Chapter Seventeen

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Tia’s eyes glazed over for what felt like the hundredth time in an hour. Normally she loved Mistress Laserie’s class, but today every second crawled along. The so-called pulse-stroke slow dances of the Falsig Islands did not live up to the sensual promise of their name, and taking a glance around the room, she could tell the rest of the class was just as unenthralled as she was.

Still, it was unfair to pin the reason for her distraction wholly on the dull dances of Hygot’s southwestern islands. No, the real reason for her unshakeable malaise lay in what she intended to do sometime during the next class. Yet before she could run through all her hopes, worries, and doubts again, Mistress Laserie’s voice rose above all the bored whispers.

“My dears,” she cried, stamping her cane on the floor with unexpected force, “it’s clear many of you are having a difficult time connecting with the intended spirit of the pulse-stroke dances.” Behind her, Tia heard Simas whisper something about how if it were all up to him, the intended spirit of the pulse-stroke dance would be altogether different. His remark earned stifled guffaws from the other boys, and Wynna turned and gave them all a pointed glare. Mistress Laserie kept speaking as if she hadn’t heard. Well, perhaps she really hadn’t. After all, the dance mistress was rather elderly.

“You young people are so often drawn to dances with daring leaps and impossible turns. Yet impressive though these physical feats are, sometimes the most astonishing beauty of all can be found in simplicity. So I bid you all an early ‘goodbye’ today. Yes,” she assured them, as everyone’s attention snapped back at the prospect of an early dismissal. “Yes, my dears, you heard me correct. Take the rest of our class period to enjoy the splendid weather and walk in the garden. With winter nearly upon us, it behooves us to enjoy the day and not stay cooped up indoors, dancing or no. Your assignment is this: consider the clean lines of the trees and bushes, naked without their leaves, and see if you can’t find some beauty there.” She stamped her cane on the floor again, and they fled, happy for the unexpected reprieve.

It really was a glorious fall day—perhaps the last hurrah of autumn before Chyor’s icy breath arrived to wreath the city in frost and icicles. Tia, Wynna, and Alindy strolled together through the garden, crimson leaves crunching underfoot. Glancing around the grounds, Tia observed that most of their classmates were conspicuously absent. Either they’d all discovered some hidden nook of the gardens or they hadn’t taken Mistress Laserie’s words to heart.

Wynna stopped before a bare bush. Her lips pursed as she considered the plant for several long seconds. “I mean… it has very healthy-looking bark,” she said, her voice a tinge doubtful.

Alindy turned this way and that, as if viewing a fine work of art. Finally she shook her head and heaved a dramatic sigh. “I don’t think any amount of staring at bushes is going to make me think the people of the Falsig Islands have good taste in dance.” She turned to Tia and spoke in an affected, sonorous voice. “And what are your thoughts on the piece, Miss Inkman?”

Tia stared at the bush. “It looks… umm… I think I’d prefer it with leaves. Anyway, how much time do you suppose we have before third hour?” Walking in the garden had been a nice distraction, but now all her plans for next class came rushing back.

“I have no idea,” Wynna said as they resumed their course through the garden, then threw out her hand suddenly as they came to a fork in the path. The girl’s eyes shone bright as she looked down the leftward path, and her mouth curved upward in a sly smile. She nudged Tia. “Who cares when third hour starts? I just saw him round the corner. He wasn’t with anyone—ask him now!”

Tia’s heart turned over. She’d planned to take Roge up on his previous offer of tutoring during partnering class. The whole speech was planned out in her head; in theory, asking him in the garden should be the same as asking him in class. Yet she had the vague sense Roge would understand the question differently if she asked him outside of class, when they didn’t have to be in close proximity to one another. The brilliant red and gold leaves raining down with every wisp of wind also set a certain, undeniable mood.

Gods, why had she written that note to Natlin? It was so hard to act when the moment finally called for boldness.

Wynna poked her. “Now’s the best time. You can’t have a proper conversation while Mistress Oerfall is bellowing at you to fix your fish dive.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Alindy added.

