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Magic Steps

Tamora Pierce











  Title Page

















  The Circle of Magic Books




  Lady Sandrilene fa Toren opened the door to her room and stepped into the dark corridor. She was dressed for riding in broad-legged breeches, tunic, and blouse, and in one hand she carried her riding boots. In the other she held a round blob of crystal threaded with dark lines. It shone brightly and steadily against the gloom. The hour was early enough that most of the servants were still abed, and the torches set to burn in the halls the night before had guttered out.

  Holding up her stone to light the way, Sandry padded down the corridor in stockinged feet. It was because of the servants that she made so little noise. In six weeks’ residence at the castle, she had learned that most of them were light sleepers. No amount of persuasion that she could look after herself quite nicely, thank you, was enough to send them back to bed. They would rise at dawn anyway — why cause them to lose as much as an hour of rest when they worked so hard?

  As she passed a high table, she noted that the candlesticks atop it stood on a rumpled length of embroidered cloth. She reached out a hand. The cloth shifted until it lay flat and neat on the wood. A silk rug knocked askew slid in her wake until it lay straight again.

  She plopped herself onto the top stair and tugged on her riding boots, then frowned. A light showed under the door of a ground-floor room that opened onto the entrance hall.

  Uncle, she thought, vexed. And what odds that he hasn’t been up since four? With a sigh, she trotted downstairs and entered the room, a small library. There sat her great-uncle in a wing-backed chair. He was reading a sheaf of papers by the light shed by a crystal globe. The globe was larger than Sandry’s, perfectly round and without flaws, its light as steady as the sun’s.

  Inspecting his stark white shirt, black tunic, and breeches, Sandry decided she would have to do something about the duke’s clothes. He liked to dress plainly, but there was no law that said he had to wear blacks, browns, and dark blues without any bright colors. A crimson tunic might warm his skin tone, and a touch of gold embroidery at his collar would add sparkle to his eyes. Until he was fully recovered from his recent heart attack, he would need such aids to keep his people from thinking he might still die.

  And it won’t hurt to stitch in signs for health and strength, either, she thought, fingers already itching to pick up needle and thread. “Uncle,” she announced crisply, “just because the healers say you may ride again does not mean you are ready to take up your old work schedule as well.”

  Duke Vedris IV, ruler of Emelan, looked up at his favorite great-niece and smiled. The smile warmed a face that was still haggard, though he looked better to Sandry’s critical eye than he had even a week ago. He needs to smile more, she thought. Without affection or amusement to light his eyes, he was a rather forbidding middle-aged man with fleshy features, deepset brown eyes, and an eagle’s nose. With some warm feeling in his face, he looked both serious and kind, the sort of man it was easy to trust and depend on.

  “This isn’t work,” the duke told her as he lifted the sheaf of parchments. “I’m just reviewing what’s been done on the repairs to the harbor wall.”

  Sandry walked over to him, kissed his forehead, and drew the papers from his fingers. “The harbormaster is an expert on this sort of thing. You told me so yourself. And you know what Dedicate Comfrey said — why pay these people if you have to watch them all the time?”

  “I’m not watching. I’m keeping myself up-to-date.” The duke carefully got to his feet. Sandry did not try to help. Too many people did that, and it upset him far more than did the loss of his former strength. “You and Dedicate Comfrey should understand that sooner or later I must begin to oversee my realm once more.”

  “I can’t wait until you do,” she told him pertly. “You’re getting awfully hard to handle.”

  He laughed at that. “I’m going to miss you when you return to Winding Circle,” he remarked, going to the door. “You’re the only one who is completely frank with me.”

  As he left the room, Sandry put the papers she had taken on his desk. For a moment she stayed there, staring blindly at the curtained windows. As much as she wanted to return home, she worried about him. Over and over she had heard tales of the way he lived, skipping meals and going without sleep to complete some piece of work. His household was in awe of Duke Vedris, and feared to balk him. Without her there to keep an eye on things, he would probably return to his old bad habits.

