Chapter Twenty

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Tia ripped open the letter, then let out a whoop.

Wynna raised an eyebrow as she surveyed her over her breakfast. “You haven’t been that excited about anything since they served ice-river shrimp for dinner last week.” Tia would never have suspected it, but she’d grown nostalgic for skeet tail stew, and ice-river shrimp were just similar enough she’d put away two plates and contemplated a third.

“Natlin’s coming for the Queen’s Fair!” she cried, her excitement bubbling over. She scanned the rest of the letter, hearing the words in Natlin’s singsong voice.

Dear Tia,

That’s wonderful news—both the Queen’s Fair and the boy! I’m excited for you, and Da promised me I can come with him in the caravan. We should reach the city a day or so before the fair officially begins, gods willing.

I know it must have been riveting reading all about Milvin’s chicken fiasco in my last letter. You know how Fenlick is—not exactly the most thrilling town in Hygot. So I’m happy to report I actually have something really, truly notable to share with you!

These three men came into the shop wanting a bunch of supplies—blankets, ropes, those sorts of things. Looked like they were gearing up for a journey. While I was packing everything up for them they noticed the Mirish goods in the corner, and one of the men started asking me about the bogmen. He said he was looking for some rare items and hoped I could acquaint him with one of our runners. So I told him it wasn’t my business, but it looked like he was about to leave town and that special requests for the runners take time. He said he didn’t care, he’d like to talk it over with a runner anyway. I didn’t want to irritate a paying customer, and he was paying quite a lot, so I told him I knew just the right bogman for the job. (You see? You always said I was bad with customers, but I’m learning!)

So I put him in touch with Hob, who turned them down straightaway once he found out what they wanted. And then came and told me, of course. And can you believe it? They wanted to go with him into Bleskar, but they still wouldn’t tell him what they were looking for! Madmen. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?

This is getting long, so I’ll stop here. Tia, I can’t wait to see you, and I think of you every day.

Your loving sister,

Natlin

Tia felt a stab of homesickness as the letter ended. Didn’t Natlin know her letters were never too lengthy? At least it wouldn’t be long until the caravan arrived and she could give her sister a proper hug.

And a pinch as well, she decided—sharp enough for her older sister to admit she’d embellished the truth a bit in her letter. Nobody in their right mind would want to go deep into the bog, even with a bog runner as a guide. Mirish boys trained with experienced runners for years before they were ready to venture on solo trips through Bleskar. Even so, accidents still happened. A good number of the bogmen who had worked with the Yarren Street merchants over the years had suffered career-ending injury or worse as a consequence of their dangerous profession.

So she didn’t believe it—but it did make for an entertaining story.

The newly discovered nooks and crannies of Haplyr had haunted Tia’s mind ever since she’d gone on her tour of the city. If Roge deemed a place important, even a former millinery shop, then it was important to her as well. Unfortunately, there was no time for more city exploration, or even more tutoring. With the Queen’s Fair so close, every spare moment outside of class was taken up by rehearsals.

Yet Roge was never far from her mind. She felt him there beside her when she sipped her tea at breakfast and thought of the sweet vapors rising from their mugs at Madam Klimm’s. When snowflakes battered the studio skylights, she remembered their mad dash back home through the snow, soaked through to the bone. And, of course, she looked forward to partnering class. He had taken to throwing her sly smiles or giving her more of a squeeze than necessary when he held her about the waist.

So she couldn’t help feeling a bit crestfallen when she walked into partnering class one day and Mistress Oerfall announced that starting today all tenth-year girls in the Queen’s Fair dance would attend additional rehearsals instead of partnering.

“What about the boys without partners? Who will we dance with?” asked Arlus.

“Our regular class will continue,” Mistress Oerfall said. “We will segue into a study of the Anthol Mountains style of partner dance, where the tradition is for dancers of the same sex to pair together.”

There were audible groans from around the room; most people were quite attached to their partners. Simas, however, barely stifled a whoop at the announcement he wouldn’t have to partner with Selitta. Tia almost thought she spied a hint of a smile steal across Mistress Oerfall’s usually stern countenance.