“Oh, I don’t know… He’ll think I’m pathetic and let me fall flat on my face?”

Alindy laughed. “He’s kept you upright in partnering this whole time. Only someone who likes you could be focused enough to keep that disaster from toppling over.”

Tia stuck out her tongue as the other two girls chortled. Partnering was still her most difficult class by far. Thank the gods the Queen’s Fair choreography didn’t necessitate close contact with other dancers.

Wynna cleared her throat. “Be honest. You hardly get to say a word to him in class with Oerfall breathing down your neck. Now’s the time!”

Tia scowled, though she knew it was true. Highlights of their interactions in partnering included: Can you place your grip a bit higher? and Try shifting your weight more to the front.

The breeze picked up for a moment, buffeting a ruby river of leaves down the path.

She squared her shoulders. “All right, then. Wish me luck.” Wynna and Alindy issued quiet cheers as she marched away.

She rounded the bend and there he was, studying a tree. She flushed. Whether Roge was working through an intricate series of steps in class or studying a tree in the garden, he always looked just as handsome. She sidled up to him, pulse hammering.

“Wh-what do you think of the tree? It’s a strange assignment, right?”

Roge turned, gray eyes meeting her own. “I think Mistress Laserie’s right… Simple, natural grace can be the most beautiful of all.” Her lips parted. There was something odd about his tone—some implied meaning that was making her head swim. He gestured at a bench just down the path. “Would you like to sit?” She nodded her assent.

After a few moments spent in silence, Tia opened her mouth to speak. “Sorry I’m so terrible in partnering. You’re so talented… It must be frustrating.”

He frowned. “Did I give you that impression? I look forward to that class every day.”

“Oh,” was all she managed, and she shivered as the wind gusted leaves up and down the path. “I remember you said… Well, it was a long time ago… The night that—you know.” Gods, why couldn’t she just spit it out? “You said if I ever wanted a tutor that you’d be willing.” She wanted to beat herself about the head. What was it about being nervous that kept her from stringing a comprehensible sentence together?

But he was smiling again, like he hadn’t even noticed her stammering. “Of course! I thought you’d forgotten all about it. That night was a bit of a blur, after all.”

Tia gasped. “I would never! Especially because you were so kind earlier that day when Selitta said those things.”

“I know what I like when I see it—that extends to people. And what I don’t like. So why would I let Selitta talk to you like that?” Her pulse quickened. He was so direct!

He changed the subject. “In any case, let’s meet at eighth hour tonight. I assume you want to get started right away so you’re prepared for the Queen’s Fair.” She nodded. “Perfect. I’ve never been in the dance myself, of course, but I see them rehearse it every year. I’m sure I can be a help.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you,” Roge said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

It was getting close to third hour, so they walked back together. Partnering went just as it normally did—the two of them dancing together, hardly saying a word even when they had a rare, free moment. Tia fretted internally, worried their meeting at eighth hour would be the quietest tutoring session ever conducted. After dinner, she holed up in Wynna and Alindy’s room, waiting out the time.

“So tell me again,” Alindy said, twirling the end of her black braid around her finger. “What did he say after you thanked him?” It turned out Alindy was somewhat of a hopeless romantic and would stand for nothing less than combing over the whole exchange.

She closed her eyes, trying to remember what Roge had said word for word. “I think it was, ‘I’m looking forward to it.’”

Alindy clapped her hands together. “‘I’m looking forward to it?’ Well, I think it’s obvious what he means by that.”

“He probably means he’s looking forward to it,” Wynna said with an eye roll. “Gods, Alindy, you can really read into things.”

Alindy shushed her, eyes bright as she continued her cross-examination. “What else did he say?”

Tia scrunched up her face, trying to remember. It had been hard to commit anything to memory when she’d been so nervous. “It was something like, ‘I know what I like when I see it.’”

A smug smile stole across Alindy’s face as she turned to Wynna. “Am I reading into things? I think not!”