  She didn’t like that thought. Emelan’s best healer-mages had warned her that while they had done all they could to strengthen his heart and veins, he was vulnerable to another attack. A second one might well kill him; a third definitely would.

  He managed without a meddling fourteen-year-old for years, one voice said in her mind.

  He was younger then, argued a second.

  Sandry growled with impatience — she had been listening to this internal argument for weeks — and flung her hands wide. The heavy draperies on the windows flew apart to bare expensive glass panes. The thick gold ropes that held the curtains open wrapped around the lengths of cloth and tied themselves, then let their tasseled ends dangle neatly.

  Getting her worries under control, Sandry followed her uncle to the main door. It was open already, offering a view of the stone courtyard, a score of burning torches, and a squad of the Duke’s Guardsmen and their horses.

  Duke Vedris waited for her to reach him and offered his arm. His dark eyes searched her face intently. “Did I say anything to distress you, my dear?” he asked quietly.

  Sandry shook her head and made herself smile. “The only thing that distresses me is the thought that you got up early this morning to read papers,” she informed him. “You’re supposed to rest, Uncle!” As they walked down the stair to their mounts, she thought, And what will Lark say if I stay with him?

  “Pasco. Pasco, wake up.”

  He rolled over and moaned.

  A hand grabbed his shoulder. “Pasco, you chuff’, getting up was your idea. Now do it — I want to go to bed.”

  Pasco Acalon sat up, blinking. His sister Halmaedy knelt by the bed, her dark eyes amused. She was still dressed for the watch that had just ended, the brown leather of her jerkin stark against her dark blue shirt and breeches.

  Pasco rubbed his face, ordering his traitorous body to move. “’S a disgusting hour to be about,” he grumbled.

  “No arguments here. What’s the deal, anyway?”

  Pasco swung his legs out from under the blanket and leaned against his oldest sister. Their long, amber-skinned faces labeled them as kin: the same winged black brows over ebony-colored eyes, noses a little too short, and straight mouths a little too wide. At twelve Pasco was just starting to get his growth, his thin body coltish as he wrestled with arms and legs that tended to go every which way.

  “A friend wants a favor,” the boy mumbled as he pulled on his garments, tying the string that held up his breeches as tight as he could manage. His shirt required no buttoning, which was why he’d picked it out last night. The less he had to do before he
was properly awake, the better.

  “What kind of favor?” Halmaedy demanded, suspicious. “This isn’t off the straight, is it? Because—”

  Pasco ruffled her hair — glossy black, cropped short on the sides and left to grow long on top, just like his. “You’re home now,” he reminded her. “No need for harrier work here.” Harrier was street slang for a Provost’s Guard. “An Acalon off the straight?” he went on, his voice strangled as he bent over to don his shoes. “The very skies would cry at it. Go to bed, Halmy. Try to dream of something beside arresting drunks and housebreakers.”

  She punched at her brother halfheartedly; he ducked under her fist, blew a kiss at her, and left his room. He didn’t bother to sneak by the garret room where the maids were — they had proved able to snore through hurricanes and his mother’s first shout for them to get out of bed — but was quieter going down the stairs. He went noiselessly past his sisters’ rooms and ghosted past the floor where his parents slept. Mama was the one to step quietly for. Once his father fell asleep, only his snoring proved he was not dead. Mama had the fox-ears, asleep and awake.

  Down to the ground floor, a quick nip into the kitchen for some bread, then a five-minute jog to the docks. Osabo Netmender was in his boat at Godsluck Wharf. Once Pasco was aboard, Osa put his back into the oars, hauling the boat clear of the commercial docks and guiding it east, along Summersea’s shoreline.

  “I can’t believe you’re out of bed,” Osa told his friend.

