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Tia walked into partnering class the next day with her shoulders squared and neck tall. Even if her head was aching from sleepiness and she was sore from a night on Wynna and Alindy’s floor, at least she could project some confidence.
I was wondering if you would show me your favorite spots around Haplyr?
Such a simple question, but she couldn’t help repeating it over and over in her head like a mantra. Would she come across as desperate? Timid? Clinging?
In any case, she had to ask him in partnering class. The teachers were squeezing Queen’s Fair dance rehearsals into every spare moment of the dancers’ schedules, so that even at lunch she still only had a few free minutes to eat. Even given the excitement of a budding romance, she still had to give preference to food. It wouldn’t do to pass out in rehearsals from starvation.
It also wouldn’t do to pass out right now from nerves, she reminded herself, and forced herself to cross the studio floor.
The room was a completely transformed space from the night before. Sunlight beamed through the windows overhead, and the students chattered merrily as they trickled into the studio and started stretching. Roge was already waiting in their usual corner; his eyes had found her right when she entered the room. Her eyes fluttered downward for a moment before she wrenched herself back into a semblance of confidence. Nonetheless, she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.
Here went nothing.
“Hello,” they said in unison. They bumbled through a few awkward pleasantries before Mistress Oerfall’s call to get started cut the conversation short.
The class was heavenly torture. With every beat he was there to spin her, lift her, catch her. She relished every touch, while in the same breath wanting to shy away from him. It had been easy to kiss Roge in the dark, but looking into his eyes and feeling his hands on her body in the daylight was ten times more real.
Mistress Oerfall paused the class after the second exercise to give a longer correction to Simas and Selitta, and Tia gathered her courage. Now was her chance.
I was wondering if you would show me your favorite spots around Haplyr?
How hard could it be?
“Last night you were saying you’d lived in Haplyr all your life,” she started. Roge nodded and came a step closer. There were amber flecks in his gray eyes, she noticed, distracted for a moment. Why did he have to be so gods-damned handsome? “Do you think…? I mean, only if you really wanted to…” She was already groaning inside her head as the question careened into unknown territory. The sentence! The sentence! “Would you ever want to show me about Haplyr, to your favorite spots? I’ve never really had a proper tour of the city.” The words came out in a big, mashed-up blurt, her tongue leaden in her mouth.
His enigmatic expression broke into a smile. “Of course. Galleries, cafes, museums… there’s much the city has to offer. I’d be happy to show you around.”
“Thank you,” was all she had time to say before Mistress Oerfall started calling out the next exercise. As they got back to work, it wasn’t simply the dance mistress’s elaborate routines keeping a healthy glow on Tia’s cheeks.
Wynna and Alindy swarmed her after class. “Did you ask him?” Alindy asked, just as Wynna asked if class had been good or awkward.
She didn’t know who to answer first. “Yes! I mean no, it wasn’t that awkward. And yes, I did ask him. And he said he’d be happy to show me the city.”
“What else? What else?” Alindy clamored, putting a finger on Wynna’s lips to hush her.
“Not very much,” Tia admitted. “Just little remarks here and there. Honestly, we usually don’t talk much to each other in class. Is that a bad sign?”
Alindy let out a dreamy sigh. “They say destined lovers can read each other’s minds, with no need for words.” Wynna let out a loud snort, clearly skeptical, and garnered a pointed glare from Alindy. “Don’t pay attention to her,” Alindy huffed. “She’s far too practical, that one.”
Wynna stuck out her tongue at Alindy, then turned back to Tia with a gleam in her eyes. “When is he going to take you?”
“Tomorrow at twelfth hour.” Tomorrow was their day off from classes. Blessedly, the company choreographers were also observing the rest day and hadn’t slotted in any rehearsals.
Wynna trilled and clapped her hands together. “Just enough time to decide what you’ll be wearing!” By this time they were back to the dormitory, and Wynna marched Tia into their room and threw open the doors to the packed wardrobe. Over the course of the next hour, Tia didn’t dare move a muscle as Wynna buzzed around her, calling for Alindy, her designated assistant, to bring her this gown or that frock.
“How is it possible to have so many clothes?” Tia called out to Alindy at one point, as Wynna took a few steps back for the umpteenth time to assemble her expert judgment. Alindy shrugged, then on Wynna’s orders hustled back to the wardrobe on a mission to find elbow-length black gloves.
“And it has to have pockets?” Wynna said with a huff, eyeing a ruby frock regretfully. Tia gave her a solemn nod. It was her only request; after what had happened with Annalise, she never left the academy without her knife.
After donning and discarding what felt like close to a hundred outfits, Wynna finally gave her an approving nod. “That will do.”
“That will do?” Alindy cried. “She looks fantastic!” Wynna beamed as she circled around Tia, smoothing the dress here and there. The dress was crafted from deep, green taffeta, its hem trimmed with curving designs of crushed black velvet. Sheer black sleeves ran all the way to her wrists, allowing a glimpse of her skin beneath.
“What about the cold, though?” Alindy noted. “With a bodice like that and transparent sleeves, she’ll catch pneumonia.”
“Hmm,” Wynna said, taking a step back and frowning. Muttering to herself, she moved to the wardrobe, now surrounded by piles of clothing, and started rummaging towards the back. At last she produced a white fur stole, beating it with her hand to rid it of dust. “Here,” Wynna said, thrusting the stole at Tia, who shrugged it on compliantly.
Alindy let out an admiring sigh at the final look. “Poor boy won’t know what hit him.”
“It looks nice?” Tia asked. The room had no mirror, so all she could do was picture the final effect.
“Don’t fish for compliments,” Wynna said, clicking her tongue. “I know what I’m doing. You look lovely.”