Wynna raised her hands in submission. “You may have a point.” She sighed and looked toward the bulging wardrobe in the corner. “It’s too bad you’re going for tutoring and not a proper date. Otherwise we could find you a nice dress… Do something with your hair besides a bun…”

Tia wrinkled her nose. “I’m not a doll, you know.”

“No, of course not…” Wynna replied, a bit wistfully.

“And anyway, why don’t you two find your own romances?” Tia said. “There must be some boys here you’re interested in.”

“This one’s too professional,” Alindy said, shaking her head at Wynna. “She won’t let herself even acknowledge romance as a concept until she graduates and makes it into the company. And me? I know all these boys, most of them a bit too well. There’s not a one I want to get involved with—I like surprises too much. So get ready to divulge all the details. I’d rather live through you than get my own beau!” She beamed at Tia, who made sure to scowl back.

There was nothing to be done about the dance clothes, but her friends still took advantage of every possibility to help her look her best. Though she was anxious as eighth hour neared and she left the haven of their room for the studio, at least she didn’t have to worry about her bun being untidy or her face an oily mess. Wynna had even pulled out her cosmetics and dusted a thin coat of golden shimmer onto her eyelids. “It brings out the flecks in your eyes,” she explained. Tia took her word for it.

She stood in the empty studio just minutes before eighth hour. The silvery moonbeams shining through the skylights were the only source of illumination in the room. The girl in the mirror, waiting motionless in the middle of the room, was a wan facsimile of herself. She’d spent so many hours dancing alone in the dark with only her reflection for company… And somehow she’d never once envisioned herself waiting for a boy to arrive and share the moment. Sneaking around with boys had always been Natlin’s territory—well, just with Hob, really—but that was beside the point. Perhaps it was just tutoring that Roge had in mind, but she knew Alindy was right; Roge’s tone during their afternoon conversation had intimated at other intentions.

She heard the creak of the door behind her. Even as just a shadow in the doorway, she knew his silhouette instantly. He strode over to her, quick and confident, the dark image resolving itself into her dance partner as he came into the light. “Good evening,” Roge said, inclining his head.

“Good evening,” she answered. “Thanks again for saying yes.”

“I was just waiting for you to ask.” His teeth flashed white in the moonlight as he smiled.

“Can’t have the new girl get up in front of Hygot’s elite and ruin the performance,” she quipped. “You’re doing your kingdom a great service.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why put yourself down? Master Maaj was right to admit you. You deserve to be here.” She didn’t have an answer and squirmed in the ensuing silence. He took a breath. “I heard a rumor that you and Selitta are competing for a spot in the Queen’s Fair dance.”

She grimaced and looked away. She’d been trying not to think about it. “You heard right.”

His mouth slid into another half-smile. “Well, there’s your answer. That’s the real reason I want to tutor you. Can’t have her get her way.” He paused, a pensive look dampening his smile. “Though it seems odd she auditioned in the first place. Out of character.”

“They’ve made it a contest—if I get picked for the spot, she gets sent home, even though they don’t have a replacement for her. But if she gets picked, she can go on to the company.”

Roge let out a low whistle. “Sounds like Lord Irwin d’Wygst’s doing. I’d bet a silver the teachers want her gone as soon as possible. Otherwise she’ll graduate and the company will have to deal with her for gods knows how long.”

“I just don’t understand why she wants to stay,” she said. “You see how she is in class.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to stay,” Roge said, chuckling. “It could be all Lord d’Wygst’s meddling. If I were him, I wouldn’t want to deal with her either. So he throws his weight around, puts pressure on the patrons, and there you have it, now they’ve enacted this ridiculous competition.”

Tia had to admit it did make some amount of sense. Had she seen any evidence Selitta actually wanted to win the Queen’s Fair spot? Maybe they were both just unhappy participants in a contest cooked up by a father dreading the return of his caustic daughter.

Roge clapped his hands. “All the more reason to get started straightaway. The academy can’t keep cowering under the thumb of Lord Irwin and his less-than-charming offspring. Let’s win you this contest.”

