Though Tia had known the fireworks were coming—had even seen them from the audience when she was seven—she still couldn’t help but raise her arms in surprise.
And then the company girl to her left gave her a push and half-whispered, half-shouted at her.
“Go, go, go!”
They darted offstage as the sparks popped and blazed. A few seconds later the effect was over, leaving the front of the stage strewn with ash and charred paper.
Master Maaj’s voice rang out. “Excellent, excellent! If you’ll just come out again for corrections…”
The dancers shuffled back out onto the stage, tiptoeing and holding their skirts high so as not to sully their costumes with debris.
He smiled at the assembled dancers. “Truly a wonderful group we have performing this year.” He nodded his thanks to the company choreographer, then turned to Mistress Oerfall, a bemused look on his face. “You see, Cathra? It all works out in the end—no need for such theatrics.” The dance mistress’s lips twitched upward in an almost-smile.
“Now! There are still a few different parts that need tweaking. Tia—” She gulped. “Yes, the fireworks are a bit alarming from your position, but remember to take your exit next time.” His blue eyes twinkled with amusement, and a few girls giggled.
Master Maaj was already moving on. “Annet, you’re tensing your shoulders when you brush your foot out for that jump. Let me see you try again… Yes, that’s it. Suse, thumbs in when you first start the arm sequence during the leg lift…” He continued with his corrections, reading from a lengthy list of notes. After that the choreographer and Mistress Oerfall gave their own corrections, and then they took the whole routine from the top again as soon as the stagehands had finished sweeping the stage and replacing the fireworks and fuses.
And then they went through the dance again.
And again once more.
By the time all three teachers were completely satisfied, it was all Tia could do to keep from collapsing. She would have soaked through her costume with sweat already were it not for the cold, but being simply tired was not the issue; one more run-through and she was certain her ankle would give out.
But they would have a rest day tomorrow, and then on the day of the performance all she had to do was dance for ten minutes. Against all odds, she had pulled it off; she was really going to dance before the whole kingdom.
Trembling, she walked back to the tent to change, trying her best not to favor her left leg.
Wynna chatted away at her as they shed their costumes and wiped away the thick mask of stage makeup. Tia was only half-listening as she eased her ankle into her boot as gently as possible.
“Ugh, I think I have frostbite or something. Can’t feel my hands. Anyway, that rehearsal went well, I thought. Last year Master Maaj wasn’t satisfied until we went through the whole routine seven times. Seven times! I think he would have had us keep rehearsing, too, except that everyone was going a bit deaf from the fireworks and we couldn’t hear the orchestra very well.” Wynna laughed to herself, then paused. “Is something wrong? You’re not worried about that first time when you got startled by the fireworks, are you? You got it afterwards.”
Tia blinked, realizing she’d been asked a question. “Hmm? Oh, you’re right. What will happen if I don’t get off the stage in time?”
Wynna patted her shoulder. “Mistress Oerfall will have your head, that’s what’ll happen. But don’t worry, you’ll do just fine. Besides, most people at the fair will have at least a drink or two in their bellies, so if you mess up I’m sure they won’t know the difference.”
“You’re right,” she said with a sinking feeling. Behind a wall of sparks, it was unlikely anyone in the audience would notice if she took half a second too long to get off stage. But visions kept flashing through her mind of her ankle betraying her halfway through the dance. She saw herself crashing down on the stage, struggling to get up and rejoin the others, then falling again… That people would notice.
Wynna was still watching her to make sure she was all right, so she pasted a smile on her face and finished lacing up her boots.
As they walked back across toward the tents, she was just wondering how she was going to locate Natlin and the merchants when she saw a familiar-looking figure standing behind the cordon, waving at them.
“Your sister?” Wynna guessed.
“That’s her,” she said, smiling, and forgot the pain in her ankle for a second. A few moments later they ducked under the cordon and Natlin was hugging her again, ebullient.
“I heard the orchestra and knew it had to be you rehearsing. Gods above, was that really you on stage? It was so far away I couldn’t tell, but you looked incredible!” Natlin broke off, realizing Wynna was standing awkwardly off to the side. “Oh! Who’s this?”
Tia grinned. It was strange and wonderful to see both of her best friends together in the same place. “This is Wynna Farrin, my friend at the academy. She’s a tenth-year too.”
Wynna nodded to Natlin. “I’m glad to meet you at last. Tia’s told me so much about you.”
“And any friend of Tia’s is a friend of mine,” Natlin said, smiling brightly.
Introductions over, the three girls wove their way through the tents, Natlin leading the way. At last they arrived at the Yarren Street merchants’ tent, which was squeezed between a confectioner’s stand on one side and a tiny wooden cart on the other. The wooden cart, so decrepit it looked about to fall apart, sported a garish, painted sign nailed crookedly to the top:
Bogman Everil’s Goods
In need of thinges strange and magical?