“At least you have a back-up plan if you’re ever injured,” Alindy said to Wynna. “You can open a boutique—you’d have customers out the door. Me, I’d probably have to go home to Leylirt and work in my da’s fish shop.”
Wynna eyes flashed as she turned toward Alindy. “Don’t joke about injury,” she snapped. Wynna tended to avoid the subject, as if talking about it were the very invitation for injury to occur.
After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, Alindy perked up and returned to the original subject. “Well, with an outfit like that, Roge had better be preparing the most magnificent tour of Haplyr any girl’s ever experienced. If it doesn’t go to plan, you should have your pick of admirers.”
“Thanks,” Tia said. What would tomorrow entail? Wherever Roge decided to take her would no doubt be perfectly wonderful. Yet what she most wished for was a return of how she’d felt with him in the moonlight, that feeling of unbridled intentions and tacit trust, all said in a touch. Had he felt the same way? Or was she embarrassing herself, making some secret kisses out to be more important than they were? Tomorrow she’d get an answer, she reassured herself. She just hoped it was the answer she was looking for.
Her eyes snapped open at the first peal of the seventh hour bells. Her dreams had been an unending parade of every possible disaster that could befall her on her day out with Roge. She’d rather be bleary-eyed and awake than tortured by what-ifs by her worrywart of a dreaming brain.
She sat up, stretched, and quietly descended the bunk-bed ladder, not wanting to awaken the venomous monster that was her roommate. Yet she paused, startled, halfway down the ladder. Even at this early hour, Selitta’s bed was deserted, though the sheets and blankets were rumpled. Unusual. On a day off like today, Selitta usually lazed in bed all the way till noon.
Well, who cared where she was? It was nice to be spared the girl’s malign presence for once. She shrugged and shuffled to the bathroom.
And there was Selitta, washing her face. Her sleek, dark hair was already fastened back in a neat dance bun, ornamented with her signature silver comb. Tia let out an internal groan when the girl looked up at the sound of the door and rearranged her blank expression into a smirk.
“Good morning,” Selitta said, patting her face dry with a towel, then, when she didn’t receive a reply, repeated herself more forcefully. “Good morning.” Tia decided to keep ignoring her. It wasn’t worth it to engage.
“You know,” Selitta said, taking a breath as she turned to study her reflection in the mirror, “proper ladies make sure to greet one another in the morning with an appropriate salutation.” She unscrewed a jar of face cream and dabbed the thick cream on her cheeks and forehead before continuing to prattle on. “But you wouldn’t know how proper ladies act, would you? I know you resent living in the presence of people more refined than you, but you should know this living arrangement of ours is a blessing. It’s not often someone from your background has the opportunity to live with someone like myself and learn how to better themselves.” Tia’s blood started boiling, and Selitta let out a peal of laughter as she caught Tia’s expression in the mirror. It seemed to feed her. “Perhaps you’ll be cultured enough when they kick you out that you’ll find someone in your dumpy town who will overlook that plain face of yours and propose.”
“You know I’m here to stay,” Tia said in a low voice, her hands clenched into shaking fists.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” Selitta purred, still examining herself in the mirror. “The teachers will see the truth in the end—that you’re a talentless dreamer from a stinking backwater. I may have more to lose in this particular, ridiculous contest, but the fact of the matter is I’m going to win and advance to the company. Why, this morning I’m off to a private lesson with one of the company teachers. I don’t suppose someone like you can afford such things.” She looked at Tia under her lashes. “No? I didn’t think so. You’re batting your eyes at Roge for private lessons, but a no-name bastard can’t compare to a professional.” Selitta turned to face her, looking her up and down. “And don’t think I don’t know about your little love affair. I see all the blushes and the looks you give him in class. Creeping back to our room at who knows what time of night? Whore.”
Tia could have attacked her right then and there, ripped that irritating hair bauble out and then seen what damage her fingernails could do to Selitta’s smug face. Her nails were long and well-maintained now that she’d left the myreskeet shelling behind, and Tia pictured raking them down Selitta’s smooth, well-moisturized skin.
But perhaps Selitta wanted her to be angry enough to start a fight, hoping bad behavior would bar her from getting the part. So she kept her cool and her silence, though she couldn’t decide whether she was taking the high road or being a pushover.
After a few moments more, Selitta gathered up her things and flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
How far would Selitta go, she wondered, to secure a spot on that stage? The girl didn’t apply herself in class, but it was clear she wished to remain at the academy. What kept her so fixated on staying here? An overbearing, rich father who saw the academy as little more than a finishing school, like Master Maaj had said so long ago? An urge to fulfill a childhood dream, though she lacked the dedication to do so?
And then there was the crying-in-her-bed thing. Who knew what that was about? She’d been living with Selitta for almost two months now, but her roommate was still a mystery—a hateful, venomous mystery.
She walked back to her room, bristling as she anticipated another verbal assault. She was relieved to find the room empty, Selitta already gone to her lesson. Yet as Tia picked out a sensible green dress to wear to breakfast, she still couldn’t wrangle her thoughts away from her roommate. How much could a couple weeks under the tutelage of a company teacher do for Selitta’s dancing? If the private lessons did not suffice, Selitta might grow desperate. Would Tia have to keep an eye on her food before the final decision, lest Selitta lace it with something to cause a stomachache? Or suddenly find herself locked in their room for one of the rehearsals? A myriad of disasters sprouted in her mind, each new idea more ridiculous than the last.
Try as she might to ignore Selitta, the girl’s toxic presence was getting to her. Yet there were only a few short weeks left until the Queen’s Fair. As long as Selitta was only hurling words in the shape of daggers, not actual daggers, she had faith she would dance on that stage.