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He kept her close, the brown cloak about his shoulders hiding the knife at her back, and guided her with patient, nonchalant steps toward the alleyway. To anybody else in the square they’d look like an ordinary couple out for a stroll. Tia didn’t dare turn her head to look back towards the shoe shop.
Alindy’s words from so long ago pealed in her head.
He slashes the girls’ bodies, and they’re found with their clothes ripped away. It’s horrid.
The alleyway loomed toward them, only fifteen steps away now. It was dark and forbidding as a monster’s gaping maw, ready to swallow her whole. Time slowed, and the bustle in the square dulled to a muffled drone. With every step, all she could feel was her trembling, sweating hands swinging uselessly at her side against her skirt.
And then her hand found the pocket in her skirt, slipped inside, and grasped the knife handle within tight.
Another step proved he hadn’t noticed. She let out a silent, furious curse that the leather sheath was on, holding fast to the blade. She slowly started to inch the blade out of the clinging sheath, praying he wouldn’t realize what she was doing.
Seven steps away. The knife was only a third of the way out.
Six steps away. Clumsy from desperation, she pressed her palm against the knife edge and bit back a gasp of pain as it sliced into her hand. Warm blood dribbled down her fingers.
Five steps away. His fingers dug deeper into her shoulder. She tried to keep it still so it wouldn’t betray her fingers scrabbling against the sheath.
Four steps away. His easy pace quickened. He was excited.
Three steps away. The sheath came away and dropped into the bottom of her pocket.
Two steps away. She eased the knife out and sent up a prayer.
She swung the knife downward, and a shock ran up her arm when blade met flesh. It sank into his thigh easily, gladly—but of course it would be a quality knife, she couldn’t help thinking, for her mother would have made sure to buy a bog iron blade, no doubt straight from Dezel Smith himself.
“Bitch!” the man cried, and she heard a clatter on the ground. He’d dropped his knife, but, perhaps more from fury than his original murderous intentions, still held her fast against him. He pushed her one more limping step towards the alley…
And she found the handle of the knife again, the blade still stuck in his thigh, and twisted it. Hard.
His cry this time was animalistic, feral, and she wrenched herself away from that awful, looming alleyway. She heard the sound of fabric ripping, and then she was free, leaving him holding the shreds of her sleeve. Was he following her? She risked a backward glance.
He’d retreated into the relative darkness of the alleyway. The man stared after Tia as he backed further away, his face purple and distorted with fury. Some raw, primal emotion coursed through her, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away from his, as if letting him out of her sight for one second would let him once more blend in with the people of Haplyr. She burned his face into her brain.
And then there were people all around, holding her up so she didn’t fall on shaking legs, pressing cloth to her bloodied hand. The crowd jostled her this way and that, and she could see the man no more.
“Where is he?!” someone was screeching. “Did he get away?!” She realized distantly that the voice was her own. There were so many people everywhere, but she felt like she was floating above them all, somewhere far up in the clouds.
“They’re going after him, sweetheart,” an old woman beside her said. Tia retched at the pet name. It was what he’d called her.
“You’re safe,” another voice said. “You got free.” But there was no safe, she knew, if the Firefly Hollow Killer eluded arrest.
Later, when Tia tried to remember the next hour, it only came back to her as a mix of still images. Alindy rushing towards her as Wynna gazed at her still-bleeding palm in horror. An old woman’s wrinkled hand resting on her knee. An ebony carriage horse waiting docilely as the worried driver helped her into the cab. The swirl of tea leaves in the bottom of one of Alindy’s chipped mugs. Wynna at the open door, frowning at the veritable crowd of people who stood right outside of it, and then the tiny dorm room packed to the brims with people who did not belong there: Master Maaj and Mistress Oerfall, two members of the city guard, the boy sketch artist and his father.
A barrage of questions. Yes, she’d seen the man before. (Here she trained her eyes on the rug, embarrassed to admit she’d thought her gut reaction to be paranoia only.) Yes, she remembered clearly what he looked like, and yes, the sketch being thrust in front of her face held a near-perfect resemblance.
All while her mind was shouting, no, no, no! They wouldn’t be asking these questions if they’d caught him!
And she knew it was wrong, but another thought also crept unbidden into her brain and refused to be squashed. What would happen when Natlin arrived in Haplyr and found out her younger sister was the object of a serial killer’s fixation? And how was she going to convince Natlin that staying at the academy wasn’t the dumbest decision Tia was ever going to make?
Thurie chewed at his lip as his father and the barrel-chested Firefly Hollow guard captain talked with two of the academy teachers in the dormitory hallway. Normally hearing from a witness that his sketch was accurate would be a point of pride for Thurie, but not with this case. It seemed women were going to keep dying, or at least very nearly dying, no matter how perfect Thurie’s sketch was, and that was an uncomfortable truth he didn’t want to look at head-on.
“Why this obsession with our dancers?” the white-haired dance teacher asked, his voice grave. “I’m no expert, but the chances seem phenomenal.”
“He’ll be local,” Dunna replied. “Perhaps monitoring the front gates of the academy, seeing who comes out.”
