Wynna chewed a bite of honey cake, lost in thought. “The upside is… Never mind, there is no upside.”
Tia stabbed a piece of the cake with her fork. The setting sun washed the whole avenue in a golden glow, shining through the red autumn leaves of the street-side trees so they lit up like lanterns. Yet the world around Tia had seemed dull and drab ever since Mistress Oerfall had informed her that she would be moving from her single guest room into Annalise’s former room. Annalise, who had just so happened to have Selitta as a roommate. Annalise, who would have been privy to the details of Selitta’s life, like that she was writing a letter to Lord d’Wygst, because they’d lived in the same room. Mired in her gloom, Tia saw none of the beauty around her.
She brought her fork down for another bite and heard the screech of metal tines on porcelain. The plate was empty save for a few crumbs, but she didn’t even remember eating the cake.
“I can ask the waitress to bring over another slice,” Wynna offered. “Alindy always says sweets are her favorite way to drive away a bad mood.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, dropping the fork onto the plate with a clatter. “I’m not hungry anyway.”
“Self-pity isn’t becoming,” Wynna said, calling for the waitress.
Moments later the waitress delivered two giant, steaming mugs of hot chocolate to the table, complete with a plate of rock sugar cookies for dunking. They sipped their drinks as the sun dipped below the buildings and twilight wrapped the streets in hazy purple shadows.
She wanted to relax as the city slid into dusk, could feel that old, familiar comfort of darkness. In Fenlick, nighttime had always been her time, when she could sneak up to the shop attic and play at being somebody else, free from buckets of myreskeet and ledger books and sales pitches. Even though it had now been weeks since she’d first met Master Maaj and decided to leave Fenlick, it was still off-putting to show anyone her dancing in the light of day.
And now she couldn’t feel completely comfortable at night either, she remembered with a stab of anger. The Firefly Hollow Killer was still out there somewhere, maybe even stalking the streets for his next victim right this second. The female students at the academy had taken to only going out into the city in groups of two or more.
And even forgetting the fact that there was a killer on the loose, she didn’t relish sleeping in the same room with someone who adopted a murderous look whenever they happened to lock eyes.
After a while she tried to string a sentence together from the knot of words and feelings squirming around in her head. “It’s not just that she hates me. I’m worried she’ll find some way to send me back home. Her father’s a lord, after all.”
And it was true. She didn’t want to go home anymore, not even with the awkwardness of being new and the killer and Selitta and all the rest. She wanted to stay, to get to know her classmates… to audition for the Queen’s Fair… to see where the delicious awkwardness of partnering class led.
Wynna swirled a cookie in her hot chocolate, thinking. “I doubt she’d ask her father to send you home. If anything, Selitta might try to do something herself to get you dismissed.” She saw Tia’s stricken face and waved her hands. “Don’t worry. If she tries anything, the teachers will see right through her. She’s been at the academy for years and years; everyone knows her games. Besides, now that Selitta’s staying you’re just her classmate, not her direct competition, so maybe she’ll relax.”
“But that would also mean I’m stuck with her as a roommate.”
“Quit your moping,” Wynna teased with a smile.
Tia glowered in response and downed the rest of her hot chocolate, then had a sudden thought. “What’s your story, anyway? How’d you end up at the academy?” It had already been several days since she’d told Wynna about the long chain of events that had brought her from Fenlick to Haplyr, but she realized now that Wynna hadn’t offered a story in return.
“My story?” Wynna said. She gave a harsh laugh, eyes focusing on something distant. Her fingers had taken up a soft, rhythmic drumming on the tabletop. “Not much to tell.”
Tia poked her with her spoon. “Come on, spill it. I’ll find out eventually.”
“It’s already ancient history,” Wynna protested. “I came here when I was seven, you know.” The finger drumming continued.
Tia shook her head in amazement. “The little first- and second-years are unbelievable. When I was that young I could barely walk in a straight line, let alone dance.”
