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Magic Steps, Page 2

Tamora Pierce

  You wanted to be paid for dancing, Pasco thought woefully, his breakfast a lead weight in his belly. Paid like a real dancer, like the ones who dance at festivals and for the duke, instead of just dancing at parties with your cousins and friends. And now it’ll go bad, because you didn’t have the backbone to refuse!

  His mother had said it time after time, “You never think of consequences, Pasco. You just think about right now. One of these days the consequences will take you blind side in an alley, and you’ll wonder how things got so bad.” He pressed his face to his knees shivering.

  Soon enough he felt the scrape of bottom under their keel. Strong hands grabbed the sides of the boat and dragged it up onto the beach.

  “Come on, boy,” a voice told him. Pasco looked up into the flinty eyes of Osa’s grandmother. She wrapped a big-knuckled hand around his arm. “Take off your shoon. You got to learn this net-dance fast if you’re to do it before we sail.”

  Men were working next to the flute player and drummer, laying something on the beach a corner at a time and securing it by staking it down. It was a real net, Pasco saw, one with bigger holes than most fishing nets. Hurriedly he stepped out of his shoes. Men and women left the boats to stand along the edges of the spread net, the lantern light rippling over their faces. They looked grim and forbidding, like statues of stern old gods.

  “Two months ’thout enough fish to cover the deck,” one of them muttered. “This better work.”

  Pasco’s store of courage, never large, shrank even more as he looked at their faces. I’m dead, he thought weakly. I just ain’t bothered to lay down yet.

  “It’s an easy step,” Osa’s grandmother told him. “Look at my feet, boy. I don’t want to go repeating it. See, you dance each square of the net, like so.” She was nimble in spite of her years, her feet tapping lightly on the sand to shape the four corners of a square. She did a light step over — “Next square, right in the middle,” she explained to Pasco — her feet leaving a dent in the sand that would form its center. “Up one row of the net, down the next.” Drummer and flute player were trying a lively tune that made Pasco think of leaping fish. Suddenly he was wide-awake. His feet were already tracing the sand pattern of steps without waiting for his head to decide to do it.

  “Told you it was easy,” the old woman said, watching his feet move. “You ready?”

  He would have said he wasn’t, not yet exactly, but the drummer and the flute player began that catchy tune in earnest, and his body wanted to dance. He stepped lightly into the first square on the net closest to him and marked the corners with his toes, his legs flicking across each other. It was a jig of sorts, and he always liked jigs. He locked his hands behind his back, keeping them firmly out of his way as the drum pounded and the flute trilled.

  Square by square he called the fish, and he felt them answer, their tails flicking through the squares as his feet did. Oddly, his legs and feet were so warm they seemed almost fiery, though the warmth only came as high as his waist. It wasn’t an uncomfortable warmth — if anything, it gave him strength.

  When he finished, he did it by leaping from the last square and coming down, feet together, as light as any wisp of silk. The music stopped. He bowed to Osa’s grandmother, because it seemed like the right thing to do.

  The sound of hands clapping made all of them, Pasco and the fisherfolk, turn. A party of riders had come onto the sand while Pasco was dancing.

  Who was mad enough to be riding at this hour? Pasco wondered. He squinted at them, then gulped. His grace the duke of Emelan and the prettiest lady Pasco had ever seen were applauding him.


  The lady dismounted from her horse and walked over. She was just an inch shorter than Pasco’s own five feet five inches, but the way she held herself, back perfectly straight and head high, made her seem taller. She had a button of a nose, eyes of the brightest blue, and an open, friendly smile.

  Blessed with four older sisters, Pasco took note of the lady’s clothing. The girls would love to know she wore a pair of green breeches with legs so wide that, when she was afoot, she seemed to be wearing skirts. Over that she wore a long, sleeveless tunic in pale green cloth, fastened down the front with a row of tiny buttons shaped like suns. A full-sleeved blouse with green embroidery kept her arms from the cold. A sheer green silk veil was fixed somehow to light brown braids wound about the lady’s head like a crown. She removed one of her tan riding gloves and offered him her bare hand.

  Pasco took it and bowed, feeling a little dazed.

