By the time they had run the whole routine from the beginning one last time she was trembling with pain.
“Worked us hard this time,” Wynna said with a groan as they left the studio.
“Merciless,” Tia managed. She was focusing all her attention on not hobbling.
But though their instruction was done for the day, the dancers still weren’t afforded an opportunity to rest. Mistress Oerfall was waiting for the Queen’s Fair dancers right outside the studio doors, looking a bit more weary than normal. No doubt she was also worried about the Queen’s Fair, especially after the lunch-time news.
She addressed the group of ninth- and tenth-years. “I know you’re tired, girls, but we need to do a costume fitting. The seamstresses are waiting for you in our usual morning studio. Oh, and Tia! A private word.” Mistress Oerfall beckoned her forward.
“Yes?” she asked tentatively, trying not to let her face betray her nerves as she drew closer. Did the dance mistress suspect her injury?
Don’t limp! Don’t limp!
“No need to look like someone walked over your grave, girl! Once you’re done with your fitting, go on down to the foyer. There’s someone waiting for you.”
Was that all? And who in the world would be waiting for her?
She gasped with the sudden realization.
“Get going, then. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to keep your guest waiting longer than necessary,” Mistress Oerfall said and gave her a smile—a real, genuine smile! Wynna wouldn’t believe her.
Tia hurried from the studio, doing her best to keep her perfect dancer posture in case the dance mistress was watching her go.
The second the seamstress was done pinning her costume Tia was out the door. It didn’t matter that she was a sweaty mess after her long day of classes. She just wanted to see…
There was her sister, looking a bit out-of-place in her homespun brown dress as she perched on a plush love seat beside the foyer’s front doors. Natlin turned as Tia’s overjoyed cry bounced and echoed around the spacious marble room. Her jaw dropped as she looked her sister up and down, and then her face split into a wide grin.
“Tia!” Natlin rushed to her sister, swooping her into a tight hug. “They said you’d be a few minutes, but I almost couldn’t believe you were really dancing here.” She spun around. “Look at this place… It’s like something out of a fairy story! And you!” She took Tia by the shoulders and held her at arm’s-length, looking her over once again. “Tia, I didn’t recognize you! You look so tall, and you just sort of float, and those clothes!” She let out a nervous giggle. “I mean, I should have expected dancers in a place like this wear a certain kind of uniform, but you look simply scandalous!” Her voice dropped to a jealous, throaty register.
A lump rose unexpectedly in Tia’s throat, and her vision blurred with happy tears. “I’m so happy you’re here! I’ve missed you so much!” They hugged again, and then Tia pulled away. “Where’s Da? Setting up the tent?”
Natlin looked away and ran her hands down the front of her dress. “He… he didn’t come. This year it’s just Pila and Alan and me, so I’ve been working on my sales pitches—”
“Why didn’t Da…?”
Natlin’s mouth twisted. “It’s complicated, Tia. Right before we left… Things have changed…”
And the foyer fell away as the memory of the crazed man in the square rushed back to her. We both made it out just in time… The gods have forsaken Fenlick… She went cold.
Natlin drew a long breath. “You know, I’m starving. We only just arrived an hour ago, and I came right here. Is there somewhere close by we can eat? I’ll tell you everything as we walk.”
She blinked. “Of course. There’s a little place close by that serves the best saltmeat pasties you’ve ever tried. I’ll go and change.” After Tia had found out Natlin was coming to visit her, she’d indulged in some daydreaming about showing her sister all around the city—but she’d never imagined the moment would be marred by what looked to be heavy news.
A few minutes later she met Natlin back in the foyer and they exited out into the still winter twilight. It certainly wasn’t ideal to walk anymore than she had to, especially on the hard city cobblestones, but she couldn’t imagine having any sort of private conversation at the long dining hall tables.
It was the first time since she’d been attacked that she had ventured back out into Haplyr, and the guard only grudgingly let them out the gate; Master Maaj had made sure the guards knew Tia could only leave the academy if another person went with her.
“What was that about?” Natlin murmured once he finally acquiesced.
“He’s always in a bad mood,” Tia replied, then wished she could pluck the words out of the air and stuff them back in her mouth. Why was she lying to Natlin? Why not just tell her about the attack?
Learning your sister was the object of a killer’s fascination was the type of news that should only be delivered sitting down, she told herself. She’d wait until they got to the pasty shop to tell her.
“So what happened?” Tia asked, glancing sideways at her sister. “What’s wrong?”
Natlin bit at her lip. “It’s… To start with, there’s the fire—not what you think! Not the shop. The shop is fine!”
“A few days ago a man told me Bleskar was on fire. I thought he was crazy…”
“Not crazy. The fire’s underground, burning up the peat. One day there was nothing, the next… The Mirish started pouring into Fenlick, talking about a fire far out in the northeast. Not just the bogmen, Tia—their wives and children, too. I’d never even seen a Mirish woman before. Their settlement was caught in the thick of it all, so they abandoned it and headed west. The day after they arrived we saw a gray haze floating just over the horizon, and then the day after that the fire properly arrived.”
