Tia was distracted the whole time they were at the pasty shop, debating with herself whether she wanted to fess up about her ankle. Natlin was too busy gorging herself on saltmeat pasties to notice her sister’s reticence. Even at the end of the meal she still couldn’t bring herself to tell Natlin the truth, so she spent the whole walk back doing her utmost not to limp. Her ankle was screaming by the time they got back to the academy.
In front of the gates, Natlin turned to Tia. “Will you come by the tent tomorrow?”
“Yes, definitely. This year we’re dancing on a public stage right next to the tents, and we have a dress rehearsal there tomorrow.” And gods-be-damned she planned on being at that rehearsal, even though the pain in her ankle was making her eyes water. “I’ll find you afterwards.”
Natlin folded Tia into a final hug, then drew back. Her face was pinched, almost angry. “I understand why you didn’t tell me. I wish you’d told me—and I’ll probably be properly mad at you later once I think about it more—but I understand. But you need to stay safe. Stabbing him in the leg? Tia, you must be on some god’s good side, and that’s nothing to count on. And I don’t care how good those pasties were, we still shouldn’t have been walking around Haplyr at night with a killer on the loose. So please be careful. I don’t think I can take another of my family members being in danger.”
“I’m sorry,” Tia whispered over and over. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And she was.
There was a nearing clatter of hooves and wheels on the cobblestones, and she threw out a hand to hail the approaching carriage. She fumbled in her pocket for a coin.
“Here, take a carriage back to the tents. You shouldn’t be walking around by yourself.”
Natlin thanked her and raised a hand in farewell. Tia watched the carriage drive away, and kept watching even as it drew so far away that all she could make out were vague, inky shadows.
The next day the Queen’s Fair dancers departed the academy right when the morning class ended. With Mistress Oerfall leading the way, they trooped down the city streets in a giggling cluster, save for one girl—Selitta, who maintained a determined silence and trailed behind everyone else.
The rest of the city seemed to be feeling the same sense of elation. An excited energy infused the streets as they drew closer to the fairgrounds, touching revelers and regular city folk alike. The heady smell of onion cakes panfrying filled the air, and the street vendor’s line stretched down the block. Strings of merry, colored lanterns bobbed overhead, and troops of musicians, tumblers, and puppeteers drew crowds at every corner.
Eventually almost everyone around them was heading in the same direction, so that Tia felt like a fish being swept downriver. Right when the going was getting difficult with the heavy crowds, they swept left around a corner and found themselves in a gigantic square, packed full of tents of every size and variety. The shrill voice of one hawker floated above the buzz of the crowd. “Woodblock prints of Osanne here, make good gifts for the little ones! And images of a mature variety if that don’t suit your needs!” Even at the back of the group and with all the surrounding hubbub, Tia could hear Mistress Oerfall’s outraged sniff. Somewhere ahead of them one vendor was advertising fine glassware and another aged sausages, their warring voices forming a discordant melody. A fortuneteller draped in red robes and a lavish fur coat scanned the crowd and cast Tia a vague smile before the dance mistress ushered the dancers on through the confused mess of stalls. Trying to spot the Yarren Street merchants, Tia peered down the meandering aisles between each row of tents, but they were nowhere in sight.
“They’re here somewhere!” Wynna said to Tia as she craned her neck this way and that. “We’ll poke around after rehearsal.”
Just when Tia was starting to think the tents would never end, they emerged from the chaos into a large empty area cordoned off with ropes. Ahead of them the flagstones of the square stretched on, culminating in an enormous wooden stage at the far end. The square ended abruptly behind the stage with an imposing, latticework gate, beyond which sprawled the now familiar outline of the palace—but in reverse. With a jolt of comprehension Tia realized they were on the other side, opposite where Roge had brought her that day. It felt so long ago now. Here she’d been thinking she was starting to really know the city, but Haplyr was vast indeed—too large to really get to know in mere months.
She squinted at the palace. Was Roge in there, somewhere? He’d said his mother lived in the palace, working as a seamstress. Or had Roge already abandoned Haplyr for other parts—perhaps to search for his father in Ithiron?
Mistress Oerfall stepped straight over the rope and marched forward toward the stage. The dancers all did the same, though they now followed her a bit timidly, like young ducklings still unsure of their feet. Tia tried to imagine the whole area filled with people, and a wave of lightheadedness washed over her, accompanied by a hot pang that raced from her ankle up to her knee.
The dancers from the company were already there, along with the choreographer and Master Maaj. The dance master gave a wide smile as the academy dancers joined them beside the stage, then raised a hand for silence.
“This change of scenery may be a break from recent tradition,” he said, gesturing at the stage behind him, “but I myself am thrilled the king is allowing Hygotian folk from every walk of life to view Queen Osanne’s fabled dance.” Tia noticed the company choreographer and Mistress Oerfall both looked unmoved by Master Maaj’s cheerful mood. They stared pointedly at the ground, as if by ignoring the stage it would disappear.
“This dress rehearsal is especially crucial,” he went on, “precisely because of the change in venue. Dancing outside with winter in full form puts an extra strain on your body. On the day of the performance, stretch properly before you walk here, lest your muscles stiffen. You already know how airy the costumes are. Once you arrive and change, you must do whatever you can to stay warm.”
He cleared his throat. “Now, let’s have you change and get the rehearsal underway. That tent there,” he said, gesturing to a black tent behind the stage, “will serve as a dressing room. Be ready to dance in half an hour.”