“And I will speak with Selitta and Tia after your rehearsal ends,” the dance mistress called out as Prin Tanner, Brissa Lind, Selitta, Wynna, and Tia started toward the door. Whispers bounced around the room. Everyone knew by now about the contest between the two ill-matched roommates.

“I guess today’s the day then,” she heard Selitta’s voice drawl in her ear as they walked down the hallway to the rehearsal room.

Her face grew hot, and she fought to keep control of herself. It would be better to not say anything… But she was sick of having to tiptoe around Selitta, sick of the overhanging threat of her family’s wealth and power cowing everyone around the girl into silence.

Almost against her will, she found herself turning to face Selitta. “That’s right!” she said brightly, looking the girl square in the face. “I guess today’s the day when this farce is over and we can all be rid of you. That’s what you meant, right?”

At the riposte, all five girls stopped dead in the middle of the hallway, the portraits lining the walls staring down at them with disapproving looks. Prin and Brissa’s eyes bounced back and forth from Selitta to Tia, and Wynna’s mouth hung open in an expression of shock, delight, or both.

For a long, glorious moment Selitta looked like she’d been punched, then her usual, snide calm returned. She opened her mouth to speak, her voice soft and chilly. “You don’t want to be on my bad side,” she half hissed, half snarled. “One word to my father and he’ll—”

“Seems like a lot of empty words,” she interrupted, again not quite believing she was daring to voice the thoughts in her head. “So he bought you a private company tutor—hate to tell you, but the results aren’t showing. Your father’s not here right now, so I’m not too concerned about that.” She leaned in toward Selitta, voice low. “We’re going to go to rehearsal, you’ll do whatever you like to think is graceful dancing, and then we’ll find out who actually got the part.” She turned and strode down the hall, pulse pounding in her ears, and didn’t care that she’d left the other girls gaping behind her.

Selitta didn’t say a word in rehearsal, though the smiling expression required by the first few minutes of the choreography looked more plastered on her face than normal. Maybe this would be the end of the girl’s churlishness. If only Tia had just stood up to Selitta at the start, maybe she could have had a more peaceful last few months.

“You were brilliant,” Wynna had a chance to whisper before they took the whole ten minutes of the dance from the top. “The look on her face!”

The bell sounded for fourth hour and the girls funneled out of the rehearsal studio. Selitta and Tia walked back to partnering, Selitta staying a few good paces ahead and trailing waves of fury behind her. They didn’t say a single word to one another.

The last students were just leaving partnering class. “Always a pleasure, sir!” Tia heard Simas call to Arlus as they left the studio, punctuating his words with a deep, exaggerated bow. Tia couldn’t bring herself to laugh with Mistress Oerfall waiting impatiently in the center of the floor.

The dance mistress let the last of the students leave the studio before addressing them.

“The academy and company teachers have been observing both of you closely as you have prepared for the fair. There is no sense in drawing out the suspense. Tia, we have been impressed with your recent progress and have decided that you’ve earned the part.”

A wave of tingles washed over her skin. It didn’t feel real. She’d envisioned joining those elegant dancers, being one of those dancers, ever since she could remember, and in little more than a week she would be up on that stage. Her eyes flicked to Selitta’s reflection in the mirror. Her face was pale and expressionless.

Mistress Oerfall turned to Selitta. Her eyes were a bit softer than normal, her voice lower. “Dear, do not think we wish you gone. We simply must maintain the highest quality here at our school and in the company. That you cannot advance is an issue of technique, rather than an issue of character.”

Tia almost snorted, but stopped herself just in time. Mistress Oerfall must give the same speech each time someone was dismissed; she couldn’t fathom that the dance mistress stood behind those words.

She caught a movement from the corner of her eye. Selitta’s chin was quivering, her face downcast.

“M-Mistress Oerfall,” she said in a shaking voice. “J-just one more chance…” Even standing right next to her, Tia couldn’t tell if her sadness was real or if Selitta had just been paying more attention in Master Sonnen’s acting class than she’d realized.

“There, there…” Mistress Oerfall said, patting Selitta’s back awkwardly. Comforting students was not the dance mistress’s forte. “There, there. I’m afraid the decision is final.”

Selitta’s head drooped lower, shoulders hunched.

“I understand,” she whispered, and an awkward silence hung heavy in the air. Tia fidgeted, wondering whether she should go.

