Chapter Twenty-Seven

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She stopped dead in the middle of the road again. “That can’t be… You’re lying.” Her mother would never, ever do something so foolish as to just stroll into Bleskar. It would be a death sentence.

Natlin’s shaky composure had dissolved into weeping. “I swear!” she said between sobs. “By the time… we left Fenlick… she’d already tried… several times!” She took a few deep breaths, and her crying calmed some. “So Da had to stay home to monitor her.”

“And the bogmen? Dezel Smith?”

“We don’t have any new Mirish items because the runners can’t go into Bleskar. There was no point in them coming along.” She paused, looking around aimlessly as a few stray tears leaked down her face. “Dezel stayed to make sure Denan doesn’t… leave. That boy was always a bit weak in the head. But Ma… I just can’t understand it.”

“Why’d you come to Haplyr at all? You should have stayed home with them.”

Natlin turned to look at Tia, her expression miserable. “Da wanted me to let you know everything that’s happened in person. It was too much to say in a letter. And Da promised me he could handle Ma himself. Truth be told, I don’t think he trusted me enough to do it myself.”

She didn’t know what to say. Her ankle, the Firefly Hollow Killer—everything paled in comparison to this news. The land from which her family earned their livelihood was in flames, her mother suddenly of unsound mind. What could she say?

The recent revelations had kept the pain in her ankle distant, but now that they were walking in uneasy silence, the pain came roaring back. Her ankle throbbed with each step and she ground her teeth, doing her best not to limp.

Posture! Remember what Mistress Oerfall always says? There is a string attached from your head pulling you up into the sky! The litany running through her head kept the pain at bay for a few minutes, but at the end of the next street it got to be too much to bear.

“Can we stop? I’m feeling a bit ill.” She leaned on a lamp post and took a few steadying breaths.

“You do look pale,” Natlin said, looking concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“My stomach,” she lied, and she hunched over a bit, rubbing her abdomen.

“Well, let’s just wait a bit then. If you feel worse we’ll head back. But we must be close, right?” Natlin fished a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed away the sheen of sweat that had formed on Tia’s brow despite the cold air.

“What’s this?” her sister asked after a minute, nodding at a poster pinned to the lamp post. Tia blanched as she met the steady, staring eyes of the Firefly Hollow Killer, rendered in neat pen-and-ink crosshatching. The bottom half asking for any known information had been ripped away, and the ink was bleached from rain, snow, and sun.

“That’s…” She trailed off. Where to start? When Tia had almost died at the killer’s hand, Natlin had already been on the way to Haplyr; if she’d wanted to, Tia still wouldn’t have been able to write and tell her sister about the attack. But even before matters had come to a head, she had never gotten around to divulging the threat of the Firefly Hollow Killer to her family. She had justified the omission as a way to keep them from worrying (or worse, demanding she come home), but it now started to feel a lot more like lying.

She took a deep breath. “That’s the Firefly Hollow Killer.”

Natlin’s eyebrows rose. “Firefly Hollow? But isn’t that where we are right now? Where the academy is?”

She couldn’t meet Natlin’s gaze. “That’s right.”

“But he’s been arrested, right? This poster’s so old…”

She considered telling her the killer had been arrested a month ago… or three. She swallowed the urge to lie again. “He hasn’t been caught. And… please, please don’t be mad…”

Her sister listened open-mouthed as she launched into the whole story, starting with Annalise and ending with the attack mere days ago. Her face grew paler and paler as Tia went on speaking.

“And then I stabbed him in the leg with the knife Ma bought me and broke away from him, back towards the square. But he got away… Gods know how, but he got away.” Still bracing herself against the lamp post, she avoided Natlin’s gaze and stared down the rapidly darkening street. Another lick of pain shot up her leg, but she didn’t care. The hollow pit in her stomach eclipsed any pain in her ankle.

In a rush Natlin brought her in for a close hug. Tia felt her sister shaking.

“You should have told me,” Natlin whispered in her ear. “Why didn’t you tell me? You promised to tell me everything.”

Tears spilled over from Tia’s eyes at the hurt tone in Natlin’s voice. Her answer was barely audible, diminished in her shame. “Because… because… I wanted to stay.”

Natlin hugged her tighter still. “It’s all right. I just… I’ve been so worried about everything in Fenlick… and to think that all the while here in Haplyr…” She sniffed loudly.

Unbidden, a thought entered Tia’s head. Tell her about your ankle. Let her know. Her heart beat fast as she tried to decide what to do. She opened her mouth to speak—

A squelching, insistent growl interrupted, and her mouth clamped shut. “That’s my stomach,” her sister laughed. That was Natlin, Tia thought—quick to cry, quick to laugh. “Are we anywhere near this pasty shop? I think I’m about to expire, so if you’re feeling better…”

“Oh, right!” Tia had almost forgotten why they’d come out in the first place. Now that she’d had a few minutes to rest her ankle was feeling somewhat better. “We just turn left here and walk a block more.”

Natlin laughed again. “You were about to give up right at the end! Isn’t one part of this dance school about learning fortitude? Come on, let’s go. We can’t let a little adversity like a stomachache get in the way of saltmeat pasties!”

And her sister’s words, offhand though they were, made up Tia’s mind. Natlin was right. She’d managed her ankle so far, and she could bear the discomfort a few days more until she got through the Queen’s Fair. She braced herself for the now familiar pain, pushed off the lamp post, and followed her sister down the road.