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.