At lunch Tia dutifully sipped her willow tea, though by now she was convinced it was having no effect—no effect on her ankle, that was. The cut on her hand had already healed nicely, and she’d been able to remove the bandage that morning before class.
Her full academy schedule was certainly doing her ankle no favors; the skin was still tender to the touch and puffy from inflammation. Yet despite her worry and some glimmerings of guilt for her deception, she still felt a small swell of pride that she’d managed to avoid drawing suspicion.
All she needed to do was get through the day, and then she could rest her leg and all would be well. Exactly what you thought yesterday! clamored the voice in the back of her head, but she hushed it again, more interested in the table gossip than the irritating worries of her subconscious. The tenth-years were talking about Roge, who, in addition to missing all of yesterday’s classes, also hadn’t been in class this morning.
“He can’t have been dismissed, could he?” asked Brissa.
“No chance,” said Alindy. “He’s one of the best in our year.” The group nodded in agreement, then jumped when Simas, sitting a little further down the table, gave a loud cry.
“Arlus. Hey, Arlus!”
The tenth-years turned as one. Roge’s roommate, Arlus Dyer, had just entered the dining hall. He moved toward them, a pinched expression on his face, and the group cleared a space for him.
“So… he’s gone,” Arlus said, drawing gasps from everyone.
Arlus shrugged. “He made a decision to leave. Didn’t want to talk about it, not to me, not to Master Maaj, not to anyone. He said he spent the whole day yesterday just walking around the city, thinking. Then this morning he packed up his things, told Master Maaj he was going, and just walked out the door.”
The group burst into discussion, each student putting forward a pet theory. Meanwhile, Tia was poring over the last interaction she’d had with Roge, when she’d told him about the attack. He’d been so disconsolate, so unlike himself.
Or, she wondered, maybe that had been a truer part of himself than she knew. Hadn’t Roge said he’d thought about leaving the academy and making a new life somewhere else? Perhaps she should be happy for him.
“Better hurry up,” Wynna said, startling her from her thoughts. “I think we’re leaving in about twenty minutes.” Right after lunch the girls in the Queen’s Fair were going to travel to the Capital Theater for a proper dress rehearsal.
At least that was the plan until a shriek outside the dining hall doors silenced the students’ chatter.
“WHAT?! And we find this out NOW?!”
“Is that the clarion voice of dear Mistress Oerfall I hear?” Tia heard Simas murmur.
“She could’ve had a second career as a singer,” Arlus replied. “That warble could shatter glass.”
A chorus of low snickers raced up and down the table. Tia cocked her head toward the doors, but she didn’t have to strain her ears to hear Mistress Oerfall continue her tirade. The dance mistress’s loud voice carried clearly from outside in the corridor.
“NEVER has the venue been changed! He is flouting hundreds of years of tradition!”
Wynna had paused mid-bite, also listening in. “That sounds like it concerns us. Shall we…?”
The two girls rose and made their way toward the doors. Wynna peeked cautiously out into the hallway, Tia right behind her.
The dance mistress’s back was to them, her hands planted firmly on her hips as a man clad in royal livery shrank away from her radiating ire.
He spoke in a high, tremulous voice. “I understand your complaints, but I am only here to deliver the news. The decision has already been made. King Orrus believes everyone in Haplyr must have the same opportunity to see the performance, no matter their rank or station. As it is a shared relic of Hygot’s history—”
His rehearsed explanation did nothing to placate the raging beast that was Mistress Oerfall. “What ridiculous logic. The fact of the matter is that in doing such a thing the king is excising what is now considered an essential aspect of the piece! The Queen’s Fair dance has been performed in the Capital Theater ever since it was built, nigh on four hundred years ago!”
Master Maaj rounded the corner, no doubt drawn by the loud voices.
“Cathra, what’s all this commotion about?”
“The king has demanded the Queen’s Fair dance take place on a stage next to the merchant tents, so the whole city can view it. An outdoor stage, exposed to the elements. Have you ever heard anything so preposterous?”
Master Maaj’s eyebrows rose, and he seemed to consider his words for a moment before speaking. “And we will honor His Majesty’s wishes, of course. After all, as you correctly reminded everyone in the vicinity, the dance has only been performed in the Capital Theater since its construction four hundred years ago.” His voice was serious, but Tia swore she spied a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Queen Osanne’s fabled dance, on the other hand, is thought by historians to predate even the building of the Capital Theater by four to six hundred years. Who can really say whether Osanne would be pleased for her dance to be viewed only by those wealthy enough to purchase a ticket? Certainly not you or I.”
The dance mistress let out a snort. “Yes, well… There are three days left till the performance, Willy. Three days!” She rounded on the messenger, who had been skulking at the side during this last exchange. “And what is the state of this public stage? Is it built yet?”
Sweat shone on his brow. “It… I am told it will be finished tomorrow.”
She stifled another outraged cry. “Our girls need a proper dress rehearsal!”
“And they will get it,” Master Maaj said, raising a hand in a gesture of reassurance, though Tia suspected nothing would serve to mollify the dance mistress. He turned to the messenger. “Have you already told the company dancers about this change?”
The servant nodded.
“Good. Cathra, send a message to the company. Today the girls will rehearse as normal. The dress rehearsal can wait until tomorrow. I know we have a capable group of girls this year.” For a moment, Master Maaj’s eyes rested on Wynna and Tia, still peeking around the door unbeknownst to Mistress Oerfall.
“And that would be our cue to finish lunch,” Wynna whispered in Tia’s ear, and they crept away from the door back into the dining hall.
At least that was one less thing to worry about. Queen’s Fair ticket prices were notoriously expensive, and Tia had been saving most of her monthly stipends, hoping she’d have enough to pay for Natlin’s ticket.
But another worry replaced the one resolved. She’d already woken up in a cold sweat several times these past few weeks, flooded with dread at having to perform in front of a packed theater. Now they would be dancing on a public stage. How many more people would come to the performance?
The smoldering coals in her ankle twinged again.
She made it through classes and the studio rehearsal, though by the end her ankle was burning and pulsing with every heartbeat.
“Relax your jaw!” the choreographer snapped at her. “You’re gritting your teeth. Has Master Sonnen taught you nothing? We need serene, elegant queens, not whatever that is!”
Tia thought she heard a familiar titter behind her, but when she glanced in the mirror, all she saw was Selitta marking the dance at the back of the studio, her face set in a look of concentration.
The glowering choreographer was still waiting for her to relax her expression. She stared down her reflection in the mirror, pushing the simmering heat rippling up her leg to the very back of her mind. A look of calm composure stole back over her face.
She was in control, not her gods-damned ankle.
“That’s better,” said the choreographer. “Now we go again from the top, one last time.”