by Lindsey Duncan
“No. They couldn’t have.” Taris stared at the wreckage, hoping the shadows of the palace cellar had deceived her. The small derelicts could be soup bowls or ribs from a game animal – or human bones? She shivered, hesitating by barrels of pickled pork.
Kiry blew out a breath, dislodging a blonde curl. “There’s only one way to find out.” She peered up at Taris – way up. Taris had always towered over the other Hoppers, even the boys, and at eleven, Kiry had yet to reach her full height. Taris had long ago resigned herself she would never grow into her limbs or nose, but the others could still make her feel like a giant.
Taris frowned. “Wait for -”
Kiry vanished, leaving a faint after-image of herself before she materialized on the fringe of the pile. Something cracked. She froze as the guard on patrol turned his head.
Taris saw and acted in the same thought. She Hopped to Kiry, grabbed her arm, got a visual on the other side of the heap, and Hopped again, fast as a breath. Her body thrummed as if bells pealed inside her veins. Even as she glowed from the giddy sensation, she tensed in readiness for a longer jump. What she wanted to do was confront the Marian, beat him for the sake of her city and her family – but that wouldn’t help her mission.
The guard peered in their direction without seeing, then snorted and moved on. Taris let out a shaky breath and squeezed Kiry’s shoulder.
“Better no one knows we were here,” Taris said. She turned her attention to the scattered pieces of wood, bone and hide, lifting one for inspection. The curve fit into her hand with haunting familiarity: the severed neck of a violin. The recognition came like physical pain. She would never be a musician – the last thing she had learned from her tutor was she had no talent – but she respected the instrument.
Kiry picked up half of a wood flute. “They didn’t just take the instruments,” she said. “They destroyed them. How are we going to dance the Silver Tree this year?”
Taris chuckled wearily. “Not on the beat.” She crouched, hunting for the rest of the violin. She tried not to feel the failure burning her fingers.
“Do you think the Marians are afraid of us?”
“I don’t know.” Taris found a broken drum, rubbed the soft hide. “They conquered our city almost without a fight. They don’t believe in the powers of the Tree – they say – but why take our instruments, except to muffle our prayers? To muffle us?”
The Silver Tree was the heart of the free port of Abeul, the source of its magic. The inexplicable fell in drifting leaves and seeds, sprouting where it would. Once a year, its inhabitants celebrated that power with a dance around the Tree … and once a year, the Tree granted wishes.
Who knew how it heard. Some people thought the dancers awakened a spirit deep within the bark and moved her to join in. Other people thought it was the collective vibrations entering the wood. But everyone agreed it worked … and this time, it had to.
Taris felt her fingers vising in frustration. “Search the pile,” she said. “We might find a few whole ones to bring back. A handful of instruments is better than none. When the Dancing Day arrives, the Marians will find that no matter how they’ve silenced us, our hearts are loud enough to bring the whole Tree down on their heads.”
“Denia said we shouldn’t linger,” Kiry said. “Said the Marians might know about us. Doesn’t the fact they broke the instruments -”
Taris cut her off. “All that shows is they’re brutes. We knew that. Some of us -” She swallowed. She had known the Marians were villains for five years longer than anyone in Abeul. She had made her longest Hop that day, three hundred miles from the capital of Marin to her bed at home. She had been unable to reverse it, for all her clawing, scratching, and screaming … no way to get back to her family.
“If they knew,” she continued, “they would have set a trap.”
“What kind of trap can catch a Hopper?” Kiry asked, snickering. “Not even their flying powder would do any good.”
A year ago, Taris would have laughed with her. Now, almost nineteen, she felt older and wiser – mostly older. “I’d rather not find out.”
They explored the grim musical graveyard. Taris remained alert, halting them whenever a sentry drew near. She salvaged two pieces of a dulcimer and hoped Denia knew someone to reassemble it.
“Let’s go,” she said.
They hopped together into Denia’s front room. Once, she had been a singer for the court. Though diminished in fortune since, her home was spacious and flooded with light. The scent of cinnamon tea filled Taris’ lungs and made her instantly more at peace with the world. It foretold Denia’s presence and made her heart quicken.
“Welcome back,” Denia said, wandering in from the kitchen. Flour clung to wavy hair the color of the sea at midnight. Her voice kept a cadence, pitched like a familiar tune. “You took longer than I expected.”