“Mmm,” Wynna agreed, her eyes still fixed ahead on something unseen. Finally she roused herself from her reverie. “It’s not the happiest story… That’s why I didn’t bring it up earlier.”
“No, it’s all right.” Her tone said it wasn’t. Tia wished she hadn’t pushed her, but Wynna was already beginning to speak.
“My family live in a poor village two days southeast of here. I’m the youngest of four brothers and three sisters, so there were always a lot of mouths to feed. Plus we were in debt to the village healer because my second oldest brother was often sick, so I don’t remember eating much.
“My brother got very sick one day, and we couldn’t afford more medicine. My da helped chop lumber when he could, but his body was nearly spent by then. And my ma liked to make little trinkets—baskets, pressed flowers, that sort of thing. She wasn’t very well in her mind, so anything more than that was too much for her. Some of the villagers would buy the things she made, more out of pity than anything else, I think. That didn’t come to much, though, so our coppers were few and the healer’s brew expensive. We truly thought my brother was close to death.
“My oldest brother, Nial, took the lot of us to Haplyr and left my ma and da behind—we were going to pick up work where we could and send the money home. But some of us were so young… What kind of work could we do in the first place? I was only seven, and my brother Carusso eight.
“We got to Haplyr, and I’ll never forget how big and beautiful and clean it was. And we were on the edge of the city, not anywhere near here, so that should tell you our village was… well… um.” She paused, her cheeks red. “A lady dressed all in her summer best saw me standing in the middle of the road gawking at all the tall buildings, and she handed me a sweet roll. Right away I knew I loved it here. Back at home, everyone jostled and fought over the food because there was never enough. But here someone was generous to give theirs away for free, even to somebody they didn’t know.
“I was goggling at the city so much that I got separated from everyone else. I thought I was right behind Carusso and Nial, but when I turned around they weren’t there.” She shivered, though the breeze had died down. “I stayed where I was for a while, I think, but they didn’t come back. I found out later they didn’t know when I’d gotten lost, so they didn’t know where in the city to search.
“After I waited a long time, I started to wander around. Night came, and I was getting hungry. I wandered over to a barbecue and just waited there, hoping someone else would feed me. Of course I didn’t have any money or anything to trade for food. Eventually one of the shopkeepers gave me some food, but he yelled at me to go away, that I was bothering the paying customers.”
Tia sucked in a breath. “That’s awful.”
Wynna nodded. “It makes me wonder now why the woman earlier that day gave me a roll. Did she do it because she thought I would like it, or because I was just some… some thin country bumpkin standing where she wanted to walk?” She sighed. “There’s a square about twenty minutes’ walk from here with a fountain in the middle. It’s a statue of Queen Osanne, though I didn’t know that then. I was terribly thirsty, so I drank water from the fountain, and once it got late I slept beside it, on the ground.
“The next morning someone shook me awake. It was like waking up to a nightmare. I’d been able to forget everything when I was sleeping, but in the real world I was still lost.” She brightened. “Fortunately, the person who woke me up was Mistress Laserie.”
Tia started. “Oh!”
“She likes history, so sometimes she goes to visit that statue. She says it’s ‘paying a call to the past.’ Anyway, Mistress Laserie found me there and took pity on me. I didn’t know where my brothers and sisters had gone, so she had me tell her all about my village. Then she hired a carriage and brought me back there to my parents, even though the journey took more than a day.
“When we got back to the village, we drove the carriage straight to my house. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about my adventure in Haplyr.”
“What happened?” Tia asked, open-mouthed.
“We found them all right. Da’s back was hurting him again that day, so he hadn’t gone to work. Our house looked so small and dirty, especially with that fancy carriage right in front. I was embarrassed for the dance mistress to see it.”
Wynna’s lips pressed tightly together. “She told my parents all about finding me in the city. They should have been overjoyed to see me back—right? That’s what a parent should feel. But instead… instead they both seemed so tired. My ma cried when I came back in the house with Mistress Laserie, but she wasn’t looking at me when she cried—she was looking at my da. And I got this awful, clenching feeling in my stomach that she didn’t love me and would rather I was just gone.
