In the city of Kugisko, in Namorn:
Niamara Bancanor, twelve and sometimes too helpful in Daja Kisubo’s opinion, gripped Daja’s left hand and elbow. They stood on one edge of a broad circle of ice where the Bancanors docked their household boats in the summer. Now, in the month of Snow Moon, eight weeks before the solstice holiday called Longnight, it was a place to skate, with benches and heaped banks of snow at the sides to protect those less able to stop than experts like Nia. For all her fourteen years, Daja was as much a beginner at this as any three-year-old. She wouldn’t have agreed to these lessons, wanting to protect her dignity, but after three weeks of watching the Namornese zip up and down the city’s frozen canals, she had realized it was time to learn how to skate, dignity or no.
“Are you ready?” asked Nia. The cold air made dark roses bloom on her creamy brown cheeks and lent extra sparkle to her brown eyes.
Daja took deep breath. “Not really,” she said with resignation. “Let’s go.”
“One,” counted Nia, “two, three.”
On three Nia and Daja thrust with their left legs against ice smoothed each night by convict crews who performed that service for the entire city. Daja glided forward, knees wobbling, ankles wobbling, belly wobbling.
“Right, push!” cried Nia, gripping Daja’s arm. Two right skates thrust against the ice. Left and right, left and right, they maneuvered across the length of the boat basin. Daja fought to stay upright. She knew her body was set wrong: while she didn’t skate, years of training in staff combat told her that she was not at all centered. It was like trying to balance on a pair of knife blades. Who thought of this mad form of travel in the first place? And why had no one locked them up before they passed their dangerous ideas on to others?
She didn’t want to think of the picture she made, though she’d bet it was hilarious. Five feet, eight inches tall, she towered over Nia by four inches. Where Nia was slender, Daja was big shouldered and blocky, muscled from years of work as a metalsmith. She was a much darker brown than Nia and the other Bancanor children, whose mother was light brown and whose father was white. Daja’s face and mouth were broad. Her large brown eyes— when she was not trying to learn to skate— were steady. She wore her springy black hair in a multitude of long, thin braids. Today she had pulled them into a horse-tail tied with an orange scarf; she wore no fur-lined hat as Nia did, because she had her own way to keep her head warm. Her clothes were in the style worn by Namornese men: a long-skirted coat of heavy wool over a slightly shorter indoor coat, a full-sleeved and high-collared shirt, baggy trousers, and calf-high boots to which the skates were strapped.
“See, this isn’t so bad,” Nia said as they reached the entrance of the boat basin. “Soon it will be as easy as breathing. Now turn...” She swept Daja around until they faced the stair to the rear courtyard, across the small basin. “Ready, left, push,” Nia coaxed. Daja obeyed.
Left, right, left, right, they slowly made their way across the ice. Servants coming and going from the house and the outbuildings watched and hid grins. Like Nia, they had spent their lives here on the southeastern edge of the Syth. For those who could not afford horses and sleighs in winter, ice skates were necessary. They were a quick way around a city sprawled over various islands in waters that were frozen solid from mid-Blood Moon to late Seed Moon.
By the time Nia turned Daja again, the older girl was starting to get the idea. The trick was to rock as she stroked, using alternate legs to push. If she brought her legs together, sooner or later she would stop moving. Skates, when not in motion, had an ugly tendency to make the wearer fall over.
Nia guided her back to the end of the boat basin, where it passed under a street bridge to enter the canal beyond.