“Had to.” Taris held out the dulcimer. “Can you do anything with this?” It was hard not to stare at Denia, to memorize her precise, fluid movements. All the children wanted to please her; even Taris had started that way before it had grown into something more.
“That is not worth the risk. You could lose your powers at any moment.” Denia’s voice was gentle despite its reproof, grey eyes concerned.
“I feel fine,” Taris said.
“She looks fine,” Kiry chirped.
“As did I, until the moment before I tried to Hop – and it failed me.” When Denia’s gift departed, what came in its place was the ability to sense the movements of other Hoppers. That made her ideally qualified for shepherding their little band. “You need to be careful, Taris.”
“I need to see the Marians leave.” She swallowed down the emotion in her voice.
“It was not the Marian civilization who killed your parents,” Denia said. “It was Marian individuals – people with flaws, who live in every nation.”
Kiry fidgeted, oblivious to the content of the dialogue. “Can I go?”
The girl flickered and disappeared. Taris felt a rush of desperation, the need to impress her mentor and somehow be seen as more than a student. The desire kept being pushed aside by the Marian conquest, the needs of the moment – and now, the pain that took over her mouth and forced her to argue.
“Are you saying the Marians are fine, then?” she said. “They can have Abeul, without a hand raised against them?”
“I’m not saying that,” Denia replied. It seemed as if she would take Taris’ arm, but then she hesitated, as if afraid to touch her. “I’m sorry. I don’t know if I could endure what you saw – and what you had to imagine. But I’m worried your anger will get in the way of what we have to do, and I need you.” Denia’s eyes lifted, too wide, trying to imprint their meaning.
A wave of heat passed through Taris. She looked away to hide her blush.
Denia cleared her throat, an awkward sound. Had she noticed? “I need you to keep the children safe,” she said. “I don’t like involving the Hoppers – especially the youngest ones – but I don’t see another way.”
“They come first,” Taris promised. “But what can we do without music?”
“Without instruments,” Denia corrected. “When I was young, before I sang professionally, my grandmother taught me the ballads and pub songs of her homeland. She also taught me something called mouth music: marches and reels sung strong and clear so one could dance to them.” A shadow of a smile crossed her lips. “We are not the only ones who have been denied our instruments.
“I know only a handful of these tunes, but I can adapt Abeulan music to the form with vocables – nonsense syllables,” she explained. “If we can get a few dozen people to learn a couple tunes each – it won’t have the power of instruments, but it could hold us together.”
“Why not as many people as possible?” Taris asked.
“They’re not easy to learn,” Denia said. “People imagine they understand rhythm until they have to produce it with nothing more than their voices. It would be better to work closely with a small number of people.”
“Teach me,” Taris said. “I understand theory, at least – I know about tempo and time signature . . .” she trailed off, expecting Denia to tell her she was needed elsewhere, and having no reason to learn other than contact with her mentor.
But Denia smiled, warm like a tide pool. “It would be my pleasure.”
Two hours later, Taris Hopped to an alley three streets away and walked out into the cool sunset air. The Marians had set a curfew of last light and dictated – with lethal precision – how much color had to be present in the sky to qualify, but she could disappear if she needed to. She enjoyed walking and viewed it as practice for the days when she would have no other choice.
She tipped her head back and gazed at the distant canopy of the Silver Tree – not overhead in this fringe district of Abeul. The white and grey leaves were tipped with scarlet fire, anticipating the autumn that would come swiftly after the Dancing Day.
She tucked her hands in her pockets as she walked. She saw the silhouette of a selkie statue ahead and shuddered, but did not detour: she needed the reminder. She passed shattered windows and darkened buildings, put out of business by Marian pillaging. The army had a quota which every soldier was entitled to obtain, without restrictions or suggestion of mercy. Complaints were useless.
Six rusted stakes barred the south exit of the courtyard, the final resting place of a corps of severed heads. Male, female, old, young, most natives but one redheaded foreigner – indistinguishable now as heat and decay mashed them together. A message to the people of Abeul that whoever they had been, it didn’t matter. They were subjects of Marin now.
Taris choked as the stench hit. When the heads were first erected, the nearest merchants purchased perfume to smother the odor – anything to maintain business, practical Abeuli philosophy held. One business closed, another moved, and the third simply gave up … and now the cloying citrus perfume meshed with, rather than masked, the tang of decomposition – a combination worse than either separately.
