Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Briar's Book

Tamora Pierce






  To James and Claire,

  who went on ahead far too soon,

  and to Peter and Bob,

  who had to stay behind



  Title Page


  Map of Summersea















  The Circle of Magic Books




  Briar Moss knew he was only dreaming, but he didn’t care. He sat in a giant oak tree, the heart of a great forest. A leather bag brimming with emeralds filled his lap, and the oak whispered the secrets of trees into his ears. He was running the gems through his fingers, admiring their color and size, when they evaporated. The tree vanished. Now two large, unkind-looking men in black leather hustled him down a wet, dark corridor. They shoved him into an open cell and slammed the thick door behind him. It boomed so loudly that it set up a string of echoes, each as loud as the first.

  He opened his eyes. He was in the back of a wagon, tucked among an assortment of parcels and covered against the day’s cold drizzle by an oiled canvas sheet. Something boomed repeatedly, like the cell door in his dream.

  He thrust up the canvas to glare at the rider who kicked the wagon with such determination. “Leave off, Sandry!” he growled. “I was having the best dream ever and you woke me!”

  Lady Sandrilene fa Toren, a girl of Briar’s age, shrugged. The movement sent droplets rolling from her waterproof cloak and broad-brimmed hat. “Sorry.” There was no trace of sorrow in her bright blue eyes.

  “What’s so important it couldn’t wait, then?” Briar demanded. There was no use scolding her. Hard words rolled off Sandry the way rain poured off her cloak.

  “I’ve been thinking,” she said firmly. “Tris has a birthday—Daja has a birthday.” She had named the other girls who lived with her and Briar. “I have one. That leaves you.”

  “You woke me to talk about birthdays?” he yelped.

  “You said you don’t remember yours—”

  “I don’t!”

  “So pick one,” Sandry ordered him. “It’s not right, you having no birthday.”

  “I don’t need one. What I need is sleep! Summer’s coming, and that means weeding. I got to rest whilst I can, and you ain’t helping.”

  She sighed sharply. Her pony looked at Briar with reproach in his eye, as though it were Briar’s fault that Sandry bounced impatiently in the saddle. “Tell me you’ll think about it, or I’ll keep bothering you,” the girl insisted.

  She would, too. Sandry’s determination awed Briar, though he would die rather than tell her that.

  “I’ll think about it,” he said wearily. “Can I sleep now?”

  “Why? We’re almost to the Mire. I’ll see you at home tonight.” She clucked to her pony and trotted down the road.

  Briar let the canvas drape fall and settled among the boxes and bundles. Birthdays! he thought. Only a girl-noble would think the day you came into the world was a thing to celebrate. His mother had certainly never mentioned it, that he could remember. Of course, he could just manage to remember her, a woman whose skin was as golden brown and hair as glossy black as his. She had smelled of cheap rose scent, and someone had knifed her one night as she came home from the inn where she worked. Briar thought he’d been about four then.

  Memories like that were pointless. It was better to deal with his housemate: if Sandry wanted him to have a birthday, he’d better pick one and get it over with.

  Briar yawned and shut his gray-green eyes. He wouldn’t choose a birthday in this month, that was certain. Even for Sap Moon, the weather was vile. Gusting winds tugged at Briar’s cover. Icy rain pelted the cloth. Everyone who had pinned their hopes on an early spring now drooped as they went about their days. His birthday ought to be in a green month. That way he could plead garden chores to cut short any sloppy, sentimental parties like the one they’d had for Tris soon after the turning of the year.

  The wagon’s wheels lurched; its movement changed, making him slide across the many baskets and boxes that formed his seat. Briar went to the side of the wagon and peered out from under the drape. They had turned off Temple Road, the highway that ran between Summersea and the temple community of Winding Circle, where Briar, Sandry, and their housemates lived. Now the wagon clattered down Nosegay Strut, the main street of the slum called the Mire. Ahead Briar could see their destination, the large, forbidding, two-story building called Urda’s House, where the city’s poor came for the cheapest possible medical help. He wished that his teacher, the Earth Temple dedicate Rosethorn, didn’t come here, but she took her vows to serve the poor seriously. He’d only once suggested that they stop bringing the medicines they made to this place. After she’d finished her answer, he decided never to bring it up again.