The dance master’s worries were a bit unfounded, for with thirteen dancers bustling about the tent was soon almost toasty warm. Every girl was in her own world—applying stage makeup, wrestling with hair pins, shrugging on the diaphanous costumes, jumping in place to awaken cold muscles, contorting in impossible poses until their legs could slice smooth as knives through the air.
Tia stretched her left leg high over her head, grinding her right foot down into the ground for balance. She grimaced a bit as her ankle protested, but held the difficult position. Now was not the time to be giving up; the choreography demanded the dancers balance in this exact pose for nearly a minute. Just ten more seconds! She counted down in her head, each second lasting an eternity longer than the last.
Three… two… She hissed as a sharp pain lanced its way up her leg.
She released the position, shaking slightly, then flinched. She’d just had the uncanny, crawling sensation someone was looking at her. Glancing around, she caught Selitta staring at her from across the tent as she fussed with her hair. The girl’s eyes flicked downward as soon as their gazes met, and she reached for another pin, jabbing it into her already pristine black bun.
Their allotted half hour was used up as soon as it had started, and the dancers made their way out of the tent toward the stage. Tia felt a stab of jealousy when she saw Selitta drape a coat around her shoulders, watching from behind the curtain as the dancers found their onstage marks. Out in the open like this and clad in only her thin, silky costume, Tia felt like her blood was about to freeze solid.
The orchestra had arrived and set up on one side of the stage while the dancers had been in the tent getting ready. When Prin asked why they had set up to the side, rather than right in front like in a traditional theater, Master Maaj informed the group that the court and the royal family would sit directly in front of the stage, and they did not want to block the view of Their Royal Majesties. Tia trembled thinking of King Orrus and Queen Lisia steps away, watching her every movement. What if she forgot the choreography? What if she fell?
The choreographer led them through some quick blocking instructions, and then they marked the dance with full orchestral accompaniment. Master Maaj raised a hand as they finished up. “Hold your final positions! Now look down—are you on your marks?” Tia looked down and gulped; she was six inches off. “It is imperative you execute your final turn exactly on your mark, because these fuses will be lit by stagehands as soon as you launch into the turn. If you don’t keep to your mark, we could have any number of calamities—a singed costume, a stamped out fuse…” He pointed to six lines of rolled paper stretching from the wings to six corresponding small paper boxes at the front of the stage. Tia felt a spark of warmth inside looking at the boxes, knowing the powder within was made from the dried pirinh eggs purchased so long ago from her father.
Master Maaj continued his instructions. “You will make your exit as soon as the powder catches and explodes.” One of the ninth-years gasped, and Master Maaj looked at her, bemused. “No need for alarm, Annet—just a loud sound and a lot of sparks. As long as you keep to your mark I promise you will be perfectly safe.” Tia’s teeth started to chatter, and she mused that a nice, fiery explosion would make for a welcome change from this unforgiving cold.
Master Maaj cleared his throat. “We’re going to have you take the dance from the top now properly. We’ll light the fuses this time, so be prepared. And remember your marks!” He surveyed them gravely for a long moment, then sent everyone back to their starting places. As the dancers arranged themselves, Wynna caught Tia’s eye and winked.
The conductor raised his hands, the strings swelled, and the dancers began to move as one with the music. A glistening run of notes from the flute soared above the rest of the orchestra, and the dancers replied with quick, delicate steps. This part of the routine was Osanne’s introduction—the beautiful queen showing off her brilliant, graceful dancing. The horns sounded: a proposal of marriage from the king of Ahrenni. The dancers started in choreographed surprise, abandoning the intricate footwork and leaping backward, arms thrust outward in a clear signal to the Ahrennian king: No.
The flute resumed its innocent song, as the other instruments wove an ominous, contrasting melody underneath. And now the horns blared again, their loud, brassy assault indicating the Ahrennian king refusing to abandon his aims. He would go to war to make Osanne his bride. The flute was drowned under the building sound of the rest of the orchestra, and the dancers darted back and forth, a flock of frantic queens.
And then the orchestra quieted as the harpist, silent up until this point, began to spin an ethereal, shimmering melody: Queen Osanne, trapped on all sides, praying to the gods for intervention. Together, the dancers looked upward in supplication toward the heavens, as their left legs also traced a line up towards the sky. The harp played on, and they balanced in that tenuous position, arms spinning a slow, complex pattern. Their long gossamer sleeves trailed behind, rippling and shimmering with every movement.
The kettledrums began to thrum beneath the harp, low yet powerful. The gods had answered Osanne’s prayers; they would save her kingdom, if she sacrificed her talents as a dancer to them. The dancers bowed their heads in acquiescence as the volume of the drums built. This was the finale: the queen’s submission of her dance to the gods.
The drums, playing the part of the gods’ voices, were deafening now, forming a beat so loud and insistent that it pulsed through the dancers’ veins like a heartbeat. They leapt into formation, thrust their arms wide, and entered the final, furious turn. The rest of the instruments joined the kettledrums in the final, deafening crescendo, and the dancers’ sleeves whipped about their bodies. They were twelve blurred circles, spinning, spinning, spinning.
The orchestra hung on the final, resonant note.
Again and again Tia whipped around, clenching her stomach and praying for balance. Wasn’t the conductor holding the last note far too long? Any longer and she was going to fall…
And then from the front of the stage came a great, ripping explosion, rattling up through her bones even before the sound reached her ears. A blaze of heat rushed toward her, and the front of the stage was swallowed up by a mass of brilliant, white sparks.