“But Fenlick itself didn’t catch fire?”
“Only the buildings right at the edge of Bleskar. No one can go out anymore; the ground’s too unsteady.”
She shook her head with disbelief. Bleskar had always been a place so fraught with hazards that only the Mirish, born and raised in the bog, could traverse it. How could things have changed so much?
Natlin caught her baffled look. “You don’t understand how bad it is. A big crowd of us gathered at the edge of Bleskar, watching everyone come into the city. There was a young runner going slower than the rest, carrying his crippled father on his back. He was going so carefully, picking his way towards us. Couldn’t have been more than a hundred paces away. He set his foot down, and this great hole in the earth opened up beneath them. They were gone in a split second… Not a yell, not a cry. Just gone.”
Tia came to a standstill in the middle of the road. She’d lived next to Bleskar Bog all her life, heard all the stories, knew how it felt to live beside that vast, unknowable swath of land with its host of monsters—but she’d never imagined… Couldn’t believe…
She struggled to string her next sentence together. “And… did you say there was something else going on in Fenlick?”
Her sister exhaled slowly. “Yes. Well… I don’t know. You know when something small happens, but it sticks in your mind for whatever reason? And maybe you have suspicions, but then you think, no, that can’t be right.”
She flashed back to sitting in Madam Klimm’s with Roge, watching the Firefly Hollow Killer buying roasted chestnuts. “Yes,” she said with a swell of unease. She’d doubted herself, thought she was crazy. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Natlin’s voice grew lower, more halting. “You got my letter, right? About the men who wanted to hire Hob to bring them into Bleskar?”
“Hob had given them the name of another runner who he thought might be willing to take them along. After that he didn’t hear any more about it, and I didn’t see them around town again. The thing is that as the Mirish refugees were on their way to Fenlick, they found that runner’s body half an hour outside of town. He was in a stream full of pirinh fish, so you can imagine what he looked like.”
A disgusted noise escaped Tia’s lips. Imagining what the poor runner had looked like was the last thing she wanted to do; he’d probably been reduced to little more than a pile of bones. “How did they recognize him?”
“A ring he always wore on his finger.” Natlin drew in a long breath. “The whole thing is strange. I thought maybe… something those men did out in the bog could be linked to the fire…?”
It sounded like a coincidence, but Tia swallowed the words. If she’d learned anything recently, it was to not ignore instinct. “It could be. But anything can happen in Bleskar, you know that. I doubt we could ever know for sure.”
Natlin nodded. “It’s just another odd thing in all that’s happened, and I can’t help but think of everything being tied together.”
They lapsed into silence. Only after a minute did Tia realize Natlin still hadn’t said anything about their father. “So then what’s going on with Da?”
Her sister winced. “Right. That’s the last bit of it. A few days before the refugees came, I had a dream.” She hesitated. “And so did Da and Ma and almost everyone in Fenlick. The same dream. I know it sounds incredible—”
“I believe you.”
A powerful sorceress of the bog holds the people of Fenlick in her thrall. They see her in their dreams…
“Thank the gods,” Natlin said, visibly relaxing. “I thought for sure you’d think I’d lost it. There was a woman in a place swirling with mist.”
“The Gray Swamp?”
“That’s what I assumed. The woman’s clothes were in tatters, and she looked sick. Her hair was long and golden, but terribly matted and dirty. Her skin was golden, too—not tan, but properly gold—and it was as dirty as her hair, so that the gold only peeked through, like tarnished metal. And her eyes, Tia, her eyes—”
“Silver,” Tia finished, remembering the man in the square’s description.
“That’s right. How did you—?”
“The man who told me about the fire mentioned it. Go on.”
“Her eyes were like two bright silver coins. I looked at her in my dream, and all the breath left my body in a whoosh—like I was a stupid little skeet compared to this dirty woman. And then she didn’t open her mouth, but she spoke, in this awful, booming voice.” Natlin shuddered. “It felt like my head was about to explode.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘Come and right the wrong done unto me by the silent one. Go to his godly hall and free me from this prison. Your feet will know the way.’”
What did it mean? The woman’s words almost sounded like code, like they had been translated from another language.
“Is that all she said?”
“That’s all. But—” Natlin’s voice broke, and a tear carved a wet path down her cheek before blowing away in the wind. “Some of the dreamers can’t help it. The dream—the vision—it rattles around in their heads until—” A ragged sob escaped her lips.
“Until what?” Tia pressed her, knowing suddenly that the answer was terribly important.
Natlin’s reddened, watery eyes met Tia’s own. “Until they sneak away to go find the woman in the dream. It’s not that Da’s sick or anything like that. It’s that Ma keeps trying to wander off into Bleskar, and Da had to stay to keep her from leaving.”