Someone knelt on the cobblestones in front of the middle stake, head bowed. She recognized him by the knotted maple locks.
“Biru?” she said.
He looked up, face slack with memory. His sister had been a member of the sole violent rebellion against the conquest. He was thirteen – younger than she had been when she lost her parents. She saw herself in the absence in his eyes.
He shook himself, nodded in greeting. “Taris. Instruments?”
“Destroyed,” she said. “No help there.”
Biru rose, moving away from the poles. “What’s next?”
“Spying. We need to know if they’re planning anything else.” Her eyes lingered on the heads. Should she say something, some word of sympathy? Biru had never responded before.
“Let me help.”
That was easy to answer. “Of course,” she said.
His eyes took on a dull glint. “Did Denia approve this?”
Taris didn’t smile, but returned the look of confederacy. “Why do you ask?”
The two Hoppers flitted through the shadows of the Abeuli palace, improperly converted into a fortress. Spikes and earthworks sprouted amidst stained-glass windows and flowerbeds. Patrols marched the walls. Her heart thumping at a tempo that betrayed her anxiety, Taris crouched and waited for a guard to pass.
The balcony over the dining hall would have been ideal for eavesdropping, but no one had been there since the Marians invaded, and a good visual was necessary for a Hop. Biru appeared next to her with a taut non-smile; they advanced together into the kitchen and got lost in the mass of swirling servants, a few Marians, but most Abeuli pressed into service and a handful of slaves.
It was easy to follow two young men into the hall to retrieve plates. The Marian officers roared and gesticulated, their merriment deafening. Taris collected plates – what was that horrible minty stuff? – until she memorized the tapestries, the buffet tables and the darkened drape of the balcony. Then she deposited her burden, ducked out of sight, and Hopped.
The voices drifting up from below carried empty boasts and idle threats, a percussive theme of insults towards the Abeuli that made Taris’ ears hot. In watching, she noticed one officer who held himself aloof and obviously commanded the respect and obedience of his table. When he excused himself, she followed.
One Hop, another, all within sight-line, trying not to come too close but dizzy with the need to find out something, to protect her city and impress Denia, never mind the woman would never return her feelings. The officer paused; she pressed her back against the cold wall and inhaled.
He moved on. She followed, hoping Biru hadn’t run into trouble. The officer diverged into the library.
“Milady,” he said. “I thought I might find you here.”
“I told you it could wait until morning, commander. I thought you were celebrating.”
“I find myself incapable of mirth as long as these people persist in their blindness.”
Taris grimaced as she pressed her ear to the door. Of course anyone who didn’t submit to Marian superiority was blind, as far as the officer was concerned.
“If that is the case,” she said, “you can tell me what your investigations have discerned.”
“I believe we have misunderstood the nature of magic in this city. Somehow, they have no knowledge of alchemy, but their sorcery is more than superstition supported by happenstance. If we give them their Dancing Day -”
As if it was theirs to bestow. Taris gritted her teeth.
“- then I fear something more substantial may happen than elevated morale.”
“Are you saying their . . . wishing tree is real?” Her voice dripped with scorn.
“And perhaps other things. I recommend we deal with them at once.”
Taris listened for a short while longer, wracked with tension. She whirled away, Hopping to the kitchen. She scanned the room frantically, then yelped when a junior cook deposited a tray of cakes in her arms and shoved her towards the dining hall.
She spotted Biru staggering back with the remnants of a shark dish and jerked her head towards the north corridor. He nodded. She hurried out with the cakes, though she couldn’t resist lurking in the doorway first to spit on them. Delivering the tray upon the nearest table, she stepped out to join her partner.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Are you telling me the Marians intend to arrest everyone they think has a magical talent?” Denia asked. She stood in her kitchen with arms folded, surrounded by the wreckage of cranberry scones. Toussled and red-eyed, she still looked as beautiful as ever. Biru sat on a stool, silent.
“Even if they don’t believe the ability is real,” Taris said. “We can’t let that happen.”
“No.” Denia pursed her lips. “We move as many people as we can. Those most at risk can go into the hideaways.” What she referred to were chambers memorized by the Hoppers and then sealed – accessible only by Hop. “Taris, I will need you to coordinate and be my voice -”
“I want to help,” Biru said.
“Two would be better than one,” Denia said. She exhaled a sigh. “We may need the younger children. I will do my best to avoid it, but there is no room for delay.”