The bell had already rung for ninth hour by the time Roge suggested they take a break. There were no chairs in the studio, so they sprawled on the floor.

“You know the dance so well. You must have been in the academy forever,” she guessed.

Roge nodded. “Born and raised in Haplyr. Joined the academy when I was eight.” Tia sucked in a breath. That was nearly as long as Wynna had been a student here. No wonder, then, that he was so skilled.

He leaned toward her, eyes glittering. “I get so bored of Haplyr—I’ve never left the city. Yes, it’s big, but it feels like I know every corner. What’s Fenlick like?” The expression on his face was earnest, searching.

“It’s…” Such a broad question. What was she supposed to say?

Seeing her floundering, Roge peppered her with more specific questions. He wanted to know all about the bog and its creatures, the peatlands, even the layout of Fenlick itself. She’d never imagined the mundane details of her former life could be so fascinating to someone else.

“Tia Inkman,” he said, as if tasting her name. “It must mean your father…”

“He’s a myreink merchant,” she finished for him. “He harvests the myreskeet, and after that there’s a whole process for making the ink. You have to shuck them—that’s a terrible job—then roast the meat until it’s black and pound it into powder. The final product is much more costly than other inks, but it’s indelible.” She smiled, remembering the Yarren Street shop. A few months ago, she never would have thought it possible to miss the general store, but here she was, falling into the fuzzy embrace of nostalgia as she thought back to her old days of shucking skeet and threading the shells into bracelets.

Roge was delighted. “That’s the kind of life I dream of—simple, no teachers watching your every move. All you need are your two hands and your brain to make a living.”

“Isn’t it much the same here?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Instead of your hands it’s your body. Train hard and you can graduate and join the company.”

He shook his head with conviction. “Two hands are nothing compared to a whole body. If you’re injured, you could be done for good. No matter that you still know how to dance—your body can betray you in the end.” He gazed into the darkness. “Sometimes I think about leaving and finding someone who’d take me on as an apprentice. I’d travel as far away from Haplyr as I could and make a new life.”

Her eyes widened. “Really?”

He barked a laugh. “No, not really. It’s just a thought I have sometimes. No smith or farrier or tanner would ever take me. They want young boys for apprentices, not someone who’s sixteen. All I know is dancing, and in what part of the kingdom can I make a better living doing that than right here? No, I’ll stay and put in my time at the company. After that I can leave and see the world.” His tone was sardonic.

Roge’s words rang familiar. Not so long ago, in the coziness of their bedroom, Natlin had said something to a similar effect.

“I think the academy is wonderful,” she said brightly. “I feel blessed to be here.”

Roge threw her a knowing smile. “You’ve only just gotten here. The academy can mold you into something you’re not. Everyone here—they’ll tell you first that they’re a student of the academy. Where they came from doesn’t factor into it. They work us so hard that you forget.” He took a breath. “That’s why I like the way you dance. You’re still… you.”

“Thank you,” she said. She turned to Roge, struck by a sudden curiosity. “What about you? Who are your parents?”

“My mother is a seamstress in the palace. My father…? A rake who came to the capital with a delegation from Ithiron. I don’t know his name, let alone his station. It doesn’t matter.” A tremor in Roge’s voice spoke of it mattering a great deal.

“Do you ever want to go there? To Ithiron?”

“I think I’d go anywhere once. Not Corim!” Roge added hastily, and she couldn’t suppress a giggle. “Maybe I’d feel like I belonged there, in Ithiron. Or maybe I’d spend the whole time searching for someone who looked a bit too much like me.” There was no right response to that, so they sat together in the milky, moonlit stillness, just breathing side by side.

The quiet darkness played tricks on her mind. She had an unshakeable sense of being in one of those children’s stories, where some hapless person wandered into a ring of stones and found themselves in a strange land where time ground to a halt or ran forwards at unchecked speeds. Some moments later Tia turned to Roge and realized he’d moved much, much closer without her realizing. She felt a touch on her hand, and his other palm came up to cup her face. He dipped his lips toward hers. The kiss was gentle and soft—a question, and she answered him back. Shaking, she leaned into him for steadiness. They kissed a second time, and then again and again, until her whole body was thrumming.

