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The Circle Opens #2: Street Magic: Street Magic - Reissue, Page 2

Tamora Pierce

  It lacked an hour to sunset when he left Golden House and turned his face toward the home he and Rosethorn had rented on the Street of Hares. Traffic was heavy now as people came inside the walls, their workday at an end. Briar dodged camels, mules, and people, briefly touching each plant that reached for him from the ground and from the windows of different houses, giving them some affection before he ordered them back to their pots or trellises. He was still thinking of that street girl.

  His last stop was the small souk near home, to purchase what he needed for supper that night. He’d learned to cook in the four years he’d lived with Rosethorn, her friend Lark, and the three girls, and it was a very good thing. When Rosethorn finished her day’s work here, she could barely think, let alone cook. Briar had taken over the chore completely without comment.

  Once most of his other purchases were made, he stopped at his favorite cookhouse for meat. Trying to choose between roasted chicken or braised mutton, he also decided to do something about the Viper who had followed him from Golden House. He’d already considered losing the other boy — had they no girls at all? — but it was too much like work. Worse, in all likelihood he would be the one to get lost in the mazes of Chammur’s streets.

  He picked the mutton. As the shopkeeper wrapped it, Briar watched the Viper from the corner of his eye. This made no sense. How could the Vipers be so eager to rid themselves of a stranger while the black-and-white-clothed gang strolled through Golden House as if they owned it? For that matter, why hadn’t the black-and-white gang run the Vipers off? Briar had seen at least twice as many of them as there were Vipers. Moreover, his shadow was now on the territory of yet another gang, the Camelguts. Did he think the Camelguts would ignore him?

  Briar knew gangs. Until Niko had transported him to Winding Circle, Briar had lived, bled, and nearly died for his gang. The Vipers weren’t acting according to the rules that governed any gang’s life. To Briar, it was as if the sun had risen in the north. The only reasonable explanation for their behavior was that they might be new as a gang, and looking for victories. The black-and-white gang was too big for them, but a lone foreigner was easy prey.

  The shopkeeper exchanged the wrapped mutton for Briar’s coins, and thanked him for his business. Briar returned the thanks, then strolled out of the neighborhood souk. Should he let the Viper tail him all the way to the house? No — he’d told them to leave him alone. Besides, these Vipers had to learn respect for other gangs.

  He turned back onto the Street of Hares. Up ahead Briar could see three green-sashed Camelgut youths. They were hunkered in front of the Earth temple, pitching coppers against the wall and keeping an eye on their street. As Briar approached, one of them looked up and grinned. It was a boy he knew, Hammit.

  “Hey, pahan,” Hammit called, using the Chammuri word for “mage” or “teacher.” “You do good work.” He pointed to a cheek that was more pink than brown, the last trace of a fearsome burn he’d gotten a week ago. Briar had treated it with healing salve. “You should sell that stuff you gave me, not give it away.”

  Briar crouched beside Hammit, watching the game. “I do sell it,” he replied absently. “I charge rich folk three times my normal price so I can give it to anyone I’ve a mind to. Say, you lot know anything about a gang called Vipers?”

  One of the other Camelgut boys snorted. “They’re no gang,” he said, his voice thick with scorn. “They’re some takameri’s play toy.” It took Briar a moment to identify the word: it was the feminine form of the Chammuri for “money person,” or rich person.

  “So they go where they want?” Briar asked, all innocence. “They needn’t respect Camelgut territory? Because one followed me from the souk. He’s back by Cedar Lane.”

  Three pairs of eyes flicked in that direction: the Viper had stopped by the Cedar Lane fountain and was splashing water on his face, pretending to ignore Briar. Camelgut hands collected their coppers and tucked them into green sashes. Without another word the three rose and trotted down to Cedar Lane. The Viper was still pretending he wasn’t interested in Briar. The Camelguts were on him before he realized who they were.

  Briar smiled grimly and straightened. He’d given his salve to Hammit because he’d known that burn would rot without care. In doing so, it seemed he’d bought himself a bit of insurance as well. Whistling, he walked past the Earth temple gate and turned into the house next door.

