Tia stepped into the cavernous foyer of the academy just as the twelfth hour bell tolled. Her skirts rustled around her ankles, the raised heels of her leather boots clicking on the marble floor. She walked slowly; she wasn’t sure of her footing in this high of a heel.
Roge was leaning against a pillar, looking sharp in an embroidered vest and starched black trousers. He turned at the sound of her approach, his eyes lighting up before giving her a short bow. She inclined her head in answer. Clad in her borrowed dress and with the grandeur of the foyer as a backdrop, she felt positively regal.
“You look lovely,” he said.
“And you as well,” she said. “Handsome, I mean.” Try as she might, she was always stumbling over her words with this boy.
Roge’s eyes crinkled as he smiled, and she felt a wave of relief. He didn’t care she was awkward—seemed to like it, even.
“Shall we?” he asked, extending an arm to her. She took it, grateful for the extra support. And then they were off, sweeping out the double doors of the academy into the vast, waiting city beyond.
It was a gorgeous day for the time of year. Though the chill of winter was in the air, the sun was brilliant overhead, only a few distant clouds daring to mar the wide expanse of blue. Roge guided her expertly down this avenue and up that boulevard, calling her attention to any sites of note along the way.
Soon they came upon a large square. She gasped. There in the very center was the fountain of Queen Osanne that Wynna had spoken of months ago now. The square was packed; roadside vendors sold piping hot roast potatoes, and a small crowd was gathered on the opposite end of the square, listening to an unhinged-looking man rant—something about a fire. Well, every city had its crazies.
A horde of children ran at full tilt through the square, engaged in a giant game of chase. Tia screeched when one boy with red cheeks and a naughty twinkle in his eyes splashed freezing water from the fountain towards her. There was a sharp yank on Tia’s arm; Roge had tugged her toward him, and the water missed her by an inch.
“What the—?” A man to the right of her swore as the water soaked the hem of his brown cloak. He made a grab for the boy, but it was too late; the boy was already halfway across the square, casting a jeering look over his shoulder.
Tia detached herself from Roge with reluctance, then curtsied to him like a lady in a fairy story. “My hero. I’m forever in your debt.”
He puffed out his chest. “All in a day’s work, milady. But let’s not tarry, lest we’re besieged by heathens.” Nonetheless, they took a moment to appreciate the statue, stately amongst the chaos of the square.
Queen Osanne was looking over her shoulder, her two arms outstretched in the classic stance the Queen’s Fair performers assumed in the dance’s final, furious turns. Was Osanne peering over her shoulder to steady her balance so she didn’t topple over? Was she taking a last moment to enjoy her mortal existence before she sacrificed herself to the gods? Tia squinted at the statue’s face. She looked fearful, contrary to her graceful pose.
“That sculptor clearly didn’t know much,” Roge said, his tone flippant. “Look at the placement of her right foot! Mistress Primbuck would have a fit.”
She played along. “And Mistress Laserie would cover for her and say that was just the style back in ancient Hygot.”
That garnered a chuckle. “And Master Sonnen would shout at her not to look so glum—she was only sacrificing herself for her kingdom.”
They shared a laugh and kept walking. A few minutes later Roge motioned for her to stop. He pointed. “See between those two buildings?” She craned her neck, trying to find the right vantage point. Her heart leaped when Roge pulled her closer, pointing to a tiny window of space, where, yes, she could see a spire of white and gold gleaming as it stretched toward the sky.
“The palace! We’re that close?”
“Yes. A gate separates the palace from the rest of the city, and grounds and gardens surround it, but it’s so large you can catch a glimpse here and there.”
“It’s beautiful. Can we get a better view?” To think they were so close to the king himself!
“Of course,” he replied. “We’ll walk further north, then, towards Azure Borough. I like the area around the palace anyway—reminds me of when I was young, before I joined the academy.”
He turned them down a wide avenue with stores on the ground level and residences above. Each shop was fancier than the last, and the shoppers they passed were all draped in luxurious furs and wafted trails of perfume in their wake. Nobody gave them a second look; even though they were both dressed in their best, it seemed they were invisible to these fancy lords and ladies.