A while later they huddled together on the studio floor, his arms pulling her in close. Tia could feel the warm, soft exhale of his breath behind her. Her bun had come undone, and auburn tendrils of hair twined about her neck. It all felt like a wonderful dream.

She jolted awake. Lost in a trance after kissing Roge, she must have actually started dreaming. Roge’s arms still encircled her, warm compared to the chill of the room. Whatever heat she’d built up from dancing had slipped away. The room was pitch black; the moon had moved onto another patch of sky, leaving them in absolute darkness.

Roge felt her movement and sat up. The magical, unearthly mood had vanished. Roge mumbled something about the time and having class in the morning, and they stumbled out of the studio, back to their respective dormitories. Everything felt awkward and raw and different. Did he regret it? Did she? She didn’t know what to think, especially not while she was mired in this half-sleeping stupor. But as she arrived at the girls’ dormitory and saw the flicker of light coming from the crack under Wynna and Alindy’s door, she knew where she was going.

Wynna opened the door at the first knock. Alindy was perched on top of her bed, peering toward the door over Wynna’s shoulder. In one glance, their eyes took in Tia’s flushed cheeks and mussed hair. Wynna grinned and pulled her inside the room as Alindy let out a squeal.

“Tell us everything,” Wynna demanded. They listened, rapt, as she took them through the whole night.

“What do I do tomorrow?” she asked them. “What do I say? I feel scared to see him in class.”

“You liked it?” Wynna asked, her finger to her lips as she thought out loud. “You still like him, now that you’ve kissed?” She nodded.

“Here’s what you tell him,” Alindy said, her eyes dancing. “You tell him you’re very much looking forward to your next tutoring session and want to confirm you’re meeting again that evening.”

Wynna rolled her eyes. “No. He was telling you about how he’s lived in Haplyr his whole life, right? Ask him to show you his favorite spots around the city. Then while you’re exploring Haplyr you can drop hints about more ‘tutoring.’”

“All right. That doesn’t sound… impossible.” Relieved she had a plan, she bid Wynna and Alindy goodnight, more than ready for whatever amount of sleep she could still get. As she crept down the hallway, she realized this whole romance was Wynna’s doing. It was Wynna who had pushed her down the garden path earlier that day, Wynna who was now feeding her lines. Wynna might be unwilling to delve into a relationship of her own before they graduated, but Tia made a sudden, secret promise to repay the favor with some of her own matchmaking once they made it into the company.

She opened the door to her room. Darkness inside—Selitta must already be asleep. But something was amiss. Selitta’s bed was empty, and Tia’s top bunk…

She gasped. “What the—?”

Selitta raised herself from the ball she’d been curled into and stared down at Tia from the top bunk, her expression blank. The light filtering in from the hallway lamps illuminated tears on her cheeks. Selitta, huddled up in her bed, crying? She fumbled for words.

“A-are you all right? What’s g—?”

But Selitta’s face had transformed into a wolf-like snarl. “You didn’t see anything! GET OUT!

And Tia did, though she made sure to slam the door behind her. It didn’t seem worth it to get into it with Selitta. Her roommate was an inscrutable ball of anger, but if she wanted to be noxious, let her. She hardly cared anymore.

It took a second for Wynna to open the door when Tia knocked. “Listen,” Wynna started, “we’re just as excited as you are, but Mistress Primbuck can always tell if I’ve gotten less than five hours of sleep…”

“Sorry, sorry,” she said quickly. “I just… Can I stay here tonight? Don’t ask.”

“Sure,” Wynna said with a quizzical look, beckoning her into the room. Alindy tossed her down a spare pillow, and Wynna pulled a ratty blanket out from the wardrobe. With a tired sigh, Tia settled in for an uncomfortable night on the rug.