Chapter Fifteen

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Wynna burst into the room, startling Tia and Alindy from their card game. “The signup sheet’s posted,” she cried, grinning ear-to-ear. “The auditions are tomorrow before lunch.”

Tia’s heart lurched. “And why are you so excited?” she asked, trying to play cool. “You already performed in it last year.”

“Because you’ve been babbling about the Queen’s Fair for weeks,” Wynna replied with a wink. “I need these auditions over with, whether you make it or not.”

“Here, here,” Alindy seconded as she slapped down a card. “A-ha! Take that.”

“Umm…” Tia surveyed her cards, the diamonds and hearts blurring before her eyes. She couldn’t concentrate. “I fold.” She shoved a mound of foil-wrapped candy towards Alindy, who crowed with triumph and unwrapped a green apple swizzle with unsuppressed glee. “So what do we have to do for the audition?”

“The usual,” Wynna said, stealing a piece of candy. Tia shot her a prompting look. “Oh, right. There’s a short class taught by a teacher from the company, then each student performs a minute-long, original piece of choreography.”

“A minute-long, original piece…?” she echoed, starting to feel a bit sick.

“I don’t like that part either,” Alindy said, sucking on her candy.

“‘Don’t like’ is an understatement,” Wynna said.

“What do you mean?” Tia asked.

Alindy gave a little, nervous laugh. “Oh, one time I got so nervous in an audition I completely forgot my whole routine. I mean, that was years ago, but I always worry it’ll happen again…” She fiddled with her braid. “And that’s why I don’t audition for things.”

“You’re not helping!” Tia said, starting to panic. How was she going to perfect an original routine by tomorrow? “Wyn, you got picked for the Queen’s Fair last year. Do you remember your choreography? Could you show me?”

Wynna started in with protestations of year-old, unpolished choreography, but she eventually acquiesced. Together they made their way from the cramped dormitory room to an empty studio.

Truth be told, she had missed dancing her own choreography. From the precise angle of the dancers’ hips to their facial expressions, the academy teachers demanded exactitude, with no room for interpretation. Mistress Laserie’s classes allowed some creativity, but one hour of cultural and historic dance was never long enough. Yet who had the energy for more dance after their daily hours upon hours of classes? Not Tia.

So she actually found her spirits buoyed as they entered the empty studio. She stood at the edge of the room as Wynna took to the center of the floor, studying her reflection with that intense, dancer’s focus. Time stood still in those few seconds, and then Wynna launched herself into motion.

Wynna’s dance was simple, elegant, and perfect. Each line of her body flowed in flawless accord with the rest, and she dedicated absolute attention to every movement, sparing no detail. Yet the dance glided from one part to the next, never disjointed, always fluid. The minute was up before Tia knew it, and she gave Wynna a round of thundering applause after she found her breath again.

“You really liked it?” Wynna asked, walking towards her. That otherworldly, dancing creature from moments before faded with each step, until she was just Wynna again, standing with an anxious look on her face.

“Of course I liked it! That was incredible!” It was no wonder Wynna had been picked to perform in the fair last year, when she was only a ninth-year. What could Tia do to measure up?

“Thanks,” Wynna said. “It worked last year, so I’m using it again tomorrow. Anyway, I’m heading back, but don’t worry so much. You’ll figure it out. Just don’t stay up too late—audition judges can sniff out a sleepy dancer like a hound can weasels.”

Tia walked with small, uncertain steps into the center of the floor. What could she possibly show to the judges tomorrow that wouldn’t make her a laughingstock?

She frowned at her reflection, and her reflection frowned right back. Well, no sense procrastinating. She shook off her hesitation and got to work.

She groaned when the bell tolled sixth hour the next morning, garnering a loud shushing from Selitta in the bed below. She felt like death.

Wynna tutted when Tia stumbled into the bathroom. “I thought I told you not to work too late!”

“Took your advice. Couldn’t sleep,” she yawned back, rubbing her eyes furiously.

“Don’t do that!” Wynna cried, swatting at her hands. “You’ll make it worse.” She looked at Alindy, who was wrangling her coarse black hair into a bun. “Do you still have the pot of that stuff? What was it called?”

“Concealer,” Alindy mumbled around the five hairpins in her mouth.

“Yes, that. We’ll try it, and hopefully the judges won’t be able to tell.”