  “You dance very well,” she said with approval. “What is your name, please?”

  Pasco could not reply. Osa’s grandmother said respectfully, “He’s Pasco Acalon, my lady. A friend of my grandson’s.” She dipped a quick curtsy and nudged Pasco with her elbow.

  “Wha—?” he asked, startled, and realized he still had the lady’s hand in his. “I — I’m sorry. I didn’t—” He dropped the small hand as if it had turned to fire.

  “I thought I had seen nearly every kind of magic there is these last four years,” the lady remarked in a friendly voice, “but never magic that was danced. Where did you learn it, Pasco?”

  Now he gaped at her, flustered. “Magic? Me, do magic?” Magic was a thing of schools and books. No proper Acalon did magic. They were harriers. They had always been harriers, or the spouses of harriers, or the parents of harriers. “Oh, no — please, you’re mistaken, my lady. I’m no mage.”

  She met his eyes squarely. “You just danced a magical working, Pasco Acalon. I am never mistaken about such things.”

  “Tell her,” Pasco said pleadingly to Osa’s grandmother. “You know I never had any sparkle of magic, not the tiniest.”

  “That he never did, my lady,” admitted the old woman. “He and my grandson have been friends all their lives. There’s nothing odd about Pasco. Just as ordinary as mud, ’less he starts showing more of a knack for harrier work.”

  “Not quite like mud, Gran,” protested the boy Osa.

  To Pasco’s deep embarrassment, Osa told the lady — and by then, Duke Vedris, who had ridden over to listen — of the other times Pasco had danced for luck, and gotten what he’d danced for. Pasco stared at the sand, wishing he could just leap into one of the fishing boats now being launched.

  When Osa finished, the duke leaned forward in the saddle. “Pasco Acalon — you are related to Macarin and Edoar Acalon?”

  Pasco bowed to Duke Vedris. “My father and my grandfather, your grace.”

  “Then your mother was Zahra Qais before her marriage, and your maternal grandfather is Abbas Qais.” The duke’s quiet voice was soothing. With a smile he added, “Were all my servants as faithful and thorough as the Qaises and the Acalons of the Provost’s Guard, I would be the most fortunate ruler on earth. My dear,” he said to the young lady, “is it possible you are mistaken?”

  “No, Uncle,” the lady replied. She slid cool fingers under Pasco’s chin and forced him to look up, to meet her eyes. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but you do have power. If you didn’t know it, then you need a teacher.”

  “My dear, before you began to rearrange his life, did you introduce yourself to this poor lad?” inquired the duke.

  The lady stared up at him, startled, then started to grin. Quickly she bit on her lip until she was able to look at Pasco with a straight face. Her fingers never so much as twitched from their position under his chin. “I’m sorry. I’m used to everyone already knowing who I am. I’m Lady Sandrilene fa Toren, the duke’s great-niece.”

  Pasco blinked at her for a moment, dazed. It was such a pretty name, as pretty as she was — then his mind began to work again. Sandrilene fa Toren. Any resident of Summersea over the last four years would know that name, and know it well. She was part of a quartet of young mages who had come to live in the temple city of Winding Circle, outside Summersea. First, they had managed to survive an earthquake while trapped underground. They had next destroyed a pirate fleet, then gone to the northe
rn mountains to tame entire forests as they burned. They came back to the coast in time to help end the blue pox plague of 1036. Everyone told stories about them, including tales of the girl who wove bandages with the power to heal and veils that made the wearer as good as invisible. In a world in which mages were as common as architects or jewelers, Lady Sandrilene and her three friends were on their way to becoming great mages, the very best of their kind.

  “Not meaning any disrespect, your ladyship,” Pasco told her earnestly, “but maybe the magic’s in the net. I’d’ve known if I was magic, ’deed I would.” My family would never let me hear the end of it, he thought.

  Her eyebrows, fine gold-brown crescents, rose. “You may not have,” she replied firmly. “I didn’t know until I was ten — just before I came here, in fact. My three friends didn’t know until they came here, either, and Tris was inspected by a magic-finder. Some talents run very deep, Pasco Acalon. I think yours is one.”