“I think Mistress Laserie got sort of a sense of it all. Right after she told them how she’d found me, she said she was a dance mistress at the academy and she thought I’d make a good student there.” Wynna was stony-faced, her voice bitter. “They found their joy then. I’d be one less mouth to feed.”
“Gods,” Tia whispered, and they sat in silence as the last of the sunlight outside was extinguished.
“Mistress Laserie took me straight back to Haplyr that day. She vouched for me, and Master Maaj agreed. I had to work hard to catch up to everybody else, even though we were all so young.”
“And you didn’t know how to dance?”
“Not a whit! If I’d been any older it wouldn’t have been possible. Thank the gods I was only seven.”
“And what about everyone else?”
“My brothers and sisters did find work in the city—all the things nobody wanted to do. Lighting street lamps, washing dishes, that sort of thing. The ones who stayed here in the city found better jobs eventually, and Nial went back to help out at home. Those first few years I sent all of my stipend home, though it was only a small amount. They don’t give much to the little ones. I don’t see my parents too often, but my ma is a lot better, and my brother recovered. It all worked out well, I suppose.” She gave Tia a tentative smile, tinged with melancholy. “Listen, I’ve been here at the academy a long time, and there’s always something new around the corner. Maybe someone’s leaving, whether because they want to or they’re being asked to. Maybe there’s drama between some students, or maybe something happens like… like with Annalise. You’ll probably hate every second being Selitta’s roommate, but at least you’re still alive and breathing. You don’t have to beg for food and sleep with a stone fountain for a pillow.”
Tia wanted to shrivel into the ground. “Sorry I pushed you to tell me.”
“It’s fine,” Wynna said, reassuring her. “Everyone has a story. Now let’s head back. I’m nervous being out here any later.”
They settled up with the waitress and set off at a brisk pace back to the academy. Tia peeked compulsively behind her the whole way home, expecting to see the creepy, ordinary face of the Firefly Hollow Killer leering at her every time she looked back. Every block of Firefly Hollow only sported three or four street lamps, and both girls linked arms as they hurried from one pocket of light to the next, as if the unknowable darkness might very well swallow them whole.
Back in the academy, in her soon-to-be-deserted guest room, Tia reflected back on Wynna’s words. It was true there were worse things than having to live in the same room with someone who despised you. She only hoped she could remember that once she actually moved in.
The next day after classes she packed up her meager belongings and trekked down the hall to Selitta’s room. She stood for a long, uncomfortable moment in front of the door. It was just as plain as the rest of the doors lining the girls’ dormitory hallway, but it was who waited behind the door that stayed her hand.
Well, there was no helping the situation. She swallowed down the lump of nerves in her throat and rapped on the door. It swung open straightaway, as if Selitta had been waiting right behind it for the knock.
“Here you are,” Selitta said, her face already twisted into a sneer. “Feel free to make yourself at home—seems like you know all about waltzing in and taking somebody else’s spot.”
Tia’s tongue was dry and heavy in her mouth. “I don’t want to live here just as much as you don’t want me to live here.”
Selitta scoffed. “Sure. Let’s recap, shall we? In the past, oh, week you’ve been here, you’ve taken over Annalise’s spot in class, her partner in class, and now her bed. You may think it’s fun to play at taking the place of a dead girl, but nobody else sees it like that. You’re not wanted here. You should have taken my advice before and gone home.”
“I wasn’t trying to replace Annalise,” she protested weakly. “That’s just how it worked out. You’re not being dismissed now that Annalise is gone, so why do you care so much about me being here?”
Selitta clenched her jaw, her pupils narrowing. Perhaps she wasn’t used to the motives behind her nastiness being questioned. “Because… because it’s insulting anyone could imagine some untrained swamp girl deserves to be here, let alone serve as my replacement. Just looking at you in class makes me want to scream.” She spat the words in a sharp staccato.