“As I said, the decision is final,” Mistress Oerfall said, her expression firm. “But…” Tia whipped her head toward the dance mistress. How many second chances was this girl going to get? “I am aware Lord d’Wygst has been looking forward to seeing you in the Queen’s Fair performance. We need an understudy, in case any of the dancers get sick right before the fair, and I think it only makes sense for you to fulfill that role.”

Selitta raised her head, a wave of determination washing the sadness off her face. “Yes, Mistress Oerfall. Thank you, Mistress Oerfall. I haven’t been the most dedicated dancer here, but I’ll use these last few days to work hard, like I should have been all along. How else can I thank the academy for all it’s done for me?”

Tia blinked. Since when had Selitta ever acted so humble? The words sounded genuine, but Tia didn’t trust her for a second.

Mistress Oerfall, on the other hand, looked thoroughly convinced, and she gave Selitta a short, satisfied nod. “It’s settled, then. You will continue your private lessons, and mark the dance in the back of the studio during rehearsals.”

“I understand,” Selitta said solemnly.

Tia didn’t—Selitta was not the type to ever take on more work than absolutely necessary, so why did she seem so grateful to be an understudy? The dance mistress had already made herself abundantly clear Selitta was leaving the academy, understudy or not. But as she left the studio, Tia decided she didn’t care about Selitta’s motivations anymore. The only thing that mattered was she’d won the part, on her own merit. Everything else paled next to that. Latecomer to the academy though she was, at last she belonged.

They were right outside the studio doors, waiting for her.

“We’re going out to celebrate!” Alindy shouted, as Tia beamed.

“You were the obvious choice,” Wynna said. “You deserve it, and she needed to go. It was becoming embarrassing for the academy.”

“Good riddance!” Alindy agreed.

They quickly exchanged their dance clothes for winter layers. Tia had been wanting to try out a new pastry shop in the same square with the Osanne fountain. With happiness spurring the three girls on, they made good time, reaching the square just as the sun was beginning its descent. Munching on sugar cream bars warm from the oven, they admired the fountain, frozen over now that winter had fully settled over Haplyr, then walked around the edges of the square, oohing and aahing at the window displays.

A man’s raised voice drew Tia out of the moment. “I thought the loonies normally pack up once the weather gets cold,” Alindy giggled as she eyed a pair of crimson shoes in one window.

There was that man again on the other side of the square, gesticulating at every passerby. The wind picked up and Tia couldn’t quite catch what he was saying.

“How about those boots there?” Wynna asked, nudging Alindy with her elbow.

“The fur trim is a bit much for me…” Alindy said with a discerning sniff.

Wynna bit her lip. “I like the fur. You know, I think I’ll try them on. Let’s go in.”

The shop interior was cramped and reeked of leather and varnish. After admiring the boots from all angles, Wynna settled in for a long haggling process with the shopkeeper, the glint in her eyes betraying the fun she was having trying to get the best price. Alindy let out a few long sighs, and Tia’s head began to swim from the heavy fumes.

“I’ll just step outside for a moment,” she whispered to Alindy, as Wynna jabbed her finger at the shopkeeper in mock fury and declared his high prices insulting. Alindy nodded, and Tia slipped out of the shop, cutting off Wynna’s tirade mid-sentence as the door closed behind her.

The crisp winter air brought immediate relief. She started meandering along the storefronts, passing bookstores and consignment shops. Nothing caught her eye. She wasn’t in a shopping mood. In the wake of finding out she would actually dance the Queen’s Fair sequence, the world still felt a bit unreal.

“Miss!” The exclamation was accompanied by an unexpected tug on her sleeve. Tia looked down to see a man’s hand with scraggly fingernails, then wrenched her gaze up to the owner of said hand. She recoiled.

A disheveled beard, too-bright eyes, a web of red, broken capillaries stretching over a bulbous nose—the ranting man was no handsome sight up close. She shrank away from him. “I have no money for you.”

“I don’t seek money, only an open ear.” His eager words came out in a fast stream, all running together.

“I’m sorry, please leave me be,” she said, voice rising an octave. Was she going to have to make a scene?

“Please!” the man begged as Tia turned away. “Please. Your voice, your accent—from Fenlick, yes?”

She pivoted back around to face him before she even knew what she was doing. “What did you say?”

“We share a hometown.” Tia squirmed as the man’s feverish eyes looked her up and down. “Though you have the look of someone less recently arrived in Haplyr than I. Pretty girly—looks like life in the capital suits you well.”

Tia’s eyes flared, and she took a few quick steps backwards. Time to find Wynna and Alindy.

“Wait!” the man called. “I didn’t mean… What I meant was… we both made it out just in time. Just in time,” he repeated.

She froze. Against her better judgment, she opened her mouth. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“So you haven’t heard,” the man said, his eyes bulging excitedly. “The gods have forsaken Fenlick. The people there have all gone mad, and a fire’s been lit under Bleskar. The whole bog is ablaze.”

The rantings of a lunatic, that must be all this was—right?

“Tell me more,” she said woodenly, and the man skipped forward, glad for a willing audience.

“A powerful sorceress of the bog holds the people of Fenlick in her thrall. They see her in their dreams—a woman in rags with eyes shining brightest silver. She beckons them toward her, and when they wake a trance holds them fast. The sorceress calls them into Bleskar by the droves—for the beasts to eat or the flames to burn.”

Tia felt herself relax, almost happy the man was actually mad. A sorceress? The bog might serve as a habitat for such terrible creatures as graze flies, pirinh, moorwisps, and murkhounds, but from all her conversations over the years with bogmen Tia knew there were no other human residents of Bleskar. Only the Mirish called the bog their home, and the Mirish could not perform magic-craft.

So what the man was saying was certifiably false. Unless…

She swallowed. People in Fenlick tended not to bring up Corim, finding it much easier to ignore their lurking eastern enemy. All news of Hygot’s power-hungry neighbor came courtesy of the Mirish—and even so, the Mirish trading ties with the Corimians were weak and uneasy at best. As far as she knew, no Corimian in history had ever managed to make the crossing; if they had, it would have been cause for kingdom-wide panic.

But the Corimians had magic-craft, so any so-called sorceress would have to be Corimian. And if there was any truth to what the man was saying… She thought back to Natlin’s recent letter. Men trying to go into Bleskar with a Mirish guide, and now this talk of a sorceress? Both were patently ridiculous… But could there be a connection?

“Thank you for letting me know,” she said to the man coolly as she turned away for good this time. Wonderful—now she was worried something strange was going on in Fenlick. She exhaled, trying to tamp down her over-ambitious imagination, then looked back across the square towards the shoe shop. There was Wynna in the window, still going at it with the shopkeeper. Gods, how much longer was this going to take?

Looking for distraction, she wandered over to a notice board, glancing over the fluttering sheets of paper with an indifferent eye. The majority were notices for help wanted and wares being sold or requested. One paper, emblazoned with uncertain, scrawling letters, listed a name and an address to call on with any information about a girl’s whereabouts. The ink was faded, the thin paper weathered and discolored. Tia felt a disquieting flutter in her stomach, remembering Wynna’s story about how she’d come to dance at the academy. This was the very square where Wynna had slept that night she’d been separated from her family. Thank goodness Mistress Laserie had found her when she did and treated her so kindly.

Her eye snagged on a thicker piece of vellum beneath the missing person’s sign. She lifted the fragile sheet of paper and sucked in a breath. There, staring back at her with those eerie, ordinary eyes, was the Firefly Hollow Killer.

Was this the man she’d spied buying chestnuts across from Madam Klimm’s? The same man who’d assaulted Annalise and left her body in an alley?

The winter breeze flared up, plucking the paper out of her fingers and setting all the notices on the board flapping. She caught a glimpse of brown fabric from the corner of her eye, whipping in the wind.

“Did me justice, didn’t they?” The man’s voice was low, his lips right beside her ear. Something sharp was pressing into the small of her back.

“Wha—?” She made to turn, and felt a hand grasp her shoulder, forcing her to face the board.

“Calm yourself, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Eyes straight ahead, don’t make a peep, and follow my lead.” And with a knife at her back and a strong arm about her shoulder, the man wheeled her away from the notice board and towards an alley, away from the square.