  “Halmy woke me after her watch,” said Pasco, yawning. “Look, this isn’t some joke, is it? Your dad really thinks I can bring luck to his ship?”

  “It’s no joke,” replied Osa, rowing with practiced ease. “Not when he’s promised to pay you a silver crescent. Pa never jokes about money. And it’s the whole fleet, not just our boat.”

  Pasco shook his head. A silver crescent was too much money for any kind of jest. “I just don’t understand,” he muttered, stretching.

  “Look, you danced for luck on the entrance examinations, and the temple took me to be a student there,” Osa said reasonably. “You danced luck for Adesina, and her baby popped out slick as seaweed—”

  “Stop it,” ordered Pasco. “That baby would’ve come easy without anyone’s help. There was a temple midwife with her the whole time.”

  “And what was a temple birth-mage doing walking by the fishing village at just the right moment?” argued Osa.

  “I’ll bet you a copper crescent my dancing for fish don’t do a whisper of good,” Pasco told his friend.

  The other boy winced. “That’s too much like ill-wishing,” he said, “We need the fish, Pasco. We need ’em bad.”

  “I’m not ill-wishing,” retorted Pasco, offering some of his bread. Osa took a piece. “I just never heard of a dance that brought fish into nets before.”

  “Gran says it’s an old one,” Osa said doggedly. “She’s gonna teach it to you. There’s a song to go with it and everything. You’ll see.”

  Pasco shrugged, and ate his breakfast in silence.

  Despite the early hour, there were people about as the duke’s party rode east on Harbor Street, past Summersea’s famed wharves. How the word got ahead of them Sandry couldn’t guess, but some of those who started their day before dawn gathered along the way to greet their duke. Sailors, washerwomen, draymen — their eager looks and open smiles showed how glad they were to see Duke Vedris up and about. Sandry had meant to turn back once they reached Long Wharf but, looking ahead, she could see more of the locals emerging from ships and warehouses to get a look at him.

  Cat dirt, she thought, vexed. She didn’t want him to do too much today, after four weeks in bed and two weeks confined to his palace. At the same time she knew his people had been frightened by his illness. They wanted to reassure themselves that he was all right. One of the things he’d mentioned so often in their talks since his heart attack was the need to keep a realm stable. People who thought it might all go to pieces at any minute tended to do foolish things, like pull their money from the banks, which would make them collapse, or plot to set a new, stronger ruler on the throne.

  Sandry watched her uncle as he patted the hand of a stout woman who had been coiling rope on one of the wharves. In this light — a combination of lanterns, torches, and a pale sky — it was hard to tell if he was tired yet. He seemed more energetic than he’d been at Duke’s Citadel, but it could be an act.

  She looked at the grizzled sergeant in charge of their troop of guards. Last night she had made a point of finding the man and having a long chat with him about today’s ride. Now he nudged his mount over until they were side by side.

  “He takes strength from them, milady,” the sergeant told her quietly. “Same as they do from him. I say let ’im go on a bit.”

  Sandry thought over what he’d said. At last she replied, “I suppose there’s no harm in going on. If it looks like he’s tiring, though, we turn back.”

  The sergeant bowed and returned to his soldiers. The word was passed among them in scant whispers.

  Sandry looked at the duke to find his eyes were on her. He raised his eyebrows, and Sandry began to giggle. Trust her uncle to guess what the conversation had been about!

  On they rode, past Jansar Wharf and Sharyn Wharf. The duke seemed to be enjoying himself, until he looked up and saw a fat, turbaned man emerged from the doorway of a large, gray stone building. Over the lintel was the sign ROKAT HOUSE: MYRRH AND FINE SPICES in large, gilded letters. People moved out of the man’s way. Some of them, slower than their neighbors, were urged to do so by one of the three bruisers who came with him, two men and a woman with arms like a blacksmith’s.