  Overhead, Evumeimei Dingzai, useless daughter and runaway slave, watched as the jade-eyed boy she had followed from Golden House went home. She was interested to see he knew three Camelguts well enough to call on them to rid him of his Viper shadow. Still, he couldn’t be that clever. He’s never once looked up at the rooftops, or he might have seen that she, too, followed him.

  That, more than even his accent, said he was an eknub, a foreigner. Everyone in Chammur knew there were two sets of streets, one on the ground, one over the flat roofs where many houses and buildings were snugged against each other. On these streets, ladders were set to reach higher rooftops, and the bridges jumped streets on the ground. Anyone who was not clearly a thief or an outsider could use the roof paths and did: no nasty-tempered camels and mules up here, no chair-bearers and lords on horseback.

  Evvy knew the higher streets like she knew the cliff warrens where she lived, in Chammur Oldtown. She was accepted here, rags and all, as long as she kept moving and took nothing. Dogs might watch until she was gone, women might keep an eye on her as they worked their tiny gardens or hung up their washing, but they were used to all kinds of people up here.

  She crouched, staring at the small house beside the foreign temple. Who was the jade-eyed boy? Why did he ask about magic? If she’d had any, her parents would not have sold her to a Chammuran innkeeper before continuing west. If she were a mage, she wouldn’t have to live in Princes’ Heights as a street rat who scraped to feed herself and her cats.

  Her cats! Evvy sighed. Without coppers from Nahim today, she couldn’t buy dried fish for them as she’d planned. She’d better get back to Oldtown. If she had enough time before dark, she might be able to catch some lizards on the rocks atop the Heights. That would satisfy the cats at least, and she could eat bread she’d hidden away.

  Below her the Camelguts were pounding the lone Viper. The jade-eyed boy had a mean streak, it seemed, setting them against the Viper like that. Crazy eknub, Evvy thought. Don’t go pawing at my life! Straightening, she trotted down the rooftop road.

  In the cool hours of the evening, Lady Zenadia doa Attaneh reclined on the sofa that was placed for her comfort in her garden. She was the picture of a Chammuran noblewoman in wide skirts, head veil, and draped sari, all made of expensive maroon silk embroidered in gold at the hems. Her short gold blouse, baring a midriff as lean and supple in her fifties as it had been when she was a girl, was hemmed with teardrop-shaped pearls, its neckline and sleeves with tiny seed pearls. Obedient to custom, she wore a silk veil before her male guests, but the gold fabric was so sheer that her gold nose ring and the fine gold chain that hung between it and her earring were visible, as was her crimson lip paint. The veil only covered her nose and the lower part of her face, leaving her large, dark eyes with their strong black brows bare. Between her eyes glimmered the unfaceted emerald that marked her status as a widow.

  As if they had been placed to form the rudest possible contrast to her elegance, the Vipers who had talked to Briar in the souk knelt three feet from her couch, palms and foreheads pressed to the blue patio tiles. The rough shirts and breeches that she had bought for them were clean — no one went dirty into her presence — but cloth and make were no better than what she gave to her lowliest servants. Only brass nose rings, with a garnet drop hanging from them, set them apart from rag peddlers and camel drovers. The boys had told her about the foreign lad who had marked a street girl as a mage, then turned into trouble for the youth who had followed him. Now they awaited the lady’s verdict.

  “I have no interest in eknub pahans,” she commented
at last, staring into the distance. Her voice was deep and musical, almost hypnotic in its effect on her guests. “They are troublesome, and they are not of Chammur. They are beneath my attention. But he told this girl she might have stone magic?”

  The tallest Viper, the lean, brown-skinned youth who was their tesku, or leader, looked up from the tiles. He was the one who had told Briar that he looked and moved like a thief. His eyes were fixed on the lady, as if she were his sun. “He asked her how her magic made the stones light up, Lady,” he repeated. “He wanted to know if she called on the power in the stones, or if she just put a charm on them.”