The space right behind her temple started to ache. How was she going to deal with this every day?
The corners of Selitta’s mouth twitched upward once she realized Tia had no reply. “Just stay out of my way,” she snapped as she stormed past her out into the hallway. Tia caught the door a millisecond before it slammed in her face.
She stood outside the room for a few seconds, gathering herself back together, then grabbed her bags and padded inside on shaky legs. She shut the door with a soft click and exhaled for what felt like the first time in minutes, grateful for the blessed silence around her. Yet despite the quiet, her brain still crawled with Selitta’s hateful words, each poison-laced sentence vying for her attention.
Best to start settling in and give herself some distraction. The room was a near-exact duplicate of Wynna and Alindy’s room: two bunked beds, a wardrobe in the corner, a small writing desk, one chair. At least the room’s window provided a view of the academy’s gardens and the quiet, adjacent side street, rather than the lovely brick wall opposite Wynna and Alindy’s window.
The top bed was stripped and a neat pile of sheets lay stacked on top. That would be hers—or rather, Annalise’s. An echo of Selitta’s words rang in her head. You may think it’s fun to play at taking the place of a dead girl, but nobody else sees it like that. After a minute’s worth of uncomfortable contemplation, she shook off her misgivings and climbed up the ladder to make the bed.
The bells hadn’t yet tolled for seventh hour by the time Tia was done putting everything away, but the temptation to crawl into bed and shut the world out was too strong to resist. She didn’t want to risk being awake whenever Selitta decided to come back. With a shudder, she climbed up the rungs of the ladder and clambered into the bed. Huddled under the covers, she scrunched her face into the pillow and did her best not to think about how she was lying in a murdered girl’s bed.
Tia quickly fell into a new routine, perfectly orchestrated to avoid her roommate. The system worked so well, in fact, that she sometimes caught herself wondering whether Selitta was also purposely giving her a wide berth. Every morning Tia would wake up at the first peals of the morning bells and slip out of bed immediately. At this point Selitta was always sleeping; it was her custom to lounge in bed as long as possible before class. Tia, Wynna, and Alindy were normally some of the first girls in the bathroom, and they would yawn their good mornings as they washed their faces and pinned up their hair. Tia would then head back to her room to finish getting ready right when Selitta was ambling toward the bathroom. A few minutes later, Tia would meet up with her friends in the hallway and they would all walk to breakfast together. After classes ended, Tia took to holing up in Wynna and Alindy’s room, who welcomed her with open arms. She became well-acquainted with their threadbare carpet, as well as quite a bit better at cards. She would only retreat to her own room when sleep threatened to overtake her, praying as she walked down the hallway that Selitta would already be asleep. With a bit of lucky timing and accommodating friends, she managed to get through most days with only the stray snide remark or passing scowl. Wynna had been right; somehow, as the days went on, the situation became more bearable. There were even a few, rare times when she found herself carefully storing away some of the more ridiculous things Selitta said, knowing she’d get a laugh later on when she relayed them to Wynna and Alindy.
And so the days slipped by, Chyor’s northern breath growing stronger and colder with each passing day. As the stories went, the spring goddess Chunvar took Chyor’s frost-tinged breath as the sign that her work in Hygot was complete and she could venture north to winter in his glacial, frozen home. She’d make her annual journey, taking with her misty mornings, warm winds, and green sprouts. Each day’s sunlight grew more and more precious, and the students grumbled as they unpacked their heavy coats and dusted off their snow boots. Yet no promises of cold weather could dampen Tia’s spirits—every day was another opportunity to learn in the presence of her masterful teachers, or to laugh with her newfound friends, or even to stifle her misgivings and take a selfish joy in leaning into Roge’s strong, capable arms. And far in the back of her mind was an insistent echo that sounded suspiciously like the excited chatter of a seven-year-old girl, causing her stomach to flip at odd moments whenever she caught the words.
The Queen’s Fair is coming! The Queen’s Fair is coming!