Chapter Twenty-Three

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Tia stalked through the academy hallways back to the girls’ dormitory. It was only when she was raising her hand to knock on Wynna and Alindy’s door that she realized she wasn’t looking for distraction, but just for precious silence. Her own room was out; Selitta’s aura was poison. So she turned right around and made her way back to the studios, praying Roge had gone.

He had. She slunk into an empty studio. The sunlight beaming from the windows overhead bathed the room in a deepening golden light. Only when she had shut the door with a firm click did her quick, angry breaths grow ragged. Her vision swam with moisture; all she could see in the long stretch of mirrors before her was a hazy figure of a girl, spine bowed and hands hanging awkwardly. The girl looked exhausted, defeated.

And that, at least, was something she knew how to deal with, even if it did nothing to fix the sadness and anger and confusion twisting together in her head. So she stared straight into the mirror and willed her reflection to straighten its spine and cast off its weariness. The familiar instructions sprang into her head at once. Watch your elbows. Energy all the way through your fingertips. That’s better. Stop slouching. Remember the back of your neck. Align your hips… Better. Now bend the knees, straight down, feel the floor support you… The wooden floor of the studio creaked as if in anticipation, eager for her poised form to spring off, to leap, to fly. She paused there, motionless, feeling the energy of the pose rush from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. She was a band ready to snap. A muscle at the side of her mouth twitched in a last vestige of sadness, and she willed it to relax, to be calm. The floor creaked again.

She sprang.

The dance enveloped her. It comforted her like a warm blanket in a room at midnight and soothed her like an artist reaching for a favorite paintbrush. Unthinking, she moved in whatever way felt right, flickers of her beloved Queen’s Fair dance surfacing here and there amongst choreography of her own spontaneous invention. Slow then fast, playful then serious, she let the dance come out as it pleased until she was light and hollow. A thought flickered through her head for a moment: I am a vessel—a cup, about to overflow. And then the furious pull of the dance spun her away from thought and feeling.

Eventually the dance slowed and finally halted. Her reflection in the mirror was wide-eyed, wild. She could hardly remember why she’d come into the studio in the first place. She just wanted to cling to that strange, glorious feeling, like she was a cup both bone-dry and at the same time so full that the surface rose just a hair over the brim. All it would take was one drop to spill over.

The odd feeling ebbed away as soon as the wound on her hand throbbed. Right—now she remembered why she was here. Her muscles were trembling and sweat was streaming down her spine, but she didn’t care. She wanted to find that delirious dancing trance again, so she bent her knees and leaped into the air.

A split second later she landed and felt a terrible, wrenching pain in her right ankle. She staggered and collapsed to the ground, the studio floor groaning beneath her. Her ankle felt hot from within, and as she touched it with trembling fingers she felt a shiver of worry as a small tendril of fire licked further up the leg towards her calf. As purple shadows suffused the golden glow of the late afternoon light and the air in the studio grew chilly, Tia stayed there on the floor, rubbing her ankle and stretching it this way and that, willing the embers of pain inside to subside. After a while she judged it to feel a bit better, and she slowly walked back to the dormitory, gritting her teeth with every right step.

She was sure it was nothing that wouldn’t be fixed with a good night’s rest. Probably she wouldn’t even remember it happening tomorrow.

But when Tia dragged herself away from dreams at the clang of the sixth hour bell, she shifted positions and felt an undeniable twinge. She gingerly swung her leg out of bed and tried to put weight on it. Pain bloomed from her ankle up her leg, and she let out a groan. She clapped her hand to her ankle; a throb of heat greeted her fingers. The skin was puffy and swollen.

“What’s wrong with you?” Selitta asked sleepily from below, her voice muffled through a pillow. It seemed she was deigning to speak with Tia again.

“Nothing!” she replied. “Sore neck—slept wrong.”