  The lady turned her large eyes on him and smiled. “You may approach me, Ikrum Fazhal,” she said. The thin tesku crawled forward until she placed a gentle hand on his dark hair. “You were wise to report this to me. A Chammuran pahan is always useful, but a street child from Oldtown, new to her power, and that power with stones — such a pahan has, umm,” she hummed, “unique possibilities. She would be grateful to those who took her in, would she not? You need not answer,” she added when Ikrum opened his mouth. “Tell my Vipers to watch for this child, and to bring her to me when she is found.”

  She lifted her hand from Ikrum’s head; he promptly crawled back to join the other two. It had taken painful training, but now all the Vipers who were permitted into her presence knew exactly what her unspoken signals meant, and obeyed them.

  “As for these others, the ones who assaulted our Sajiv —” The lady flipped her fingers at the third Viper, a lean, brown youth with tightly curled black hair.

  “Camelguts,” he muttered. His nose bled sluggishly: they had torn out his ring and garnet drop.

  “Dreadful word,” the lady said with disgust. “What is their strength?’

  “Twenty-six boys and girls,” Ikrum said promptly.

  The lady inspected the patterns that had been drawn in henna on her palms. “Fewer than the Gate Lords,” she murmured, naming the gang who controlled the streets between the Hajra Gate and Golden House, the ones whose colors were black and white. “Fewer, and poorer.” She looked up at her guests. “They must learn respect for my Vipers. I have obtained enough weapons for you at last. Armsmaster Ubayid —” She raised a finger. An older man standing in the shadows by the gallery approached and bowed to her. “You will present my Vipers with weapons, those, those blackjacks. Instruct them in their proper use.” Ubayid bowed to her again. To the boys the lady said, “Once you have taught the other Vipers the use of blackjacks, you will enter Camelgut” — she wrinkled her nose — “territory by stealth. Separate these upstarts from their gang one or two at a time. Take them coming and going from their homes, when they will not be with a group. Deal with them harshly, and leave them where they will be found. Try not to be seen. The less people know, the more they will fear. Am I understood?”

  The Vipers nodded vigorously.

  The lady smiled at them. “When you judge the Camelguts to be on the brink of collapse, offer to admit them to the Vipers.” The kneeling youths stirred, on the verge of protest. She touched her forefinger to her lips over the veil. “You have said the Gate Lords possess the advantage of numbers. Here is a way to increase yours. Of course, the newcomers must prove their loyalty before they can be fully accepted into your ranks.” She looked them over. “You will have to trust me. I understand these things as you do not. Now. Ubayid, before you give them weapons or lessons, feed my hardworking boys,” she ordered. “Not too much, of course. Information is precious, but not as precious as victories.” She dismissed them and her armsmaster with a flick of the hand.

  Once they were gone, the lady considered her next move. Until now she hadn’t known how to give her pet gang confidence: the Gate Lords, who controlled the territory she and Ikrum wanted the Vipers to control, were too many, and too well equipped. Taking apart a smaller, poorer gang might serve her very well. Why had she not considered something like this before?

  The city would learn respect for her gang, and learn it well. After all, disrespect to a Viper was disrespect to her, and that she would never permit.


  The house where Briar and Rosethorn currently lived was clean and bright, with potted plants everywhere. They set up a welcoming chorus to Briar, reaching for him. As always when he came in, he made the circuit of the first floor, greeting each in the front room, dining room, kitchen, and rear courtyard. If he forgot any one of them, the plants would droop until reassured of his affection.

  Once they were calm, Briar sent his power through the house. Rosethorn wasn’t on the second floor, where their workroom and bedrooms were. All he felt there was the magic embedded in the tools, plants, and medicines in the workroom, and the varying blazes that marked his miniature trees. Briar quested past that and found the banked, steady fire that was Rosethorn on the roof.

  Like most Chammuri houses, this one had a staircase that led to the roof from the second floor. The other houses Briar had visited in Chammur were the same: it was as if the roofs were as much a part of the house as the kitchen, something he found odd. He climbed up and out into the waning afternoon light with the voiceless song of happy plants vibrating in his skull.

