He came back at dusk with a rap at the apartment door. Tia’s father had just returned from Bleskar Bog, and they were all settling in for a meal of skeet tail stew. The tails couldn’t be used to make myreink because they made the ink take on a cloudy, gray appearance, but when boiled they made a decent-tasting broth. Decent if you hadn’t eaten it every single week like Tia had, that was.
The knock at the door startled away the friendly conversation and the clink of spoons on bowls. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had knocked at their door. Everyone knew everyone in the merchant apartments, and it wasn’t unusual for Alan or Dezel or Pila to burst in, ready to talk business over a sticky bun or raisin tart. Their mother’s cooking creativity may have been stifled by a constant overabundance of skeet tails, but she was a fine baker.
“Late for strangers to come knocking,” Tia’s mother hissed, glancing pointedly at her husband. With a groan, Tomma Inkman rose from the table and took up his knife again from where he’d just laid it, next to the stove. He always kept it handy on trips into Bleskar; even with a guide, it was only sensible to go armed into the bog.
He approached the door. “Who’s there? New acquaintances are best met in the sunlight.”
“Fortunately I’m an old acquaintance. Let me in, Tomma. It’s Willy Maaj.” Tia blanched as her father nodded his head and opened the door. Her father knew that man? Noticing Tia’s shock, Natlin raised her eyebrows in a silent question, but all Tia could do was shake her head.
Master Maaj strode into the room, the shine of his boots and his shirt buttons making their home look shabby in comparison. His tall frame towered over Tia and Natlin, who were both still seated at the table. She watched, stunned, as her father reached toward Master Maaj for a handshake and her mother swept up from the table to cut a fresh slice of pound cake. Within ten seconds, there she was again facing Master Maaj, this time over her family’s kitchen table.
“To what do we owe the honor, Willy? The usual?” their father asked.
“Yes, and another matter,” he answered. His bright eyes darted to meet Tia’s, and his mouth wobbled into a small smile. She hunched down in her seat and dropped her gaze, giving the peas on her plate a thorough examination.
“Well, business first then,” her father continued. “I’ve been expecting you for weeks now. You should have come by the shop.”
“I did this afternoon, but you were out—though I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter.”
“Tia? Or Natlin?”
“We didn’t get far enough along in the conversation to do a proper exchange of names.” Tia sank further down in her chair, cheeks burning. Though she kept her eyes on her peas, she felt her father’s gaze slide over to her side of the table. Perfect—she’d clearly insulted a longstanding client of her father’s. Could this day get any worse?
Her mother cleared her throat, ignoring the palpable awkwardness. “Well, we’re always happy when you’re in town, Willy. Haplyr isn’t close to our small corner of the world, and we appreciate the business.”
Master Maaj took a bite of pound cake and hummed with quiet satisfaction. “Truth be told, I never mind the trip. It does one good to get out of the capital every once in a while—helps you remember there’s more to life than court gossip and parties. You forget about green grass and the sound of wind running through leaves.”
Her mother smiled. “You were always good for a turn of words. Perhaps when the dance is beyond you you’ll turn some attention to poetry.”
“My dear, I feel I am already at that point. Thank the gods they took Osanne in winter, not summer. I don’t think I could make the journey in the colder months; my bones would protest too much.”
Her father rubbed his hands together. “Then let’s get you back to Haplyr before Chyor starts blowing. We’ve managed to set aside forty pirinh eggs for you, and they’ve come through the drying process well. That should suffice, yes?” The conversation devolved into haggling, with quips thrown in here and there to ease along the money talk.
Meanwhile, Tia’s head was spinning. It seemed Willy Maaj truly was a dance master. But what could such a man want with dried pirinh eggs? The deadly pirinh fish lurked in shallow waters in Bleskar Bog. Nearly translucent, they were difficult for even a seasoned bog runner to spot, and their razor sharp teeth could strip flesh from bone in a matter of seconds. The pirinh roe were just as transparent and hard to see. Though the eggs were harmless in their original habitat, once dried they took on an explosive quality.
Amidst all the haggling, their mother beckoned for Tia and Natlin to help clear away the dishes. The table clean, she dipped her head toward Master Maaj. “The girls and I will just be going to bed then, Willy. It was good to see you.”
He turned towards her. “Oh, do stay for a moment, Marget. I daresay we’re done here, yes?” he said, raising an eyebrow at Tia’s father, and they shook hands on a final price. “There was just one more matter I wished to discuss…”
Tia felt faint.
“I mentioned I came by the shop earlier today while you were away, and your daughter was tending the store.” He inclined his head towards her. “I believe this is the eighth year I’ve come all the way from Haplyr to Fenlick for pirinh eggs, so you’d think I knew the town well. But here I found myself on Yarren Street convinced that I’d gotten turned around halfway through the journey and unwittingly rode back to Haplyr.”
Her father chuckled and settled back in his seat, ready for a good story after closing such an expensive deal. “And why would that be?”
“Because through your store window I saw a shadow on the wall, dancing with exquisite abandon and freedom. And the technique—both an utter lack of traditional training as well as a stunning attention to personal formality… I thought to myself, Willy, you’re back in Haplyr watching the great Kova take to the Capital Theater stage for the first time, not on Yarren Street trying to buy murderous fish eggs.” The whole family was now staring incredulously at Master Maaj. Tia clasped her hands together under the table to stop them shaking.