  And why is it, he thought irritably, that every time we come here it’s raining?

  The wagon passed through the gate in the tall fence around Urda’s House and stopped. Briar stood and began to fold back the canvas drape. As he did, he looked out through the gate, across the street. That winter he’d made friends with a girl named Flick, a thief of the breed called “street rat.” Every market day that Briar came to Urda’s House with Rosethorn, Flick met him there. Together they would roam Summersea, getting into things and swapping tales of Flick’s days and Briar’s life when he’d been a street rat in distant Hajra. Today, though, he saw no Flick, only a trio of street rats he knew to be friends of hers.

  He hoped she wasn’t in jail. He really liked Flick.

  A woman in the dark green cloak and habit of one who had dedicated her life to the service of the earth-gods climbed down from the seat beside the driver of the cart. She thrust back the hood of her cloak to reveal a head of chestnut hair cropped mannishly short and parted on one side. Her face was lovely, with large, brown eyes, creamy skin, and a beautifully carved mouth. Briar had once thought she was her name, as pretty as a rose, as quick to bite as a thorn, before he’d scolded himself for romancing and shoved the notion out of his brain. Whatever else he thought, Rosethorn was a plant-mage, his teacher in the gardener’s and herbalist’s arts.

  “Look alive, boy,” she advised him crisply, coming to stand next to the bed of the wagon. “Those medicines won’t do any good if they’re wet.”

  “They ain’t wet,” he argued. “I wrapped ’em good.” He handed one covered bushel basket out to her and another to the wagon’s driver, who had come to help.

  “Every time we bring you down here, all we’ve drummed into that thick skull on proper speech just gets buried in the mud,” Rosethorn commented, shaking her head. “Stay up there—we’ll do the carrying.” She followed the driver up the steps to the wide porch and into the hospital.

  It took three trips for the two adults to carry everything inside. Once that was done, Rosethorn took a final basket from the cart and thanked the driver. Briar hopped out. With a nod to the dedicate, the driver climbed onto his seat and drove away.

  Rosethorn looked at Briar. “You’re off to see that friend of yours?”

  “If I can find her,” replied Briar. “I didn’t see her waiting.”

  Rosethorn pointed to a tower crowned by an immense clock, visible over the wall that kept city and Mire separate. “Meet me at the Guildhall at three o’clock,” she told him firmly. “If you aren’t there—”

u’ll hang me in the well,” Briar said with a grin; it was a much-repeated threat.

  “And don’t stand here getting wet,” she ordered. Shaking her head, Rosethorn walked into Urda’s House. Briar crossed the street, inspecting the street rats as they shivered in the icy wind. Two walked away, flicking their fingers at him in a casual wave. The third nodded.

  Briar squinted. “Flick never told me your name.”

  “Alleypup.” The other boy—smaller, dark-skinned and dark-eyed, dressed in tatters—shifted from foot to foot. He wore no shoes, only muddy rags wrapped around his feet. “Flick said I was t’ bring ya.”

  “Bring me where?” Briar asked suspiciously.

  “To her den, down below. She don’t look so good.”

  “Don’t look so good how?” Briar felt his own arms as if he warmed them. In truth he was checking that the hideout knives strapped to his wrists were in place, hilts set so he could free them quickly. There were other blades in sheaths all over his body, but the wrist knives were the quickest to reach.

  Alleypup sighed. “She’s got spots. You know, like she’s sick. And she’s got no coin for Urda. She asked, would you come have a look.”

  “Me?” Briar demanded, shocked. “I grow things—I’m no healer!”

  “Flick told me, you seen sick folk before. You help Dedicate Rosethorn do up medicines and things. ’Course, if it’s too much trouble—” Alleypup turned away.