“There’s more,” Taris said. “They’re going to cancel the Dancing Day.”
“They cannot cancel it,” Denia replied calmly. “They can only prevent us from celebrating in traditional fashion.”
Taris stared, but Biru spoke first. “You knew.”
“I feared. I tried to pretend it was not a possibility.” Denia shook her head. “This deranges all our plans. We can save those with magic, but for what end? And for how long? The Marians will not grow bored with Abeul and abandon it for a new toy.”
Her resignation scared Taris, twisting in her stomach and becoming the truth. Her mind swayed and plunged towards darkness. She caught herself on inspiration, lifted by the idea that exploded inside – it rushed up her throat.
“We don’t have to give up,” she said. “We can still have the Dancing Day celebration, and the Marians won’t be able to stop us.”
Denia’s eyes snapped open. “How?”
“Their flying powder,” Taris said. “We steal as much as we can find – any we can’t use gets dumped into the sea so they don’t have it – and put it on our boats. The fishing ships, the rowboats, anything we could dance in. We spread the sails out over the sides to confound shots from below. It’s not perfect, and it’s still risky for anyone involved …”
“You’re crazy,” Denia said.
Taris held her eyes. “I know.”
Biru said nothing, but his eyes were hard and sure.
“Crazy,” the woman continued, “and right. I believe the Silver Tree will hear us – but even if it doesn’t, Abeul needs its traditions to hold to its identity. The Marians will not stamp that out, no matter how many -” she paused, and Taris knew she was thinking of the grisly display in the courtyard.
“I’ll make it happen,” Taris promised. “Just make sure the music is there.”
“Oh, is that all?” For a moment, the levity in Denia’s voice was enough to make Taris forget the risks. Then the woman’s eyes turned solemn. “I will.”
An intricate plan sent Hoppers to all corners of Abeul, some to spirit people away, others to scout or stand sentry. In between, they brought people to Denia – or vice versa – for singing lessons. Taris approached six older Hoppers to steal the Marian store of flying powder. With Biru, that meant they could pair off and hit all four supply depots … and hope there wasn’t a private stash somewhere.
Taris imagined a nobleman with a contraband levitation habit and giggled despite herself.
The Marians broke down doors … and somehow never found the persons they sought. Inevitably, rumor and fate brought them to Denia’s door.
Taris was delivering a report when the two youngsters on duty Hopped into the sitting room and announced a dozen soldiers had turned down their street.
“We should get you out of here, Denia,” Taris said.
Denia shook her head. “I think I should meet with them. To flee would be an admission of guilt.”
“I don’t think they care about your innocence – about anyone’s innocence,” Taris said, her voice heating as if over an open flame. “All they want -”
Denia held up a hand. “- is a cup of tea. Would you?”
Hissing under her breath, Taris stormed into the kitchen. She clutched her anger. Foolish, headstrong woman! She scalded herself on the kettle and winced.
A desultory knock, and the front door crashed open. Footsteps spread in all directions.
“Are you Denia Phrygian?” the lead man asked. Taris almost choked on her surprise. It was the commander she had eavesdropped on.
“I am, yes. Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“Atassin Kaldras, silver commander in the Marian army,” he said. “Are you the leader of the individuals they call the Hoppers?”
Taris swore softly, but Denia chuckled. “Would you like some tea? Perhaps you, young lad? You look rather fatigued. You must have been marching all day.”
“That was not an answer.” Atassin’s voice was calm and soft.
“Just because one leads, does not ensure others follow,” Denia said. “And people often follow whether someone leads them or not.”
Another soldier growled. “Maybe you’d talk less if it were painful -”
“Enough.” Taris relaxed at Atassin’s reply, curling her fingers out of their clench. “Your people, they move extraordinarily fast? Run like the wind, perhaps? Gifted with a hint of invisibility? The name would lead me to expect the actions of a frog.”
Denia chuckled. “It would, yes.”
Taris wanted to laugh. He didn’t know. He couldn’t imagine the powers of a Hopper could be as direct as appearing wherever they willed. The Marians thought that was impossible.
“If you are friend to the government, you will come with me to explain this talent in more detail,” he said. “If you are not, then I will be forced to treat you as such.”
Taris edged backwards until she could see. The soldiers had spread out, weapons sheathed but hands hovering. Denia sat calmly in her chair, Atassin standing over her – not looming but a moderate posture.