As per usual, she met Wynna and Alindy in the hallway and they walked to breakfast, but today she couldn’t concentrate on their chatter—not while she was thinking an internal command over and over, in the strict tones of her teachers. Pace even! Don’t limp! If any of the teachers found out about her injury, they’d surely pull her out of the performance, and that wasn’t an option. She’d harbored this dream for nine whole years. Being attacked by the Firefly Hollow Killer wasn’t keeping her from that stage, and certainly not a sore ankle.

“Is something wrong?” Wynna asked suddenly, her eyes surveying Tia over a heaping pile of scrambled eggs. “You’re quiet today.”

“And you didn’t come back last night!” Alindy added.

She wasn’t eager to divulge her secret, especially to Wynna, who was so fearful of injury. She could picture her friend rushing to Mistress Laserie in a panic, horrified Tia was trying to dance on an injured leg.

And perhaps Wynna would have a point, murmured a soft voice in her head, but she shushed it, then turned to Alindy. Her conversation with Roge felt like it had been a week ago, not last night.

“We were talking about… what happened, and it was just a bit much, so I went to bed early.” She stared with unneeded intensity at her eggs.

“What did—?” Alindy started, but Wynna elbowed her in the ribs, and she shut her mouth.

Everyone was standing up to go to class. Tia steeled herself and got up from the bench. Her ankle throbbed with a fresh stab of pain, but she ground her teeth and followed the two girls out the door, keeping an even gait.

Making it through the day without giving away her secret was going to be a trial—but at least she would miss partnering class once again for rehearsals.

The studio was filled with its usual pre-class hubbub. Some of the tenth-years were taking the time to stretch out sore muscles, while others caught up on gossip. She scrutinized her reflection in the mirror, relieved to find the swelling around her ankle wasn’t obvious beneath her skin-tight dance clothes. Mistress Primbuck started class, and Tia breathed a sigh of relief when the dance mistress didn’t seem to notice anything unusual. Still, she felt the pain with every movement. Perhaps if she just stretched it a bit more…?

But nothing helped, no matter how she moved and stretched her ankle. The stretching class finished up, and the string quartet began setting up in the corner for the first real routines of the day. Tia felt a rush of worry. She could tell the dance mistress and ask for advice, but with only a few days left before the Queen’s Fair, she would surely be pulled from the performance.

And besides, she didn’t want to give Selitta the satisfaction of stepping in as the designated understudy.

The seventh hour bell chimed, and she frowned. She’d been keeping an eye out for Roge, but he wasn’t here yet. Strange—he wasn’t the type to be tardy.

As Mistress Primbuck called out the first exercise and the quartet players raised their bows, Tia gritted her teeth and imagined Master Sonnen shouting in her ear to maintain a cool serenity. Over the next two hours the dancers in the room moved as one, and by the time class ended Tia hadn’t received more than the usual number of corrections. Mistress Primbuck hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Yet Wynna knew Tia better than anyone else at the academy, and in the downtime before strength-training she wandered over to chat.

“You all right?” she asked. “You look a little stiff.”

“My neck’s just sore,” Tia said. The lie came easier this time.

“Ugh, I hate that,” Wynna replied in a commiserating voice. “I have some dried willow bark you can try if you want. Mistress Laserie gave it to me. Just steep it in hot water and drink the tea. That helps me sometimes.”

“Thanks,” Tia said, rejoicing inwardly. When their morning classes ended, Wynna hustled out of the studio, heading towards the dormitories. She met Tia and Alindy at lunch a few minutes later, clutching a plain drawstring pouch.

“Just this much,” Wynna said, shaking the willow bark into her palm, “and the soreness should go away.” Tia hurried off to fetch hot water.

Roge still hadn’t shown up, she noticed, scanning the dining hall as she sipped her tea. Maybe he was sick.

She stood up as the lunch hour ended and grimaced; her ankle felt no different. Perhaps the tea was slow-acting, she mused, and resolved to guzzle a bucket more once class ended. That night Tia only climbed into bed after downing three large mugs’ worth of the stuff.

But huddled beneath her comforter, her ankle throbbed with every toss and turn.