At the end of the first block Roge pointed out a jewelry store, where a man was peering through the shop’s window at the glittering chains and golden charms within. The shop guard stationed at the door glared down his nose at the man’s cloak, the hem of which was soaked through with water. It seemed they were not the only ones making their way toward the palace from Firefly Hollow. The guard’s scowl deepened, as if the mere sight of the man’s plain brown cloak were a personal affront, and he let out a disapproving tut. Tia met Roge’s eyes, and they shared a bemused look before Roge explained why they’d stopped, speaking in wistful tones.
“That store there used to be a millinery shop… My mother knew the owner, and contracted her whenever Queen Lisia needed a hat made. She died several years ago at seventy-eight years old… She’d always give me cookies whenever we visited.”
They left the millinery-turned-jewelry store behind and continued on their way. By now she was starting to catch more and more glimpses of the palace. It was a hulking behemoth, far too large to see clearly between buildings. Suddenly the shops on the right side of the avenue gave way to a high, latticed gate. Guards in resplendent armor stood stiffly at regular intervals, spears jutting high into the air and shields gleaming. And beyond the gate, towering over the rolling lawns, was the royal palace.
It was a vast, sprawling structure, with turrets stretching high into the sky. The palace’s many windows glistened and sparkled in the sun. Tia imagined that just as she was admiring the palace’s opulence from outside the gate, there must be some elegant lady, maybe even Queen Lisia herself, sipping tea as she gazed out one of those windows.
“It’s magnificent,” she breathed.
“It is,” he agreed. “Though living there, you can sometimes forget there’s such splendor around you. You still have a job to do, whether that’s hemming a skirt or mucking out the stables.”
“Your mother’s in there right now?”
“Yes. I visit her every few weeks.” He guided her along the gate, drawing her closer as a wild, chill wind whipped over the palace grounds and down the street. The clouds, which had only lurked on the horizon before, were now much closer. “You’ll know the palace well soon enough. Once we graduate into the company, we’ll perform for the court all the time.”
“Of course,” she said, head spinning. She’d been so preoccupied with preparations for the fair that she’d hardly given any thought to what came afterward—a few short months until Chunvar made the return journey south, warming the earth with every footstep. After that, all the tenth-year students would leave the academy for good and join the Royal Dance Theater itself. It would be a whole new life, just when she’d been getting used to the academy, and it was right around the corner.
He gestured to a cafe on their left. Its cheery green and gold sign swung back and forth in the sudden breeze: Madam Klimm’s Tea Shop. “Did you want to stop for a drink? It’s getting cold, and Madam Klimm makes excellent honey tea.” As they entered the shop a bell tinkled somewhere in the back of the shop, and a plump woman outfitted in dandelion yellow trundled out to take their orders. The shop was packed with other people who were also looking to stave off the cold. They sat by the window on two rickety chairs and took gingerly sips from their steaming mugs. She had such a hard time tearing her eyes from the palace outside that she almost missed it.
“Isn’t that…?” She pointed, her voice trailing off.
Roge followed her gaze, then laughed. “The city’s funny like that sometimes. Thousands of people all around, but you keep seeing someone in particular over and over again.”
There was the man with the brown cloak again, this time buying roast chestnuts from a street vendor right across from Madam Klimm’s. She wouldn’t have even noticed it was him, save for the now familiar, faint outline of the splash mark on his cloak. The man kept his hood up, but as he handed over a coin for the chestnuts, she caught a glimpse of his profile. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance; he looked to be in his early twenties, neither tall, short, thin, or fat, with a cropped dark beard. A few curling locks of black hair poked out from beneath his hood.
The sounds of the bustling tea shop dimmed as she tried to remember… Somebody had said something a long time ago now, some offhand remark now clawing its way back into her mind.
He could be anyone. Gods, squint enough and he looks like you!