He continued. “I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind. And I confronted the shadow, Tomma, but I must admit I didn’t expect your daughter to have such a… personality. Suffice it to say I left the store without properly conveying to—Tia, was it?—that she has a true talent.”
A stony expression replaced her father’s look of amusement. “Tia… doesn’t dance. You must be mistaken. Isn’t that right, Tia?”
“I…” Her voice failed her. The atmosphere in the room felt charged, like in the minutes before a thunderstorm.
“She’s brilliant.” They all swiveled to face Natlin. “I’m no expert, but the way Tia dances… She’d make Osanne proud.”
“Tia, is this true?” her father asked, her mother standing slack-jawed at his side. And then without waiting for an answer, he turned back to Master Maaj. “There’s something else you’re wanting to say, isn’t there, Willy? Let’s have it out.”
The dance master coughed. “I’d like her to come back with me to Haplyr to train. We could put her up at the academy. She’s, what—fifteen?”
“Sixteen,” her mother answered. She drew closer to Tia and clasped her hands around her shoulders.
“Sixteen would normally be an impossible age to start, but given her level despite not undergoing formal training… Tomma, you should really consider letting her come to the capital.”
Her father scoffed. “You know I support the arts—but I’m also a practical man. I have our family to think about. Tia’s training here, in Fenlick, to eventually become the shop’s bookkeeper. And she’s also nearing a marriageable age. How can we find a decent husband for a daughter who’s not even in the city? I can’t be sending my daughter halfway across the kingdom to some dance school.”
“This is about more than your family. This is about depriving the Royal Dance Theater of a dancer, maybe even a star. Don’t you remember that night, nine years ago? Think—that could be your daughter up onstage.”
Her father turned to Tia, eyes narrowed. “Let’s see it then. It’s preposterous to have this conversation without seeing this ‘talent.’”
Four sets of eyes fell on her, but all she could think about was the pounding in her head. The room was quiet for a tense moment before her mother broke the silence. “What, in the kitchen, Tomma? Leave the poor girl be. Talent or not, the hour’s growing late. When do you leave Fenlick, Willy?”
“In two days.”
“And you’re staying…?”
“At the Fat Fox.”
“Then we’ll find you there after we discuss.” He nodded and bowed himself out, their father muttering a stiff goodbye as Master Maaj faded from their doorstep into the night.
Before they could ask her more questions, Tia rushed to her bedroom and slammed the door. She threw herself onto the bed, but she could still hear muffled talking from the kitchen, so she smushed her head into her pillow, trying to drown it out. There, breathing in warm, stuffy air through the pillow, she finally felt like she could exhale.
She was roused from an uneasy sleep by the creak of the door and the pad of footsteps. “Natlin—” she started, pushing back the quilt, but found herself staring into the face of her father instead. Looking weary, he sat down on the end of the bed.
“I was wrong to put you on the spot earlier. I’m sorry—I realized you didn’t get to say a word. Tia, what’s all this about? Dancing?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you!” She couldn’t look at him. “I practice in the store’s attic. It started as just… I wanted to be like those dancers from the fair. And I was bad at it, but I kept at it, and then… you would have seen I’d kept it from you. For years.” She sighed. “Da, what was Master Maaj talking about when he mentioned ‘that night?’ He gave you the tickets so we could see the Queen’s Fair dance, didn’t he?”
“Yes. Every year Master Maaj helps organize the performance. It was a long time ago now, so I don’t know if you remember—”
“I remember.” She turned to face him and was taken aback. He looked so… melancholy.
He continued. “The performance always ends with a fireworks display, which makes procuring pirinh egg powder essential. It makes the most brilliant, spectacular fireworks. But the powder he’d bought that year was fake. They tested it the night before the performance, and it wouldn’t even burn.
“The day of the performance I went out for a drink, and the man next to me at the bar was none other than Master Maaj. We were both dead on our feet—me from tending the tent and Willy from running all over Haplyr looking for more pirinh egg powder. We commiserated over a drink, and I recalled that one of our Mirish fellows had happened upon a stash of pirinh roe several weeks before. You can guess the rest: he was so grateful he gave us a few tickets to the performance—on top of the money, of course,” he said, a trace of a smile returning to his face.
“And he’s bought them from us ever since,” she guessed.
“Yes. He always has a bit of business here and there across the realm, so every summer he takes a long tour of the kingdom and makes sure to stop in Fenlick to buy more eggs, well before the Queen’s Fair.”
Tia sucked in a long breath. “I was very rude to him in the shop.”
“Don’t you fret about that. I’m sure you caused no offense. The only thing you need to worry about right now is whether or not you want to go to Haplyr.”
“What?” Her lips parted.
“You heard me,” her father said. “If Willy says you can dance, I’ll believe him. No one knows dance better than he does.
“But you listen close, Tia. This talk of depriving the Royal Theater of a dancer—I don’t like it. It’s easy to say things like that in Haplyr, in the middle of the kingdom. Here in Fenlick we’re not neighbors of the palace. Don’t let that kind of talk make you think you have to go.” He made to stand up, and she hugged him.
“Thank you, Da. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you and Ma about it.”
“Just remember for the future—there’s nothing too big you can’t share with family.” He got up from the bed and exited the room, leaving her alone to her thoughts.