  “Your grace!” A boy on a pony galloped onto the sand from the Harbor Road. He’d been riding hard: the pony was covered in sweat as they drew up next to Vedris’s horse. The messenger wore the provost’s colors. “They told me you rode this way,” he gasped. “Captain Qais on dawn watch requests your grace’s attendance at Rokat House, on Harbor Street.”

  Pasco frowned, thinking. This Qais would be his uncle Isman, who was not the man to send a boy out at full gallop without very good reason. Isman was so unflappable that if he were to see a tidal wave roaring down on him, he would blink and order his sergeants to find boats.

  The duke and his great-niece traded looks. “And the nature of the emergency?” the duke asked coolly.

  Perhaps Uncle Isman isn’t the only one who’d take a tidal wave in stride, thought Pasco, envious. That duke don’t startle easy. Me, I’m like this messenger — too excitable.

  “It’s Jamar Rokat, the myrrh trader from Bihan, your grace,” replied the messenger. “He’s been murdered. It’s a terrible sight, begging your grace’s pardon.”

  Again the duke and his great-niece exchanged looks, the girl’s startled, the duke’s level. “Uncle,” said Lady Sandrilene, reaching for the duke’s reins.

  He shook his head at her. “This is something that requires my attention, my dear. You have a problem of your own to solve just now.”

  She frowned up at him. “I suppose so, but—” She looked at Pasco, then back at her great-uncle.

  The duke leaned down to cup her cheek in one hand and spoke too quietly for Pasco to hear. She replied, her voice just as soft; he spoke again. At last — very reluctantly, it seemed to Pasco — she nodded, and stood back. Immediately a man and a woman detached themselves from the squad of guards, moving their horses to stand by hers. They looked at Pasco, Osa, and Grandmother Netmender in a tough, memorizing way that Pasco knew very well. He’d seen it often enough on the faces of his own family: that habit of weighing people they’d met to decide who might be trouble, and who might not.

  “Join me when you have concluded your business here, Sandry,” the duke told her. To the messenger he said, “Come along.” He rode off, the boy and the squad of guards at his heels. A barrel-chested man who sported a sergeant’s twin yellow arrowheads on his sleeve caught Sandry’s eye and nodded to her before he followed the duke.

  Pasco watched them go, thinking of what he’d overheard. Murder at Rokat House was a serious matter. He crossed his fingers and flicked them at the departing riders, sending luck for Uncle Isman in their wake. He would need all the luck he could get, particularly once Summersea’s rich folk heard of the death of one of their own.

  Sandry looked at Pasco thoughtfully as her uncle rode off. There were no two ways about it — something would have to be done with this boy. Untrained magic broke out in uncontrollable ways and could do considerable damage. She’d had that lesson drummed into her head over the past four years. From the glow of magic she’d seen as Pasco danced, his power wasn’t such that it might flare up without warning, but that could change at any moment.

  Sandry was no stranger to the ways of charming, clever boys. This one would bolt the moment he thought he could do so without offending a noble, and he wouldn’t come back unless she did something to make him. Besides, she had the duke to think of. She did not want him putting his hard-won health in danger again, not on his first day outside Duke’s Citadel.

  “Murder at Rokat House,” Pasco murmured. “That’s got a jagged edge to it.” How would Papa look into it? he wondered. Who might have done such a crime? There were all kinds of possibilities, as he knew from listening to the harriers in the family talk about their work. There were all sorts of angles to consider.

  “How so?” asked Sandry. She needed to decide what she could do about the boy right at this moment and what she could put off to another, more convenient time.

  “Only that Rokat House is the biggest importer of myrrh around the Pebbled Sea,” Pasco explained, thinking aloud. Working it out as he’d been taught, he briefly forgot her nobility and her prettiness. “They’re from Bihan, but they’ve houses in every big port. That’s serious coin, and headaches for the harriers—”

  “Harriers?” she interrupted. “What does that mean?”

  “Provost’s Guards are called harriers,” he told her, still trying to remember his lessons on crime. “For the brown leather and the blue shirts they wear. Folk say it’s a bit like some harrier hawks. And the watch-houses, in each district, they’re called coops.”