  Briar grabbed the street rat and glared at him. “I never said I wouldn’t. I was just surprised, is all. Where’s Flick?”

  Alleypup led Briar into an open cellar and under some lumber that leaned against its stones. Here was an open tunnel underground. A few steps inside brought them to a niche in the wall. The street rats had put oil lamps there.

  “I don’t s’pose you’d light these up?” asked Alleypup. “You bein’ a mage and all.”

  “You want my mate Tris for that,” Briar informed the other boy. In the language of the streets, a mate was the closest of friends. “Or Daja, that’s back at Winding Circle. I can’t do fire.”

  “Hmph,” snorted Alleypup. “That’s no help.” He fumbled in his pocket and produced flint and steel to light the wick.

  Briar’s thin-bladed nose twitched as the reek of hot animal fat filled the air. He’d forgotten that scent—at home in the temple city of Winding Circle they used oil treated with herbs. The dog work of filling jars with oil and chopping herbs into them was his least favorite chore, but now it seemed the chore was worth some trouble.

  And ain’t I getting nice over such things in my elderliness! he thought as he followed Alleypup down the tunnel.

  They crawled for about sixty yards. Splashing through a trickle of wet, Briar wondered how Rosethorn would react when he returned with mucky clothes. She was all too likely to dump him into a horse trough and keep him there until he was clean. Rosethorn liked dung as much as any gardener or plant, but she had strong feelings about it when it was on Briar. He was all too aware that this sense of being dirty marked another change in his life since he’d left the Hajran slums. Was he ever himself anymore?

  His sense of direction told him they were headed west, under the wall that guarded Summersea proper. The network of clay pipes here sported cracks and leaks, the most recent damage from last summer’s earthquake.

  “Flick says you was street,” his guide remarked, stopping for a quick rest.

  “In Deadman’s District in Hajra, in Sotat,” Briar replied. “They called me Roach. I did purse and pocket work and burgled some.”

  Alleypup whistled softly. Thieves were important people—they had money once they’d managed to feed themselves. “How old were you?”

  “Four.” Briar stepped around what looked like a long-dead dog. “The Thief-Lord took me in after a while and gave me my name.”

  “The streets from four—that’s harsh,” Alleypup said, and coughed. Leaning away from Briar, he spat into the deeper running water of the city sewers. “My mum and dad only loped off two winters back. Said I was too hard to raise.”

  Briar slipped and had to brace himself against the walls around him to get his balance. Think I’ll boil my hands afore I eat again, he thought. To Alleypup he said, “I never knew any but my ma, that died. Now I guess my mates at Winding Circle, the girls, they’re like sisters. They’re complicated, though.”

  “Mages is always complicated,” Alleypup commented. They had come to an intersection. He looked both ways, then led Briar right, into a larger tunnel. “We been hearing stories about you and them three girls since the quake.”

  They splashed on in silence for a while. The pipes got big enough that they could walk if they didn’t mind hunching over and getting their heads knocked from time to time. These pipes were glazed clay, better in quality than the smaller ones, though Briar still noticed quake damage. Some of it had been repaired, the newer clay lighter in color than the old stuff.

  Once they’d stopped for another rest—Briar noticed that Alleypup wheezed a great deal—the other boy remarked, “Flick says you was a jailbird.”

  “Have a look.” Briar held both hands close to the lamp to let Alleypup see the dark blue X’s tattooed between his forefingers and thumbs. “They grabbed me up a third time, and I was on my way to the docks,” he said with pride. “But Niko—a teacher of mine—he saw my magic and bought me off the magistrate.”

  “Never!” whispered Alleypup, startled.

  Briar nodded. “Truth. He brung me to Winding Circle. I ended up in a house with three girls because he saw the magic in all of us.”

  “Nobody saw you was magic before?” Alleypup inquired. “All the time you hear about this kid and that one gets fingered by a magic-sniffer and bundled off for lessoning.” Kid was street slang for a child. “And they’re usually real little kids.”

