Chapter Thirteen

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Wynna hadn’t spoken loudly, but the whole room had been waiting to hear those words, and everyone swiveled to face her as one. “You—really?” stammered the guard holding the sketch, as if he hadn’t expected anything to come of this whole exercise. “Come here, then, and give a statement to the sketch artist.”

He beckoned Wynna forward. She cast a glance at Tia and Alindy, her face pale and slick with sweat, before following the guard toward the man and his son.

Mistress Oerfall addressed everyone else left in the dining hall. “If you have already seen the sketch, then make your way back to your rooms. If you think of anything later that may be relevant, let Master Maaj or myself know and we will help you convey that information to the city guard.” The students began to funnel toward the exit.

Tia hesitated at the door, looking back at Wynna. She was deep in conversation with the man, and his son was—no, that couldn’t be right. She squinted, hardly believing her eyes. The young boy was the one drawing the sketch, though he couldn’t be any older than twelve.

A tap on her shoulder broke her staring. It was Alindy, face pale with worry. “Did you want to wait with me for Wynna to get back? Honestly I could use the company.”

“Sure,” Tia said, stealing one last look over her shoulder before following Alindy back to the dormitory.

The seventh hour bell chimed as Alindy opened the door to the room she shared with Wynna. It was supposed to be a double, but the room was almost as tiny as Tia’s, so the two girls had bunked the beds for more space. The doors of the wardrobe in the corner were bursting open, revealing flashes of blue cotton and pink chiffon. So this was where they stored all those marvelous dresses.

There was only one chair, so Alindy sat down on the thin carpet in the middle of the room. “Thanks for keeping me company,” she said, motioning for Tia to sit beside her. “I’d just rather not be alone, you know?”

“I get it,” she said, settling down on the carpet beside Alindy. She hugged her knees tight to her chest. Had it really been just a few hours ago that she’d traipsed through the city, carefree, Wynna by her side, feeling like Haplyr was a present waiting to be unwrapped? And Annalise had been somewhere in that same excited crowd of students, perhaps joking with a friend or biting into her fried dough.

Her thoughts clearly in a similar place, Alindy said, “It could have been any one of us.” She shuddered. “Poor Annalise. Not just to die, but like that… They say the killer only takes young women as his victims. He slashes the girls’ bodies, and they’re found with their clothes ripped away. It’s horrid. She never deserved that… Nobody does.”

Tia shivered and remembered the knife her mother had given to her before she’d left Fenlick. The lovely mint dress she’d worn to the dance hall hadn’t had pockets, so she’d left the knife in her room. All those promises she’d made to her parents—and she hadn’t even taken basic precautions.

“I’m sure they’ll catch her killer soon,” she said, though the words rung hollow. Did anybody even look at those posters?

They lapsed into uneasy quiet for a few minutes before Alindy reached for the desk drawer and fished out a worn deck of cards. “Do you want to play? Just to pass the time.” Tia nodded her assent and Alindy dealt her a hand. A few minutes later Tia caught herself almost enjoying the game, like it hadn’t been a girl’s murder in cold blood that had led to playing cards before eighth hour sounded.

“I’m out,” she said, splaying her cards on the carpet. “You win.”

“I’m not much feeling like cards either,” Alindy admitted, so they waited in silence, Alindy playing with a strand of hair that had escaped her braid and Tia picking at the already threadbare carpet. How much longer could it possibly take for Wynna to finish with the sketch artist?

Just when Tia was about to propose going back to the dining hall to look for her, the door opened. Wynna’s face was drawn, dark circles overshadowing her clear green eyes.

The two girls rushed to her side. “Are you all right?” Alindy asked.

She nodded. “Just tired. Gods, they kept having me go over the smallest details. It was so strange… That little boy did the sketch, and his father asked the questions.”

Tia couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer, exhausted though Wynna looked. “What did you see anyway?”

“That man was there at the dance hall, though I only saw him for a moment.” She nodded at Tia. “He was behind you when you and Roge were walking back to the rest of us.”

“He—what?!” They both gaped at Wynna in horror.

“He was just looking at you, sort of blankly. I noticed him staring, and then he noticed me staring at him, so he turned and walked into the crowd. I assumed he was just embarrassed I’d caught him looking at you. It couldn’t have been for more than thirty seconds.”

“You’re sure it was him?” Alindy asked. Tia’s heart thumped a wild beat when Wynna gave a definitive nod.

“He looked like the picture, and the skin around his left eye was red and scratched, just like they said it might be. That boy’s father said they’ll put up new sketches with a bit more detail. Anything’s helpful, I suppose.” She shrugged.

“So what do we do now?” Alindy asked, her voice high and trembling. “Just go back to normal?” Her question hung in the air as the three girls looked at one another.

Finally Wynna broke the silence. “I don’t know what we do, but I’m going to bed so I can try to forget any of this ever happened. Gods willing, I’ll actually get to sleep and by the time I wake up they’ll have caught the bastard.”

But though new sketches went up all around Firefly Hollow, no arrests were made.

With the passing of Annalise, a pall settled over the academy. Everyone kept their voices soft, and the dance masters and mistresses refrained from nitpicking and harping on mistakes. Long lengths of black cloth hung from the academy windows, limp in the oppressive heat, and bouquets of flowers thrown onto the academy’s front lawn by sympathetic passersby wilted instantly.