  Their roof was almost solid green: tubs and pots filled with the plants Rosethorn thought would help local farms covered every inch of space. All were in different stages of growth regardless of the season, magically encouraged to sprout, flower, and fade over a matter of days while Rosethorn harvested seed for the locals to use.

  Rosethorn herself sat on a bench, carefully writing on a slate. She was a broad-shouldered woman in a long-sleeved dark green habit, the emblem of her dedication to the earth and its gods. Her large brown eyes were fixed on her slate. Briar saw she had already been to the Earth temple baths: her chestnut hair, worn mannishly short, was dark against her skull, the strict part white against her wet hair. Her creamy skin bore just a trace of gilt from a summer’s work and travel — she was vain of her ivory complexion, employing hats and various lotions to keep it from going to leather as farmers’ skin did. Though she was now two inches shorter than he was, Briar always thought of her as towering over him. She still did, in learning and power.

  “Tell these weeds to calm down, why don’t you?” Briar asked Rosethorn in their native language, Imperial, rubbing his ears. “You think they’d be used to us by now.”

  “They can’t help it,” Rosethorn informed him absently in the same language, reviewing her notes. Her speech was a little slurred, one result of her illness four years before. She had died of it, but Briar and his foster-sisters had called her back to life. The precious minutes she had been dead left their mark: a clumsy tongue, and a slight tremor in her hands. “And when we pump them up to rush them through their growing, it makes them talk more.” Nevertheless she sent out her magic like a calming bath, soothing the greenery around them until it quieted.

  “How were those western farms?” Briar wanted to know as he sat on the waist-high wall that fenced the roof. “Weren’t you going out there today?” Word that a famed green mage had come to Chammur had spread like wildfire in the days after their arrival, bringing group after group of farmers to see Rosethorn. They needed serious help: their harvests had been shrinking every year. Rosethorn had gone out every day to inspect different fields.

  “Desperate,” she told Briar now, her red mouth twisted wryly. “As desperate as the eastern and southern ones. Everyone says I needn’t bother with the northerners — they’ve been growing rocks for three generations.” She rubbed a note out with her sleeve and carefully chalked something else in its place. “How was the Water temple?”

  “Finished. Stocked up for a year at least, with plenty extra. All their medicines are at more than full strength. I told you I could do it in a month. Say, Rosethorn —”


  “Stone mages are common, right?” Briar asked, stroking the fleshy leaves of an aloe vera plant beside him. “You know, ones that magic crystals and jewels and things.” />
  “Stone magic is common, yes,” she replied. “Most mages deal with spells for stones at some point. Are you asking if there are stone mages like we’re plant mages?”

  Briar nodded.

  Rosethorn considered. “Yes, there are more whose power comes from stones than there are other kinds of ambient mage.”

  Briar scratched his head. He knew that word “ambient.” “Oh, right — mages that work with the magic that’s already in things.”

  Rosethorn looked up at him, her large, dark brown eyes sharp, her mouth curled with wry amusement. “Don’t go playing the country bumpkin, my buck. You know very well what ‘ambient’ means.”

  How could he explain he’d been thinking like a street rat, after talking to the Vipers and Camelguts? Even now, after four years of regular meals, affection, and education, he sometimes felt as if his head were split in two. Magic and the Living Circle temples didn’t exactly mesh with a life in which meals were stolen and mistakes were paid for with maiming and death.

  “And academics?” he asked. There was no sense in talking about gangs to Rosethorn. She had no interest in that life, having never lived it, and she worried when he ventured too close to his old ways. “They do spells with rocks?”

  Rosethorn tapped her slate with her chalk. “Like the spells I taught you for use with jade and malachite. Stones are the best objects to hold and store power. Are you wondering about someone who can work magic over a stone, or use what’s in the stone?”

  Briar shrugged and wrestled his boots off. Once he’d peeled away both footgear and stockings, he told her about the girl Evvy and what he’d seen.

  Rosethorn put her slate aside. “You’d better hope there is an ambient stone mage in Chammur,” she remarked when he was done. “I know one lives in the amir’s palace. Well, they’d have to have at least one, wouldn’t they?”