  “Mine was strange,” Briar replied with a shrug. “So was my mates’ magics. We didn’t even know we had it, till Niko and Lark and Rosethorn and Frostpine started teaching us. Lark and Rosethorn boss the house we live in. Frostpine’s—”

  “Metal-mage,” said Alleypup. “Everyone knows him and Lark and Rosethorn.” He straightened and led the way again.

  At last they entered the great tunnels under the oldest parts of the city. More care and attention went into these underground rivers and streets, in part because the network was centuries old, but also because the guilds, the wealthy merchants, and those nobles who kept houses in town lived overhead. Here Briar was glad to see walkways on both sides of the stone-or brick-lined canals. There were rats, of course; the stink made his head spin; and often they had to race by pipes about to dump sewage into the water, but at least they weren’t rubbing narrow walls covered with goo. These tunnels were built to last; what little earthquake damage they had suffered had been repaired with new brick and stone.

  Not far from the point where they had entered the biggest tunnels, Alleypup turned into a lesser one. Ten yards down its length the street rats had yanked out bricks and dug into the earth, shaping a cave deep and broad enough to sleep a small gang. A lamp burned in a niche, casting a wavering glow over a pile of rags at the rear of the cave.

  “It’s me.” Alleypup set his lamp on a ledge by the entrance. “I brung him.”

  The girl who lay on the pile of rags sat up, peering at them. “Briar?”

  He walked over and knelt beside his friend. Except for a ragged belly-wrap of some pale cloth, Flick was naked. Her skin, normally deep brown, was covered with even darker spots and blotches from hairline to toes. Some on her left shin had merged into welts; they looked stretched and painful. Her lips cracked and bled; her eyes were glassy with fever. Heat rose from her to press Briar’s face.

  Flick struggled to smile. “Ain’t I a sight?” She stretched out her hand, palm-up; Briar stroked it with his free hand. They locked their fingers together, twisted them, and tugged free in a traditional street-rat’s greeting.

  “You’re something, all right,” Briar admitted.

/>   “I ain’t never seen nothing like this—like these spots. Did you?” she asked.

  Briar shook his head. “Open your mouth?”

  She obeyed. Briar peered in, but the light was too chancy. “Alleypup, hold the lamp close.”

  The boy obeyed. Now Briar saw that Flick’s tongue was covered with a dense, pale coat. He could even see blue spots on the inside of her cheeks.

  “Close up,” he told her. “Lemme see your back.” Obediently Flick turned onto her side. The spots were as thick on the back of her body as on the front. Asking permission and getting it, Briar lifted the band on her belly-wrap. The spots continued on the girl’s hips and bottom. “You can lay flat again,” he said when he was done. As Flick turned, he backed up until he was on level ground. There he sat on his heels, arms wrapped around his knees, to think.

  For an apprentice maker of medicines, as Briar was now, his old life in Deadman’s District had been useful. There he’d seen all manner of sickness and injury. Now he ran through those he had witnessed close up. Smallpox and all the other poxes were old enemies, as was the black death. They looked nothing like what riddled Flick’s skin.

  He looked at his friend. “How long’ve you been sick?”

  She counted fingers, her lips moving. “Two days with spots. I wasn’t feeling right three days before.”

  “Anybody else got it?” Briar asked.

  Flick looked at Alleypup, who shook his head. “None as we know,” Flick said. She didn’t have to add, “Not yet.” All of them knew that most speckled diseases were catching.

  Briar stood. “I don’t know what this is,” he told them. “I got to get Rosethorn down here.” When their eyes went wide, he shook his head. “She hasta see for herself.” He looked at Flick. “There’s a closer route in, ain’t there? If she came through the city, she could climb straight down to here?”

  “You got to go to Urda’s House anyway to tell her,” Alleypup pointed out. “And they won’t let me bring her through town. We’ll get stopped at the gate.” He pointed to his clothes, streaked with fresh muck.