“Suppose I am a very busy friend?” Denia asked.
“I think you know the answer to that,” Atassin said. “This can be civilized. I’m sure you’re as weary as I am of the senseless squabbles that have occurred in this city.”
Denia inclined her head. “To be sure. But consider this. If I am not who you seek, should you waste your time interrogating me? There is much to do before Abeul is whole again. If I am who you seek, the rumors you’ve heard of the Hoppers and their talents should tell you holding me would be more trouble than it is worth.”
Atassin’s brow shot up. “You expect me to simply leave.”
“I do not expect anything you do is simple, commander.”
Taris tensed, ready to run interference . . . but the Marian inclined his head. “I would tell you not to go anywhere,” he said, “if that didn’t appear to be a contradiction in terms. We will speak again, Lady Phrygian, and do not be surprised if much has changed.”
“I will not,” she said.
Atassin gestured. The soldiers exited, leaving Denia queen of her perch.
“That was dangerous,” Taris said, coming out of the kitchen. “If he had arrested you, we would have had to demonstrate our abilities.”
“I trust your cleverness,” Denia replied. “I think you could have left him bewildered. But I believe the commander suspects far more than he allowed, even that we are behind the elusiveness of his prey.”
“Then why didn’t he arrest you?”
“I told him. I’m sure you overheard.” The woman’s lips twitched. “A good soldier would know imprisoning a leader lights a fire in the hearts of those who follow her. It would be safer to keep me under watch.”
Taris shook her head. “I don’t like it. That means -”
“That means his eye is fixed firmly on me,” Denia said. “And while that is true, I can provide certain … distractions.”
Two days before the Dancing Day, Denia advanced her distraction: a sudden interest in a shipment of farienwood, rumored to have mystic properties. Biru confirmed Marian soldiers tracked her movements and questioned the bewildered sailors before confiscating the cargo.
“When this is over,” Denia said, “we will pay the captain back for his trouble.”
That evening, Hoppers gathered in the trampled remains of a garden. Taris warned them to be quick, not to take anything else – and not to make a sound that might draw attention. “If they know we raided them, this could fall apart,” she said.
She opened her mouth to give the signal, then paused as someone gasped. An argent leaf looped on the air, descending in a flutter. Not one of the Silver Tree’s countless outer leaves, but an inner leaf larger than her head.
It was a sign, Taris thought. “That’s our cue,” she said.
She reached out a hand for her partner, and they Hopped together. They appeared in the courtyard where Taris had begun her spying. Morenu, a dark-headed girl of fifteen, released her hand and lowered into a crouch to survey their surroundings. Taris joined her.
“I can see the tower entrance from here,” Morenu said.
“The guards walk the parapets on the hour.” Taris wasn’t sure which was louder: her voice, even whispering, or her heart. She expected soldiers to come upon them at any moment.
As if her fears were a trigger, footsteps approached. She squeezed Morenu’s arm in warning and pressed closer to the earth. Voices pierced, soaring in volume . . .
Laughter rang out, accompanied by teasing and a coquettish giggle. A wave of perfume almost choked Taris. Four Marian nobles wandered past, boasting about their new holdings and praising themselves for – as far as Taris could tell –nothing in particular.
Though relieved, Taris made herself hold her breath until the nobles passed. A glance over at Morenu showed the girl’s face to be as placid as a cow’s.
One minute passed, another. A sluggish figure trudged out of the tower and started down the parapet. Taris and Morenu locked eyes. Taris nodded.
They Hopped and darted inside. Taris knelt, popping the latch of the trapdoor. She pushed it open and resisted the impulse to dive. It was a game they played sometimes, leaping off a top stair and Hopping to the bottom. Instead, she swung down the ladder three rungs at a time.
Voices echoed up the shaft. She tensed, then winced as Morenu stepped on her hand. She glared up at the girl.
The conversation subsided. The two scrambled down, pausing on the landing above the checkpoint. Taris leaned down, pressing her face to the stone. Four guards on duty, an iron grate blocking the corridor . . . she crossed her eyes in an attempt to get the best visual.
“Got it.” She sat up, placing a hand on Morenu’s arm. The image she saw trickled into the other’s mind. This silent communication did not extend to thoughts: full mind-to-mind contact was almost unknown in Abeul. It would have made this situation easier, she thought ruefully.