It was a morbid entrance to life at the academy. Though Tia had not known Annalise, every day was tinged with reminders of her passing. In class, the tenth-year students left a space on the studio floor where she would have danced. This lasted a week, until one morning Mistress Primbuck walked purposefully to the back of the studio, grasped hold of Tia’s arm, and marched her to the empty space. “It is a tragedy that Annalise was taken from us,” the dance mistress said, addressing the class, “but our life here continues, with the addition of a new student.” Her sharp eyes held Tia’s own. “Being closer to the mirror will be better for you, instead of so far in the back. You need a lot of correction, so it is important to be able to see yourself well.” The dance mistress paused for a moment, looking like she was mulling over words heretofore left unspoken. “Annalise was a fine, dedicated student. I enjoyed looking this way every morning to see her wholly devoted to her craft. Don’t cause me to regret placing you here.” She held Tia’s gaze for a beat longer than necessary before getting the class started on the first routine of the day.

Mistress Primbuck’s instruction for Tia to take Annalise’s place was echoed in her other classes; clearly the dance masters and mistresses had made a collective decision that it was time to move on. All throughout the day, Tia danced in the shadow of her murdered classmate, feeling like if she turned her head quickly enough she would see Annalise there, ready to reclaim her rightful spot.

The relative chaos of Mistress Laserie’s class was a breath of fresh air. The elderly dance mistress conducted class differently every time and never assigned spots. Though that day they were tackling boring, three hundred-year-old choreography from the reign of King Richler, Tia didn’t care. Standing amongst the dusty bookshelves and messy clusters of mirrors, it was just a relief not to feel like a ghost was peeking over her shoulder.

As Tia sank into a side bend and checked her form in the mirror, a flicker of silver caught her eye—Selitta’s comb. Tia studied the black-haired girl in the mirror; as usual, she was lazing about, doing her best to avoid attracting Mistress Laserie’s attention. As if sensing Tia’s gaze, Selitta raised her head, met her eyes, and scowled. Tia flushed and looked away.

What was it with that girl? Why stay here, if she didn’t care about dancing and everyone detested her?

And shouldn’t Selitta have been sent home by now anyway?

She broached the subject with Wynna and Alindy as they walked to partnering class.

“It’s just Lord d’Wygst indulging his daughter, of course,” Wynna said matter-of-factly. “Now that Annalise is gone, there are fifteen tenth-year girls again, so there are no issues with the numbers.”

“I understand that, but why?” Tia pressed her. “She obviously hates the academy. Master Maaj wants her gone. Why stay?”

Wynna shrugged. “Who knows?”

I heard,” Alindy whispered conspiratorially, “she wrote a letter to her father the day you came, begging him to put pressure on the patrons so she could stay.”

“Who told you that?” Wynna asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Annalise said something about it, the night that… you know. Selitta didn’t go to the dance hall because she was writing a letter to Lord d’Wygst.”

Tia frowned. “How did Annalise know—?”

She cut her question short as soon as they pushed through the studio doors. There was Mistress Oerfall, beckoning Tia over. She squared her shoulders and approached the dance mistress with the distinct, sinking feeling that her cheery group of three with Wynna and Arlus was about to be split up.

Mistress Oerfall peered down her nose at Tia. “I know you have had good fun dancing with Wynna and Arlus, but the tenth-year numbers are no longer uneven.” Before elaborating, she glanced around the room, searching for something—or rather, someone. “Roge, come here if you please.” Tia’s heart jumped into her throat as he glided over, posture perfect. Gray eyes met hers for a moment before he gave a slight bow to the dance mistress.

“Yes, Mistress Oerfall.”

“From here on out, you two will partner together. Annalise was Roge’s partner for the past year and a half, so this will be a large adjustment for both of you.”

“Yes, Mistress Oerfall,” they chorused, though Tia couldn’t keep her voice from shaking. Roge, her dance partner? Her mind raced through the possible scenarios—his hands intertwined with hers for a jig or on her waist for a turn or on her lower back leading her around the room… A shiver flew up and down her spine.

“Oh, and girl,” Mistress Oerfall said, thrusting her finger in the air as she remembered something else, “I would like to speak with you about another matter after class. Please do not let me forget.” With that, she shooed them away.

She spent the next hour in a skittish daze, which unfortunately did nothing for her form. She had admired Roge from afar, and there had been those few exchanges between them, but she’d always expected to wind up partnering with Simas. She couldn’t help but have some guilty self-indulgence in this final aspect of assuming Annalise’s spot at the academy.

Roge looked entirely unruffled about the new arrangement. Or was that just the vague, pleasant expression the students adopted when dancing? Maybe changing dance partners was not as large a matter as she thought, even if said partners had engaged in some recent (though minor) flirtation.

She spent the whole class trying to figure him out, shivering at his touch and feeling like she was dancing on clouds. As class ended, she made her way back over to Mistress Oerfall, light-headed. She felt a jolt of apprehension when she saw that the dance mistress was also joined by Selitta, whose face twisted into a momentary scowl at Tia’s approach before forming a more neutral expression.

Mistress Oerfall addressed them both, her razor-sharp eyes darting back and forth between the two girls as if daring them to object to what she was saying. At the dance mistress’s words, Selitta’s frown returned from behind the mask, deepening by the second. Tia had been light-headed before, but now she felt positively faint.

Wynna was waiting for her right outside the studio doors, bouncing up and down with glee. “You and Roge partnering! I wish you could have seen yourself when you were practicing the phoenix lift; I thought you were going to pass out. Or maybe sprout wings and fly straight up into the clouds.”

“Wynna.”

“And Simas—did you see his face? I think the poor boy’s really taking it hard that he’s still stuck with Selitta.”

“Wynna.”

Her friend didn’t hear her as she chortled to herself. “Well, we all are. But gods above, he’s really put up with a lot—”

“Wynna!”

“What?” Her giddiness dampened when she saw Tia’s face.

“It’s Selitta. We’re…” She trailed off. Saying it out loud took it from feeling like a bad dream to reality. “We’re going to be roommates.”