  Sandry could feel the moment the Duke’s Guards noticed the rough types. She heard a creak of leather, a hushed clink of metal, and four of the squad urged their horses up on either side of Vedris. Two more rode next to Sandry: they had been assigned to her since her arrival at Duke’s Citadel and had proved themselves to be quiet, quick shadows.

  The duke raised a hand, and all of his group halted. The fat man came forward until he stood just ten feet away and bowed low, his palms pressed together before his face. His guards also bowed, though not so low that they lost sight of the duke’s protectors.

  “Good morning, Rokat,” the duke said. His velvety voice had gone very cold.

  “May the gods be praised, your grace!” said the fat man, straightening. “It is a grand thing, to see you among your people once more.” Now that he was closer, Sandry could tell that he wore a jeweled pin in the neat green folds of his turban and that his clothes were made of the finest silk that money could buy. His plump hands glittered with rings, all gold and most sporting a gem. After living with a smith for four years, she could also tell the bodyguards’ weapons were very good and bore signs of earnest use.

  “It was unnecessary for you to leave your countinghouse to give me these felicitations,” the duke replied.

  “But I had to express my joy,” replied the man — Rokat, the duke had called him — as he bowed again. “Seeing you is reassurance that the peace and law of your realm will continue to be kept. Seeing you, those of us who shelter in this safe harbor know we need fear no withdrawal of protection.”

  “Is there any reason I would consider such a withdrawal?” inquired the duke, leaning on his saddle horn.

  “Never, your grace,” said the fat man. “Never. I hope to see you again soon. Congratulations on your restored health!”

  He waddled back to Rokat House. One of his guards sprang forward to open the door; the other two closed in swiftly behind him, guarding his back. Only when the quartet had gone inside Rokat House did Sandry feel a relaxing among the soldiers around her.

  “Let us continue,” Duke Vedris announced. The guards who had flanked her and her uncle fell back into their normal formation, and they resumed their ride.

  “Who was that?” Sandry wanted to know.

  “Rokat,” the sergeant growled behind them, and spat.
/>   “Jamar Rokat,” Vedris said, nodding to a maid who was opening a set of shutters nearby. “Head of Rokat House here in Summersea. They hold the monopoly on the myrrh trade and import other items. They behave within my borders, but elsewhere they are little better than pirates. They know I will have none of the killing and thievery they use as common coin, and they dare not lose permission to enter our harbor.”

  “Is this Jamar as bad as the rest of his family?” Sandry wanted to know. There had been something about the fat man’s brown eyes, a nervousness, that made her curious.

  The duke rubbed his shaved head. “When Jamar Rokat was but twenty years old and living in Janaal, he was courting a young girl of great beauty and fortune. Somehow the word got out that the girl’s father was considering another man, one who had offered more gold in the marriage settlement. Jamar entered his rival’s house and with a silk cord strangled the man, his father, and his grandfather. He desired to make the point that competing with any Rokat was a fatal exercise.”

  Sandry shuddered.

  The duke leaned over to pat her knee. “Fortunately, my dear, you need have nothing to do with any of Rokat’s tribe. For that, I am thankful.”

  Pasco leaned forward as Osa rowed his boat around the low wharf that served the fishing village. Ahead of them stretched a broad length of beach on which a few boats had been careened for scraping and repairs. Lanterns glinted from the fishing boats as their owners prepared to sail. More people had gathered on the strand. Under a lantern dangling from a pole, a man sat cross-legged, testing the drum in his lap. A woman stood behind him, playing scales on a wooden flute.

  “Your dad got musicians?” Pasco asked, goosebumps crawling over his back and arms. “For me?” He’ll blame me when it doesn’t work, Pasco thought, panicked. He’ll say I promised I could dance a catch for him, and want me to pay these people!

  “It’s only my uncle and my cousin,” Osa told him patiently. “Calm down. You jump worse than a landed cod.”

  Pasco made a face at his friend. The closer they got to the beach, the more he wished he’d said no when Osa first spoke of doing this.