“Right behind you,” Morenu said.
They Hopped in sequence. As soon as Taris landed, her eyes took in the storage room, and she Hopped again. It took less than five seconds for the pair to move from the tower to the nest of boxes, unseen.
“Search left,” Taris said. “I’ll work here.”
“What about me?” Kiry asked.
Taris whirled, staring at the blonde spark of a girl. “How did you . . .”
“Like you,” she said nonchalantly. “I Hopped. I just want to help. So where can I look?”
Arguments leapt to Taris’ lips: Kiry was too young, this was too dangerous, what if someone found them? She pushed them aside, knowing even to frame the words was time wasted. “You go right,” she said. “I’ll stay in the middle and watch the corridor.”
The soldiers on duty grumbled and crashed as if they were far closer. They were restless – ill at ease, or merely bored? She found herself counting her breaths as often as the barrels around her. Flour. Salt. An unreasonable amount of cinnamon.
Had they come here only to find food? It was not the grand raid she had planned. What if . . .
“Do you hear something?” a soldier asked.
“Probably just rats. Check it out just to be sure.”
Taris tensed, head whipping about in search of her companions, but both were out of sight behind crates. She inched back, willing herself not to make a sound – no scrape against the stone, no thump against the slats.
The grate rattled. The soldier filled every available shadow. Only when he moved could she focus on him. He paced the storage room.
He lunged. “I’ve got you now,” he said, shoving aside a box. He drew a scruffy mutt out by the tail.
Taris forced herself not to exhale until he had retreated with the dog in tow. She dropped onto the nearest box, knees quivering.
A faint pop made her look up. Kiry hovered against the ceiling, pushing her arms back in an attempt to straighten.
“I found it,” she announced in a whisper. A faint sprinkling of sugar stuck to the side of her mouth.
Taris grinned despite herself. “So I see.”
Another group also found flying powder, enough in total to support several dozen boats. The Hoppers handed out packets that night and throughout the next day – enough time they could be subtle about it, though Taris felt as obvious as an elephant in a courtyard.
She ended that day with Denia, working on a piece of mouth music and enjoying the sight of her mentor’s lips as they flowed around the intricate syllables. Her own attempts were clumsy, the verbal equivalent of flailing in the dark, but she kept trying.
Success was so close she could feel it on her tongue, if not taste it – not yet. She couldn’t look at Denia without burning with gratitude: the woman had kept them safe, brought them this far . . . heat over heat in the fire of her mind.
“I need you to make me a promise, Taris.”
“Anything.” She rushed the word out too fervently and flushed. “What do you need?”
Denia’s eyes focused on Taris – staring, and then looking away as if flustered. “Keep the Hoppers close,” she said. “Guard them. Guide them. Save them from themselves, when necessary. Too many of the young ones, especially, think the fact they can run away from anything means . . . well, they should.”
“That’s your job.” Taris winced at the accusation in her voice. “I meant – I can help you, but I don’t think I’ve figured things out for myself.”
“What makes you think I ever did?” Denia smiled gently. “You are my successor, Taris. Surely you’ve known that for a while.”
Known it? It astonished her, made her nervous, made her proud that her mentor could place such trust in her. “Might be your successor, when you need one,” Taris said, “but this . . . we’re standing together, whatever happens.” Before she could think better of it, she took Denia’s hands and squeezed them. “You are our face, and we stand behind you. No matter what.”
Denia shook her head. “There may come a time when you know there is a better choice to be made. I hope you won’t . . . I hope you will remain clear-headed.”
At that moment, Taris used a tactic she had learned from the woman: she bowed her head, even as she resolved to ignore the advice. Denia was their soul. She would not be surrendered.
“In any case,” Denia continued, “tomorrow is the Dancing Day – our most joyous festival, and it will be brighter than any before. We shouldn’t be somber.”
“No.” Taris dared to give her mentor’s hands a final squeeze, savoring the warmth, the faint calluses and subtle strength; then, she reluctantly released them. “We’re ready.”
Taris stood by a boat too little – or its owner too unimaginative – to have a name. The man and his sons finished coating the hull with powder and then sprinkled it with sugar. Chemical reaction, the Marians claimed.
Even though she had expected it, Taris gasped as the boat drifted up from the dock as casually as if floating on the waves. It glided upwards until the tethers halted it.