“Tell what?” came a cold voice as the bathroom door banged open. There stood Selitta, a smirk playing over her lips. “Ooh, stayed up late, did we? Tough luck. Company judges like their dancers well-rested.”

Wynna’s eyes narrowed. “And what would you know about that? You never try out for anything.”

Selitta batted her crystal blue eyes. “How can you fault me for wanting to participate in Hygot’s most iconic, historic dance? Maybe Mistress Laserie’s rubbing off on me.”

Tia raised an eyebrow, not buying it.

Selitta caught her look. “Doesn’t matter what you think. You’re still a fledgling, little dancer trying to keep up with the big girls.” She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “Think I’ll wash up in the other bathroom, actually. Smells like bog in here.” She turned and flounced out the door, her shiny, dark hair sweeping in a wave behind her.

“And good riddance,” Wynna muttered. “You don’t smell like bog, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Tia said. “I’ve heard it all already. She’s not very original.” It was true; Selitta’s insults had long since lost their barbs. She shook her head. “I just don’t get that girl. And I live with her!”

“My mam says some people are just born wrong,” Alindy said.

“Maybe,” she replied, still feeling more puzzled than anything else.

Right after the morning classes ended, she joined the crowd of girls waiting their turn outside the audition room. After a few minutes, a woman with hair pulled back in a tight dance bun pulled open the studio door and called them all in.

The normally empty studio now had a long table set up in front of the mirrors. Aside from the academy teachers, there were five other judges seated at the table who Tia didn’t recognize—the company teachers. They all gazed upon the girls with cool expressions, as if they didn’t expect much.

She gulped and squinted at her reflection in the mirror. Well, the concealer caked on under her eyes seemed to be doing its job; she didn’t look more tired than anyone else.

Just as Wynna had promised, one of the company teachers stood up from the table and began to run the girls through a short class. The only sound in the room was the sweep of dancers’ feet on the floor, the teacher calling out the counts for each routine, and the scritching of pens taking copious notes.

All the dancers shuffled back into the hall once the class was over. After a few minutes, the teacher opened the studio door and called for Annet, a ninth-year, to come in and perform her solo. Tia wiped her clammy hands on her front and did her best to control her breathing.

One by one, each girl was called into the studio. Some emerged with beaming smiles, others came out white and shaking. When Wynna’s name was called, she gave Tia a quick wink over her shoulder as she disappeared into the room. She hoped she could find even a sliver of that kind of confidence. Wynna exited the studio a minute later.

“How’d it go?” she asked.

“About the same as usual.”

She grinned. “So it went perfect.”

“We’ll see,” Wynna said with an enigmatic smile. “I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll wait with you until you’re done—can’t be long now.”

There were only a handful of girls left to finish up the audition. Her heart swooped when the teacher poked her head out the studio door and called her name. “Tia Inkman? Please come in.”

She followed the teacher into the studio. Eleven pairs of eyes all focused in on her, and Tia felt a sudden, painful awareness of every step she took toward the center of the room. It felt like she’d forgotten how to walk, let alone dance.

“Whenever you’re ready, my dear,” one of the company judges said, a kindly look on his face.

Ready? Ready for what? Oh. The dance. Right. Reaching for the choreography, her mind was a big, horrible blank.

And then with a jolt everything came flooding back, and she began to dance. She threw herself into each motion, ignoring her reflection, trying to pretend the most distinguished dance teachers in the kingdom weren’t poring over her every movement. Before she had even properly registered that the audition had begun, she was already entering the final bit of the choreography, spinning round and round and round.

She finished her final turn and held the position for a moment, registering the polite smattering of applause.

“Results will be posted within the next two days,” the kindly-faced company judge said. “Thank you for your audition, and good luck.”

She stumbled over her feet as she headed for the door. Clumsy! Why couldn’t she glide? She was a dancer, for gods’ sake! But all her nervous awkwardness was forgotten as she tripped from the terrifying audition room through the door and saw Wynna waiting for her.

“How did you do?”

“I think it went well… I mean, I don’t know, but at least it’s over.” She took in a deep breath, feeling like she hadn’t inhaled in several days.

Wynna gave her a hug. “How about going out to celebrate tonight? The bakery by the square?” She nodded her assent, and Wynna started rattling off all the pastries she wanted to sample.