“Is there anything special about Miss Inkman?” the captain asked. “Anything that sets her apart from the other dancers?”
“Every dancer here has a story,” said the other teacher, wringing her hands. “Tia Inkman has only recently been admitted to the academy. But she’s made great strides in her technique since she arrived… She’ll be performing in the Queen’s Fair dance…”
Thurie saw the captain purse his lips. None of that information seemed particularly helpful. “In any case,” the captain said, “we recommend Miss Inkman be accompanied outside at all times.”
The white-haired teacher addressed the other teacher. “Cathra, make sure Tia knows she can only leave the academy if she’s with someone else. And I will inform the guards at the gate.”
The captain turned to Thurie. “You’ve done a good job, son. She said the resemblance is perfect.” Thurie squirmed. “And all thanks to your expert questioning,” the captain said, switching his focus back to Dunna.
Thurie flinched. He knew the captain didn’t intend any overhanging implications to his last sentence, but Thurie wanted to join the guard, just like his father had—and what were the chances of doing that if the simple act of speaking continued eluding him?
Words, whether pleaded or shouted, had been no use to him on that one, awful night years ago. The next morning he had found that, no matter how hard he strained, words froze and evaporated in his throat, never to be voiced. By now his father’s associates had grown used to the silent wisp of a boy who stuck by his father’s side at all times, close as a shadow. And Thurie supposed he was used to it too—but he also knew there wasn’t much chance of a bright, easy future for a mute.
They said their goodbyes and exited the academy. Outside the gates, he looked up and down the street. Was the killer nearby, perhaps even watching them from some vantage point right now? He pressed in closer to his father, trying to become invisible.
Everyone in the academy knew what had happened the next day, from the tenth-years down to the little first-years. Tia hid in Wynna and Alindy’s room, not wanting to deal with stares or whispers, and especially not wanting anything to do with Selitta. The three girls played endless games of cards, speaking very little, though she could see the other two girls sneaking glances at her every so often.
Tia had worried the bandage on her hand would preclude her from dancing in the Queen’s Fair, but was informed by Mistress Oerfall that the traditional dresses for the dance, with their trailing, silken sleeves, would hide any scabs or bandages during the actual performance. The bandage did make her wrist movements stiffer than usual, but not overly so.
Whispers followed her down the hallways, and she caught more than one tenth-year staring at her in the mirror during class. Wynna and Alindy proved to be the fiercest of allies, sticking by her side and telling those who raised the subject to mind their own business. She moved throughout the day feeling as if she were stuck within an unbreachable bubble, and while this was much better than having to recount the story over and over, she still yearned for her old relative anonymity. The only good part of the day was that Selitta had switched to giving Tia the silent treatment; she didn’t say one word to Tia throughout the day, and in rehearsal she quietly marked the other dancers at the back of the studio, the very picture of demureness.
After the company teacher dismissed them from rehearsal, Tia and Wynna exited the studio to find Roge waiting just outside. “Go on,” she said to Wynna as Roge approached. “I’ll catch up with you soon.”
Roge watched her go and only opened his mouth to speak when they were out of earshot. There was a sheen of sweat on his brow, and he looked pale.
“There are a lot of rumors going around about what happened to you yesterday.” He wouldn’t meet her eyes, instead staring fixedly at her bandaged hand.
“What are they saying?” she asked, feeling a tinge of that far-away sensation again. The events of the past twenty-four hours felt surreal, like she’d dreamed them.
“They’re saying you were… attacked. That it was the Firefly Hollow Killer… That-you-stabbed-him-with-a-knife,” he ended in a jumble. His eyes rose then to meet hers, and she saw they were bloodshot amidst dark circles. She nodded slowly, and he blinked twice in quick succession and looked away.
There was another detail to the whole affair that she suspected Roge didn’t know. Well, he’d find out eventually, so better the news came from her.
“What is it?” Roge asked, seeing her expression cloud over.
“It was that man,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
“That man—we saw him three times, remember? When you took me on the tour of Haplyr?”
A look of comprehension stole over Roge’s face, and he grew even paler. “With the water on his cloak? But… He… Was he following you?” He took a step back as she gave another reluctant nod. “Gods… I told you it was a coincidence! I laughed about it! You were worried, and I laughed it off!”
“You couldn’t have known—” she began.
He interrupted her. “I should have known! Should have at least questioned it. There were sketches of his face up all around town, and I didn’t think for a second… I’m such a gods-damned fool.” His face crumpled.
“Don’t blame yourself,” she said, but she could see the words didn’t register.
“You could have died,” he said, more to himself than to her. “When I heard you’d been attacked… it was like Annalise all over again. We didn’t hardly notice when she went missing that night. We thought she was fine. And he took her, and she—” His voice broke. “If we’d paid a bit more attention… If we’d cared a bit more… maybe we could have found her before it was too late. Maybe—”
But Tia couldn’t take it anymore. She was so tired, and maybe she would have to go home to Fenlick, and the killer was still out there somewhere, lurking, waiting… “I’m sorry, Roge. I just… I don’t want to talk about it, all right? I wish I could forget it even happened.” And she sidestepped around him and headed back to the dormitory before he could say another word.