stairs, sat next to Lark, and pulled off her left boot, emptying the water out."Adrian and Derril are riding the Doom Buggy through the Snake Tracks," Lark murmured.The dune buggy was a hell mobile made of pure fun. In fact, Cerise had snuck away with it before and had so much fun, she flipped it over. But touching the dune buggy without adult supervision was strictly forbidden. Stealing it and wasting expensive gasoline was punishable by three weeks of extra chores.Of course, both fifteen-year-old Adrian and his fourteen-year-old sidekick, Derril, knew this and could handle the consequences. The most pressing issue was that Lark just tattled. Lark never tattled.Cerise forced herself to calmly pull the other boot off. The very basis of her sister's personality was changing, and she could only watch, helpless."The boys didn't take you with them?"The answer was so quiet, she barely heard it. "No."Six months ago, they would have. Both of them knew it. The urge to reach out and hug Lark's bony shoulders gripped Cerise, but she kept still. She'd tried that before. Her sister would stiffen, slide away, and take off into the woods.At least Lark was talking to her. That was a rare thing. Normally, Mom was the only person who could get through to her, and even she had a hard time drawing Lark out lately. The kid was slipping away into her own world, and nobody knew how to pull her out."Did you tell Mom?" Cerise asked."Mom isn't here."Odd. "Dad?""They left. Together.""Did they say when they would be back?""No."Cerise tensed. In the Mire, the resources were few and the people were many. The families fought tooth and nail over the smallest things. Almost every clan was in a feud, and theirs was no exception.The feud between the Mars and the Sheeriles had started eighty years ago and was still going strong. Sometimes it burned bright and sometimes, like right now, it smoldered, but it could burst into open warfare at any moment. The last time the feud had flared, Cerise lost two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin. The standing rule was: you go out, you let someone know where you're going and when you're planning on coming back. Even their father, who was the head of the family, never strayed from this rule.Anxiety rolled over her. "When and why did they leave?""At sunrise, and they left because Cobbler got his butt bit."Cobbler, an old wino, bummed about the swamp doing odd jobs for moonshine. Cerise never cared for the man. He was mean to the kids when he thought their parents weren't looking, and he'd stab anyone in the back just out of spite. "Go on . . .""He came over and told Dad wild dogs got into Grandpa's house. They chased him and one bit him on the butt. His pants had holes."Sene Manor had been boarded up for years, ever since their grandparents had died there of red fever twelve years ago. Cerise remembered it as a sunny house, painted bright yellow, a spot of color in the swamp. It was an abandoned wreck now. Nobody went near it. Cobbler had no business going there either. Probably was looking for something to steal."What happened next?"Lark shrugged. "Cobbler kept talking until Dad gave him some wine and then he went away. And then Dad said he had to go and take care of Grandpa's house, because it was still our land. Mom said she would go with him. They rode out."Getting to Sene Manor by truck was impossible. They would've ridden out on horseback."And you haven't seen them since?""No."Sene Manor was half an hour away by horse. They should've been back by now."Do you think Mom and Dad are dead?" Lark asked in a flat voice.Oh, Gods. "No. Dad's death with a sword, and Mom can shoot a Mire gator in the eye from a hundred feet. Something must've held them up."A muted roar rolled through the trees - the dune buggy's engine getting a workout. Dimwits. Didn't even have the patience to turn the engine off and roll the buggy back up to the house. Cerise rose."Let me deal with this, and if Mom and Dad aren't back by the end of the hour, I'll go and check it out."An old dune buggy burst out from between the pines, splashing through the mud on its way to the house. Cerise raised her hand. Two mud-splattered faces stared at her from the front seat with abject horror.Cerise drew in a deep breath and barked. "Cramp!"Magic pulsed from her hand. The curse clutched at the two boys, twisting the muscles in their arms. Adrian doubled over, the wheel spun left, the dune buggy careened, and the whole thing toppled onto its side in a huge splash, sliding through the sludge. The hell mobile turned, vomiting the two daredevils into the mud, spun one more time, and stopped.Cerise turned to Lark. "Feel free to go over there and kick them while they're down. When you're done, tell them to clean everything up and head straight to the stables. Aunt Karen will be overjoyed to have two slaves for the next three weeks."Cerise took her boots and headed into the house. The vague feeling of unease matured into full-blown dread in her chest. She had to figure out what had held up her parents, and the sooner the better. For a moment she almost veered toward the stables, but riding out by herself would be just asking for trouble. She needed backup, someone steady in a fight. Better to spend an extra ten minutes gathering help now than regret it later.This wasn't going to end well, she just knew it.