But even though she’d made it through the audition, the next two days somehow seemed like even more of a trial. She found herself drumming her fingers on any available surface. How could it take so long for the judges to come to a decision?

On the second day a welcome distraction came in the form of a letter from Natlin. Alone in her room, she laughed aloud reading Natlin’s description of Pila going crazy trying to manage the ledgers without Tia’s help and how Milvin, one of Natlin’s suitors, had accidentally let all his family’s chickens escape their coop that morning, for the third time in a month.

In other words, life here is how it’s always been: painfully boring! her sister wrote at the bottom of the page. So make sure to take some time out of your glamorous new life and tell me all about it. I’m begging you!

She smoothed a piece of paper out onto the desk and tapped her pen against her lower lip, trying to decide how to begin her letter back.

How is it going with Hob? No, that wouldn’t do. Their parents might read the letter and then the game would be up.

I left this out of my last letter, but there’s a crazy killer in Firefly Hollow who murdered one of the academy students. And he was staring at me at a party. Definitely not.

I really like the boy I dance with in partnering class, but I can’t make myself say more than three words to him at a time. Again, their parents might read it, and that was just plain embarrassing.

A pounding on the door interrupted her thoughts. Wynna’s muffled voice filtered through the door.

“It’s posted! Let’s go and see!”

She was out the door in an instant, and they hustled down the hallways toward the studios. Moments later they joined a throng of girls crowding around a sheet of paper pasted on the wall.

“Look for the stars,” one ninth-year girl murmured to her friend, and Tia started scanning the list as everyone jostled for a view.

She spotted Wynna’s name at the top of the list. There was a star right beside it. Well, it would have been more of a surprise if Wynna hadn’t made it. “Congratulations,” she said to Wynna, even as she searched for everyone else who’d made the cut.

A ninth-year girl beside her squealed and clutched her friend’s arm. “We made it! I knew we could do it!” She pointed at two starred names, one right below the other. Suse Tinker. Annet d’Erheath.

“Prin and Brissa made it too,” Wynna breathed. Prin Tanner and Brissa Lind—both tenth-years. Five names now. Only one more girl could make the cut.

And there was the sixth name, hovering just a few lines from the bottom of the page.

She blanched. How was it possible? Written in a clear hand, with a star emblazoned beside it, was the name Selitta d’Wygst.

Selitta, who wasn’t even here in the excited crowd of girls to check if she’d made the cut.

She pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth, trying to keep herself from crying. It wasn’t working; she could feel a lump swiftly developing in her throat.

“Listen,” Wynna said as she put an arm around Tia’s shoulders, “she doesn’t deserve it. Maybe it’s her father’s doing. He’s pulled strings for her before.”

She nodded, only half-hearing Wynna’s words. It was so unfair. Or was it possible Selitta was somehow still a better dancer than her, though she lazed her way through every class? She should have known it was impossible for her to make the cut after little more than a month at the academy. Hadn’t that been Mistress Oerfall’s favorite word when she had first arrived? “Impossible!” she’d said. “Simply impossible!”

Despite her disappointment, she couldn’t help her watery eyes from traveling down the rest of the page. Her eyes, blurry from tears, snagged on something.

What was that? She blinked rapidly. There, at the very bottom of the page with a bold star right beside it, was the name Tia Inkman.

Her breath caught. “I-I made it.”

Wynna frowned. “What? But—”

“There! At the bottom!” Her voice quavered, half from her forgotten tears and half from disbelieving excitement.

Wynna’s eyes widened. “But they only ever allow six academy girls each year…” She stared at the seventh star with a pensive look on her face, but her familiar smile soon returned. “You did it! Maybe they’re changing the choreography somehow to allow for one more girl.”

“Tia Inkman!” The voice cut through the crowd, ringing with a teacher’s authority. The girls rustled and murmured as Mistress Oerfall pointed a thin, beckoning finger toward Tia. Blood rushed to her head. Was this the moment the dance mistress would tell her a mistake had been made? Maybe someone had starred her name as a practical joke. She dragged her feet as she walked over to the dance mistress, trying to delay the bad news. Behind her, the chatter of the other girls died down as they employed their best eavesdropping skills.

“Yes, Mistress Oerfall?”

The dance mistress looked at Tia with her regular stern expression, though… was it her imagination, or was there a slight crinkling around her eyes? She swore she could detect the barest, tiniest hint of a smile.