  Sandry nodded, to show her understanding. This was an aspect of town life that she had never considered.

  “Anyway, they got to get right to the case and catch who done Jamar. Killed him, that is. The other Rokats here in Summersea’ll be on his grace like pods on peas till the murderer’s gathered up. Begging your ladyship’s pardon.” He yawned, and excused himself again. “Not that you need worry. Like as not, they’ll have the killer in a cat’s whisker.”

  Sandry looked at him, amused. “You sound very sure of that.”

  Pasco shrugged. “Mostways, a murderer’s known to the one they killed — that’s what my kinfolk say. Family, a friend. It’s easy enough to track ’em down.”

  “So are you going to take up provost’s work, too?” Sandry inquired.

  The boy grimaced. “Both sides of my family are in it. It’s not like I have a choice.”

  “If you were a mage, you’d have a choice,” Sandry remarked slyly. If she could make learning magic attractive to him …

  Pasco shook his head, his face set. “Lady, you don’t know my family. The only kind of mage they’d want me to be is a harrier-mage, one that tracks blood back to the one that shed it. One that can lay a truth-spell on folk. I never heard of no harrier mages dancing what they do. I never heard of no dancing mages, either, not ever.”

  Sandry fidgeted. She had to catch up to her uncle. Before she could do that, she had to make this boy understand what had happened to him and his need for study. He didn’t seem very convinced. If she could prove he was a mage, though, he would have to give in. “Make a bargain with me,” she suggested.

  “A bargain for what?” he asked warily.

  “I’ll meet you here, tonight, when the boats come in,” she said. “If their catch is better than it’s been in the last month or so, will you agree to talk some more about magic?”

  He shook his head. “And I’m telling you, lady, you’re plain mistook. I’ve got no magic.”

  Sandry frowned. “You say the word like it’s a disease.”

  He bowed. “Beg pardon, lady. I meant no disrespect.”

  “Have we a bargain? We’ll meet here tonight, and we’ll see who has the right of it.” If he’d had any training, he would have felt her magic hooking into his. With an invisible hand she teased out a strand of his power and pulled it to her, attaching it within herself. It was as fine as a single thread of silk, but with it in her grasp, she would always be able to find him. “Pasco, I want to catch up with my uncle,” she said tartly. “Have
we a bargain?”

  He nodded reluctantly.

  Sandry mounted her horse once again. Her guards drew up beside her, looking down at Pasco with level brown eyes. “Until the boats come home, Pasco Acalon,” Sandry told him.

  Again he bowed deeply to her.

  Sandry nodded to her escorts, and turned her mare back toward the city. Once they reached the road, she set off at a smart trot, hoping to find the duke before he got too involved in this murder.

  Pasco watched her ride off, shaking his head. He had little experience with nobles or mages, but he’d never heard of those people behaving as she did. Was she even as pretty as he’d thought, or was it just her bearing, and her dress, and those lovely blue eyes?

  He oughtn’t to meet her back here when the boats came in. Would a lady even know so commonplace a thing as the time a fishing fleet returned? If she didn’t see him that afternoon, she would forget this idea of him and magery. Everyone knew the nobility was flighty, except for Duke Vedris.

  Pasco looked around and found just Osa, napping beside his rowboat. Osa’s father had gone off fishing without paying for the dance.

  So I’ll have to come anyway, to see if they still want to pay me, thought Pasco, wandering over to the sand where he’d danced. Dawn had come: in the sunlight he could see the patterns made by his feet and the rope net.

  Pasco grinned. Suddenly the idea of an Acalon who danced magic was as funny as anything, a joke and a half.

  “I have it,” he told the air and a few seagulls that had landed to pick for clams as the tide went out. “I’ll be a dancing harrier, only ’stead of putting my hand on the lawbreakers, I’ll — I’ll dance ’em into my coop!”

  “Are you done being foolish?” Osa demanded, getting to his feet. “I’ve chores to do yet today. And don’t you have law and baton-fighting lessons?”

  Pasco yelped, and ran to his friend. “No lessons till later,” he told Osa, helping the other boy to push the boat into the water. “But I promised Mama I’d help sort one of the storerooms this morning!”