Her heart thudded, and she racked her brains. What had the Firefly Hollow Killer looked like again? It had been more than a month since she’d taken a proper look at one of those sketches; there had been no news of any more victims after Annalise’s death, and the menace of the Firefly Hollow Killer had begun to seem menacing no more.
She squinted her eyes, trying to see the man clearer through the smudged shop window. It must be a coincidence, as Roge had said, a strange coincidence…
She gulped. The man was standing just so, and she’d just had the sudden, sliding sensation he was looking their direction from the corner of his eye. Was that a slight discoloration on his cheek, as if from a scratch? But then the transaction was done—the man took the packet of chestnuts and strode away, until he had vanished from view.
“Tia? You all right?”
She started, realizing Roge had been saying something to her. “Sorry, what?”
“I was just asking you how the tea was, but…” He peered at her. “You look a bit pale.”
She waved her hand. “I’m fine,” she reassured him, though she felt decidedly the opposite.
“Well, we should get going regardless. Looks like it might snow.” The once clear sky now hung ominously with clouds. Just as Roge had predicted, fat snowflakes began to fall as soon as they stepped outside. She could not help herself from glancing this way and that as they made their way home, her eyes trained now for a man in a brown cloak. The problem was there were men in brown cloaks everywhere, and a wet hem was no marker when everything was sodden from the increasingly heavy snow.
Snowflakes whirled up and down the city streets, turning Tia’s swishing skirts to drenched curtains of fabric. She cast her paranoia from her mind; she wouldn’t stand for her imagination to cast a shadow over what had been an utterly perfect day. And it had been a perfect day, hadn’t it? Her teeth were chattering as they slogged their way home, but with Roge’s arm tucked around her own, she’d never felt cozier. Warmth bloomed like a secret rose within her, and she felt happy, so happy.
At last they found their way back to the academy, its windows glowing with a jolly, inviting light. The street outside the gate was deserted; they were alone amongst the swirling white storm.
“I had a wonderful time,” she said, facing him. “Thank you so much for taking me around.”
Gray eyes met her own, his pupils wide. “You know it wasn’t me doing you a favor. I like you, Tia.”
He was so direct! Her heart skipped a beat, and she cast her eyes downward, a pink flush rising in her cheeks. “I… I like you too, Roge. Very much.” He gave her a slow smile at that, and then he was bending down to kiss her. The snow swarmed about them, stinging Tia’s cheeks with bites of cold, but all she could think of was the heat of his mouth, his hand cradling the back of her neck, his body pressed against hers.
They broke apart after a few minutes, though Roge still held her hand in his own steady grip.
“We should go inside,” he said. “As your tutor, I should be chastising you for risking a cold. Can’t have you sick for the Queen’s Fair!”
“As the student who contracted you, I should dismiss you for conflict of interest!” she fired back. He threw back his head and laughed, then started toward the school. She trudged after him, a bit reluctant to leave the magic of the winter storm behind.
Tia took a few moments to say a silent prayer before raising her hand to knock on Wynna and Alindy’s door. She didn’t know how Wynna was going to take this.
“You’re back! Finally!” Wynna’s look of delight shifted to one of horror as she took one long look at her friend, her eyes traveling from the dress’s waterlogged, dirty fabric up to Tia’s soaked curls. She drew a sharp breath.
“I am so sorry—” Tia started, but Wynna put up a hand.
“Clothes can be washed. And besides, I have a million other dresses if it’s ruined after all.” Though her face had a pained, pinched look, she refused to hear any more apologies.
“We’re just happy you didn’t lose a limb to frostbite,” Alindy called from the top bunk. “Now get into something dry and tell us how it went.”
She relayed the day to them, though she left out the man in the brown cloak. It felt wrong to bring it up—childish and paranoid.
“How perfectly romantic,” Alindy sighed.
“So now you’re together? Officially?” Wynna asked.
She couldn’t keep the broad smile off her face. “Maybe? I think so?” Whatever she and Roge were seemed ill-defined, and she worried putting a word on it would cause whatever they did have to float away. His words resounded again in her head, and she shivered. I like you, Tia. Right now, no matter what the future held in store, that declaration in the snow was enough.