“When Master Maaj brought you here,” Mistress Oerfall began, “he of course shared with me the circumstances of your unusual training and how it had shaped your dancing. But until your audition, neither I, nor I think any of the other teachers here save for Master Maaj, had quite realized the implications of your unique background.”

Her stomach sank. “You think they made a mistake, don’t you? That I shouldn’t have been picked.”

“Do not presume to put words in my mouth,” the dance mistress replied. “In fact, I think quite the opposite, and I was one of the judges who argued most on your behalf.” Tia’s cheeks bloomed red. She’d always thought she was an annoyance to the dance mistress. But Mistress Oerfall had put up a fight for her?

The dance mistress looked at her with her sharp, glittering eyes. “It’s clear you must have a great amount of determination to have danced for so many years, especially with no guidance or support. You are already finding your way in life at the academy, despite having come to our halls at a tragic and tumultuous time. And the only real dance performance you saw to inform your dancing before coming here was the Queen’s Fair dance.”

She swallowed. It was embarrassing to hear the truth spoken so baldly. “Yes, Mistress Oerfall.”

“That showed in your solo choreography. You must have realized the dance you crafted echoed elements of the Queen’s Fair sequence. Beginning slow and somber, ending with a series of turns—these elements speak of an idolization of Osanne’s dance.”

“Yes, Mistress Oerfall,” she said, a nervous spark crackling up and down her body. In fact, until the dance mistress had pointed out the obvious in this very moment, she’d had no idea. What other parts of herself were obscure to her and clear as day to others?

“Tia, if this had been any other performance, you would not have been selected. You have a good amount of technique to study and master before you are ready to perform.” Mistress Oerfall’s lips, pressed tight together into a thin line, softened slightly. “However, your unusual background has equipped you to perform this one, particular dance. Given that your teachers have observed your diligence over these weeks, we thought we would give you this chance.”

“Thank you, Mistress Oerfall,” she said. She hardly dared move, for fear she’d do something wrong and cause the judges to take it all back.

“I pick my words very carefully, Tia,” the dance mistress said, holding up her hand. “As I said, this is a chance for you to prove yourself. Over these next few weeks, we want to see rapid refinement of your technique; only then will you secure the spot. The position of another one of our tenth-year girls is tenuous. We have decided to also offer her a chance at this spot as a way to judge whether she will stay with us at the academy and advance on to the company next year. That is why there were seven girls selected to perform, rather than the traditional six. Only when the performance date draws closer will we decide whether you or the other girl will ultimately dance on stage.”

Of course there was a caveat. “Who… who is the other girl?”

Mistress Oerfall’s lips pressed thin again. “Selitta d’Wygst.”

She struggled to maintain her neutral dancer’s face, even as anger roiled within her. Was she to be eternally locked in a struggle with that girl? She might as well move out of her room altogether and make do with Wynna and Alindy’s raggedy carpet as a mattress.

The dance mistress leaned in, her voice low. “Tia, I know this is frustrating for you. Realize we see an ember of potential burning within you. Now all you have to do is stoke the flames.” She waved her hands in dismissal.

The eavesdropping girls had all given up, and the hallway was mercifully empty; it gave her a chance to wipe away a few tears of frustration. She tucked her anger away—motivation to draw upon later.

There was something positive to take out of the whole conversation, she realized as she walked back to the dormitory. For the first time she could remember, Mistress Oerfall had called Tia by her actual name, not “girl.”

Back in her still-empty room (praise the gods) Tia sat back down at the desk. In her haste she’d thrown her pen down on the paper, leaving a constellation of ink droplets across the top of the page. She fished out a clean sheet of paper and reached for the pen. This time she didn’t hesitate; she knew exactly what to write.

I just found out I may be dancing at the Queen’s Fair. There’s still a chance it won’t happen, but I think I can pull it off. You have to visit! Come in the caravan with the others. Even if I don’t make it in the end, we’ll still have loads of fun. I miss you.

She signed her name with a quick, swooping gesture, and regretted it a second later; she’d just thought of something else she wanted to say. And who cared if her parents read the letter? They were all the way on the other side of Hygot. If they disapproved of anything she said, what could they really do? She took up the pen again.

P.S. I really like one of the dancers here. I think I’m going to ask him to tutor me so I have a better shot at dancing at the fair. We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck!