In slightly better spirits after a bath, Tia was just about to pen a letter to Natlin when there was a quiet knock at the door. She opened it to find Wynna standing outside, completely transformed. She was wearing a peach dress accented with ivory ribbons. The dress nipped in tight at the waist, the light fabric of the skirt flowing gently about her ankles. She’d released her hair from the prison of her dance bun, and it floated around her shoulders in curls of gold.
“Tomorrow’s our day off, so a lot of the older students are going out tonight. Did you want to come?” Wynna’s eyes alighted on the pen, ink, and paper on the desk. “Or if you’re busy…”
“No, no, I’d love to come!” she said. She wanted to see Haplyr, to taste this new city. Letter-writing could wait. “Where are we going?”
“Everyone’s talking about this new dance hall nearby. Like we didn’t spend enough time during the day dancing, right?”
“It sounds wonderful,” she said, and she meant it.
“Do you need a dress? I can lend you one.” Wynna was eyeing the bags on the floor, still waiting to be unpacked.
“Yes, please,” she said, breathing an internal sigh of relief. She’d been debating whether to wear one of her faded, utilitarian work dresses or her green travel frock, still dusty from the road.
“Back in a moment,” Wynna said, and she proved true to her word, returning with arms laden with dresses of every color imaginable. Tia’s eyes swam with frills, lace, beads, and embroidery. She’d never seen such beautiful clothing in her life.
“Where did you get all these?”
“We get a small stipend each month,” Wynna said. “Some spend it on books or snacks or send it home to family, but my roommate and I happen to like fashion, so we pool our funds…”
“I love them!” she gushed, running her fingers over the soft fabrics.
The next hour went by in a whirl as she tried on dresses for Wynna, who would take a step back, observe in silence, then deliver her expert opinion. “That color makes you look sallow.” “It fits well at the bust, but the waist…” “It suits you well, but velvet’s a bit heavy for the season, don’t you think?” Wynna’s eyes finally lit up when she donned a delicate, light mint gown. Tiny golden beads dotted the fabric here and there, and loose chiffon sleeves billowed around her arms.
“That’s the one!” Wynna proclaimed in triumph. “Now let’s do something about your hair,” she said over her shoulder with a wink as she darted back to her room to grab more supplies. When she returned, she sat Tia on the bed and attacked her hair with combs, brushes, and pins. Only after a final dusting of red on the cheeks and a smudge of black grease applied to the lashes was she satisfied.
“Just in time,” she said, the seventh hour bell sounding in the distance. Voices were echoing in the corridor outside; it sounded like half the academy was going.
They joined the crowd in the hallway. From the look of it, almost everyone from the eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-year classes was going, though Selitta was thankfully nowhere in sight. The younger girls milled about underfoot, eyes wide as saucers. Wynna explained that only students fourteen and older were allowed out unsupervised. “I mean, that’s the official rule. But we always managed to sneak out, of course.”
After a sufficient amount of primping and chatter, everyone was ready to go, and they made their way out of the academy, all the girls visions of indigo, ruby, violet, and blush. They joined the boys in the courtyard, who’d taken care to do themselves up smart. Tia couldn’t help scanning the crowd for the gray-eyed boy, and she spied him on the edge of the crowd, looking handsome in a burgundy and black vest and talking to the sleepy-eyed girl he’d partnered with in class. A shock coursed up and down her body when he felt her gaze and met it, and she averted her eyes.
The party finished assembling, and they set off down the road toward the dance hall. Haplyr’s streets were merry in the twilight. The air was sweet with smoke from barbecue carts, and hawkers selling jewelry, clothes, and assorted knickknacks laid out their wares on thick tarps at the side of the road. A stall advertising fried dough stuffed with chocolate proved too tempting to pass up, and the students swarmed the stand, the owner deftly handling the twenty or so orders as her two expert assistants threw batter into bubbling oil.
They arrived at the dance hall minutes later, chocolate still on their lips. The nondescript door beside a closed tailor shop would have been easy to miss were it not for the loud swirl of voices and music leaking out into the summer night. The doorman took their coppers, pointed them up a dark stairway, and they entered another world.