The three clambered up, unfurling the sail. The youngest offered his hand to Taris with a shy smile.
She shook her head. “I have a lot of work to do. Clear sailing.” She Hopped to her next destination.
Within an hour, the skies of Abeul brimmed with boats, drawn like minnows towards the trunk of the Silver Tree. Taris moved so fast she hardly saw the Marians, but when she did, they were bewildered, staring, looking to each other for answers and getting nowhere. It would be a while before confusion resolved into action, even under Atassin’s hand. Taris shivered a little as she thought of the commander.
She halted in the shattered district once populated by the wealthiest merchants and turned her head up to the splotched sea of boats and branches above. Like the swell of a wave, tingling hints and then a rush, the music poured over her. It was sweet and simple, a handful of harmonic voices blending in, but the strength of it beat down on her. Footsteps drummed. The dance had begun.
Taris closed her eyes, tears pricking at the inside of her lids. Quietly, she joined in, her voice quavering. In the privacy of this empty quarter, she sang for her parents, for Biru’s sister, for a city ringed with iron.
A faint pop alerted her to the arrival of another Hopper. She opened eyes and smiled, found it felt more genuine than it had in a long time. “Hey, Biru.”
“Ready to go?” he asked, holding out a hand.
She took the image from him and Hopped onto a shoreboat that had been jettisoned from its un-sky-worthy parent for the trip. The sight of so many ships bobbing serenely on the air made her laugh, but their cargo – hundreds of people whirling and dancing – warmed her. Some of the more daring dancers vaulted the distance between the ships, landing with a thump on the beat.
A beaming woman took her hand and pulled her into the dance. Light snuck through the encompassing branches of the Silver Tree, splashing across her face. She tried to join the singers, but she was too busy dancing. She gave it up and lost herself in the dance.
After a while, she halted in a turn. A troop of Marians rose towards the lowest rank of boats. Apparently, they had finally sorted themselves out and found some spare powder. Taris cursed herself for stupidity. The Hoppers should have searched more widely.
She tumbled out of the dancing. She leaned over the side of the boat, watching their progress and alert for crossbows. It was a group too small to discipline the dancing Abeuli, so what was their purpose? She saw other soldiers massed below, but no movement. They must not have enough powder left.
Taris found herself smirking. The Marians thought Abeuli powers were the games of children, and children had outsmarted them.
The smirk disappeared when she saw the destination of the flying soldiers. They aimed for a barge where four singers carried the lowest ranges of the music – and one of the singers was Denia.
She heard the reaction first, the loss of sound welling up under her feet. The dancers looked uncertain; the singers stepped back. Denia stayed where she was, facing the leader of the soldiers.
Taris wasn’t surprised to realize it was Atassin, but even if it had been the Marian king himself, she wouldn’t have hesitated. She focused, framing the image in her mind. She willed herself down.
She stayed planted on the boat. The disorientation almost pitched her over the side.
Too frantic to think, she tried again. Her body remained rooted, moribund, refusing to Hop the small distance.
She panicked as she realized this was it: her powers were gone. Why now? She spun, screaming over the aerial armada that Denia was in trouble. The music buried her until the dancers on her boat caught on that something was amiss and waved and shouted with her. Even then, they were a whisper against the fiery reel.
But someone heard: Kiry appeared next to her, then Morenu. Taris released her breath so suddenly her chest throbbed. She gestured them to look below, where two soldiers now held Denia in front of Atassin.
Taris stared as if she could drive her fury into his skull. What was he thinking? What was his goal? Her reluctant respect for him made her ask the questions, and strain as if she could hear them . . .
And in that instant, before the two Hoppers could finish asking their questions, she could.
I still don’t believe in these powers – but the people of Abeul do, and there must be some explanation. Hopefully, an explanation that doesn’t leave me looking like a fool . . .
Taris reeled, almost knocking Kiry over. The girl squeaked.
“I’ll rescue her,” Morenu said. “Biru can -”
“Wait.” The word rushed out of Taris as she realized what she had heard. Atassin’s thoughts, only grumbling . . . but the man she had overheard in the palace and facing down Denia would have more than that. Later, Taris would have time to think about this new talent and how she would deal with it.
Later. Denia first.
She squinted, fixing on the commander. The fear it had been only a fluke, a side-effect of the passing of Hopping talent, rose like orange-flavored bile in her throat. She thrust it aside and willed to the pit of her soul.
Somehow, these Hoppers started this aerial parade. I can feel it. Which means they can stop it, if properly motivated. Atassin’s eyes strayed to his men. The mindfog drug on those darts ought to take care of whatever ability . . .
Taris looked away, breaking the silent connection. A thick ache flowed into the empty space. She clutched her head, instinctively trying to drive the pain away with her fingers.
No time to dwell on it, even though it made her vision blur. “Kiry,” she said rapidly, “they have poisoned darts. Warn the Hoppers not to materialize in front of them.”
Kiry gasped. “We can’t do nothing,” she said.
“We’re going to do something,” Taris said, “only -” She scanned the sky, expecting the music to distract her – but its hum awakened her senses rather than deadened them. “Cut down a sail. Coordinated Hop. Drop it over the soldiers with the darts. Don’t wait to see what happens. Come back. I’ll grab -” she cut herself off, swallowing hard. She wanted to be the person taking the risk . . . but that possibility was gone. “Morenu. Will you do it?”
The girl nodded, but said, “This commander is smart. He worries me.”
Taris grinned, tense. “I have an idea. Wait for my signal.”
The Hoppers disappeared, flickering through the dancers in their own elaborate ballet. They managed to detach a sail without disturbing the dance as the nearest singers switched to a hornpipe. Taris mouthed the nonsense syllables with them.
Her lips kept moving as she looked down at Atassin, now arguing with Denia. Their voices were soft, but she could hear the spiral of tension rising towards the din. He would call her bluff in moments. Frowning, she focused on him again, but this time, she filled her head first: with the drumming of footsteps, the caroling of voices, the irresistible swell of music.
She had no idea if it would work, if she even had the ability . . . until she saw the commander’s foot twitch, then again, as if subconsciously following the beat. She let out a panting breath. It was the only distraction she had.
“Now,” she said, dropping her hand.
The Hoppers with the sail disappeared. They poofed in amidst the startled soldiers. The canvas snap-rattled as it stretched taut and then fell. Shouts and angry threats from the men not trapped within the fabric prison – but they could only touch their weapons before the children were gone. Even Atassin managed only a step.
Morenu vanished from Taris’ side. She caught Denia’s elbow. The commander didn’t turn, his hand on his head to banish the incessant music. Taris would have gritted her teeth, but that would have stopped the flow of unconscious melody into his thoughts.
The pair Hopped out. Taris pulled back with a sound that became a sob as pain poured in . . . but her mentor was safe, and the Marians would have to find another way to interrupt the festivities. She curled up on the deck, retired from action and thought.
Morenu appeared next to her. “Denia said to get you,” she said.
Taris made herself look up. The world spun . . . the Tree seemed to dance with the people of Abeul . . . what was that light gathering in the branches? At first, she thought it was sensory overload from her newfound powers, but it spread and glowed ever more brightly. Gasps rang out across the flying ships.
A dozen Dancing Days that Taris could clearly remember, and she had never seen the Silver Tree come alive like this. She started to cry as the light swept down, suffusing the city. The Tree granted wishes, so tradition said: and today, there could be no doubt what wish lay in every heart.
“Take me to Denia,” Taris said. She wasn’t a Hopper any more, which meant she was no longer one of Denia’s charges. They still had much to face, but the future was too uncertain to leave things unsaid. She might not have music in her soul, much less on her lips, but she still had truth to tell. She would tell Denia how she felt, the admiration that wanted to be love, and not be afraid of the answer.
Morenu Hopped her to a rooftop and returned to the dance. Denia watched the spectacle above with a luminous smile on her face. She turned as Taris called her.
Taris hadn’t meant to intrude on her mentor’s thoughts, but her hopes flew ahead of her. She felt a burst of attraction, stifled behind responsibility and self-ridicule: She’s young. What would she see in an old, faded busybody?
“Everything,” Taris said, moving forward to take Denia’s hands. “She sees the best the world has to offer in your eyes. And you’re only old when you consider your companions are a bunch of youngsters.”
Denia stared; her eyes widened as she fit each piece into place. She laughed – ruefully, warmly. “Don’t underestimate those children,” she said. “They saved us. You saved us.”
Taris shook her head, but rather than protest, she leaned in and kissed Denia – its own kind of music as the vibrant light of the Silver Tree swirled around them.
Lindsey Duncan is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives, performs and teaches harp in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com/