It was just as magical as she’d always envisioned a Haplyr dance hall to be. The center of the room glowed with light from the shimmering chandeliers on high, and the shadowy edges of the room allowed just enough darkness for sharing secrets and getting acquainted with love interests. Wynna cast an assessing look around, mouthed to Tia that she’d be back soon, and disappeared into the crowd, leaving Tia to dance with a group of five other tenth-year girls. Their smiles were welcoming, and though she couldn’t remember anyone’s names, in the joyous, buzzing space of the dance hall it was hard not to feel like everyone was a long-lost best friend.
The musicians on the stage played the crowd like an instrument, the rising tempos and crescendos bringing the dancers to a frenzy before pulling back to allow everyone time to breath. After a few songs Wynna returned with a tray of amber-colored drinks, which were swiftly distributed around the group. Tia took a sip and made a face; she hadn’t had much occasion to drink alcohol in Fenlick, and it burned her throat. But the second sip was less shocking than the first, and the third almost enjoyable. “Just enough to keep you on your toes!” one girl shouted to her.
At the end of the next song, the group suddenly melted away from her and reformed a few feet away. She looked at them, confused, only to see them all looking to the side of her. She turned to see the gray-eyed boy, close enough to her that she could see the hint of dark stubble on his chin. He was looking at her, and only at her.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” he said.
“No,” she replied, her insides fluttering and mind a blank, save for the hope that he wouldn’t notice how flushed her cheeks were. A half second later, she groaned inwardly, realizing he wanted to know her name.
“I’m Tia!” she blurted out, just as he said, “My name’s Roge.” He smiled broadly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tia. And you’re from Fenlick?”
“Yes. Master Maaj came to Fenlick to do business with my father and… here I am,” she finished, rather lamely.
“I like that. It’s so rare to see anyone from those parts here in the capital.” His look was still intent, and she felt like an impaled butterfly splayed out on a pinboard. “You were pretty good in class today.”
“Aside from being the class fool in partnering?”
“Some levity’s always welcome in Mistress Oerfall’s class. Anyway, it’s nice to get some new faces in class… and bid goodbye to some others.” She realized they were heading towards one of those dark corners as they conversed, and her heart somehow managed to beat even faster. Time to wrest control of the situation; this was only her second day in Haplyr, after all.
“Thank you for earlier today,” she said quickly, turning back toward Wynna and the other girls. “That was very kind of you.” She caught Wynna sneaking a peek at them, a quizzical look on her face.
Roge registered her change of direction and adjusted accordingly, the perfect gentleman. “Selitta’s only trying to cling to a situation that’s already changed. You won’t have to worry about her soon.” He leaned in closer, and Tia shivered. “Life at the academy can get intense sometimes. Coming to the academy in tenth year… Well, if you’re ever needing a tutor—or just a friend—don’t hesitate to let me know.” Her head spun, and she mumbled something inaudible and disjointed as he pushed a path through the crowd back to her original group. Wynna shot her a knowing look as Roge gave Tia a short bow before making his way over to another group of academy students.
The musicians played on, and the crowd never deserted them. Sometime during that late hour, the room heated to boiling as the crush of fevered bodies in the dance hall dashed themselves against a backdrop of soaring music. The chandeliers blazed like shooting stars overhead, and the whole room crackled with energy.
And sometime later still, a question made its way around the merry group, passed in shouts from ear to ear that sounded like whispers in the din. “Where is Annalise?” “Has anyone seen Annalise?” “Where did Annalise go?”
And an answer was there to satisfy everyone in the party. “She was heading out for some air.” “She was going to get some water.” “She hasn’t been gone for long, don’t worry.”
It was very late now. Dancers poured from the light of the golden hall out into the midnight blue of the night. There were hard cobblestones beneath their feet as they skipped back home, laughter ahead, and someone crying behind. “Is something wrong?” Tia asked Wynna, glancing back. They’d hooked arms and were performing a jerky jig, in crude imitation of Mistress Laserie’s class earlier that day.
“Probably lost an earring,” her friend giggled, and they danced on home, up the academy steps, through the great foyer, down the creaking corridors, (“No judging!” Wynna shouted at a stern lord’s portrait, as Tia hid her face in mock shame) and into their bedrooms. She shed the clinging fabric of her gown in an instant, then sank into her bed with a soft sigh and was asleep in moments, floating upon dreams of ribbons and chandeliers and pastries and gray eyes. The music swelled and ebbed in her mind, and somewhere in the distance there was a soft question being asked over and over again, something about a girl called Annalise.