Look no further!
Goods strate from Bleskar Bog
This year’s sole seller of Mirish wares!!!
Tia’s eyes widened as she read through the sign, and Wynna, captivated, drew a few steps closer. The seller, a squat, wrinkled man decked out in mismatched furs, stood behind the counter, speaking animatedly with a customer. As Tia watched, the seller reached below the counter and emerged with a stoppered glass jar filled with desiccated lizards, which he brandished in the customer’s face.
Tia caught her sister’s eye and jerked her head toward the stall, wanting to laugh. “Is that…?”
“A complete hoax?” Natlin answered, rolling her eyes. “Yes, of course. As far as I can tell, ‘Bogman Everil’ is passing off cat whiskers for spearmouse fur and rabbit droppings for graze fly pearls. Oh, and he’s been selling bottles and bottles of tonguetrap saliva—I have no idea what his substitute for that is.”
Tia snorted. “Ridiculous. And people get taken in?”
“A fair few. I’ve been doing my best to tell potential customers they’re wasting their money, but he’s caught on to me and started telling me off.”
“And what’s the use of all those things?” Wynna interjected, eyeing the curios splayed across the counter.
“Well, nothing,” Natlin said. “Like I said, everything he’s selling—”
“No, I mean, what’s the use of all the real Mirish objects? The—the graze fly pearls and everything else?”
“Oh, right. Spearmouse fur is near impossible to tear, so it’s handy if woven into thread. You’ll never lose a button again! Graze fly pearls? The real thing’ll set you back a few silver at least, because what they call the ‘pearl’ is really the egg of the graze fly, and you’re dead if you’re anywhere near graze fly spawn. But an empty pearl mashed and eaten conquers even the fiercest fever.”
Wynna gagged, clearly envisioning Bogman Everil’s hapless customers dutifully mashing their rabbit droppings.
“And what about… the tonguetrap saliva…?”
All three girls jumped as a voice boomed out from the shadowed interior of the Yarren Street merchants’ tent. “It’s a deadly substance indeed is tonguetrap saliva, and all those poor fools who bought whatever piss fills those bottles should thank the gods they didn’t buy the genuine article.” A second later the speaker, a tall, portly man, emerged from the tent, his ruddy face beaming.
“Alan!” Tia cried, running forward into the ropemaker’s open arms. He smelled of hemp and sawdust—a man used to working with his hands. With just that one whiff she could almost believe herself back in the general store once more.
“My dear girl!” he cried. He drew her close, beard tickling the side of her face, so he could whisper in her ear. “Good for you, amounting to more than a ledger keeper—and don’t let Pila know I said that, or I’ll never hear the end of it.” He released her from the hug with a wink, then turned back toward the tent. “Pila, come here! See how Tomma Inkman’s girl’s all grown up!”
A tall woman with her brown hair braided back hustled out from within the tent: Pila Chandler, the general store’s ledger keeper and candlemaker. Pila drew back with a gasp as she looked Tia up and down, then rushed in for an unexpected hug. Back in the days when Pila had instructed her in figures and ledger keeping, the candlemaker had never seemed the sentimental type.
Tia couldn’t help but notice that Pila had changed in the time she’d been away. There were new dark circles under the ledger keeper’s eyes, and her few wrinkles had deepened. Alan, too, looked older. Natlin hadn’t been exaggerating; the past stretch of time had been hard for the people of Fenlick.
“It’s a shame we can’t leave the tent unattended to celebrate, but we’ll make do,” Pila said, returning to her usual, no-nonsense self. “You go and buy some sweets from next door,” she said to Natlin, fishing out some coins from the change purse at her waist. “And I’ll go fetch some youthberry wine; there’s a seller just round the corner.”
While Pila and Natlin were out, Tia and Wynna perused the tent. All the wares were familiar to Tia, but Wynna, having spent her whole life in central Hygot, was delighted by such simple things as heathsbane rope and bog iron goods. Alan, glad for an audience, kept up a jovial running commentary at their side.
Natlin and Pila returned before long bearing delicious things to eat and drink. With customers wandering in to browse, they had to keep the celebration informal, but it was no matter to Tia. Sitting in the corner sipping wine and sharing a candied apple tart with Natlin and Wynna, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so perfectly content.
With family and friends like these watching from the crowd (or dancing beside her onstage!), it suddenly didn’t matter who else would be in the audience, kings and queens be damned.
The following day was a slow crawl towards impending doom. Per Master Maaj’s strict instructions, the Queen’s Fair dancers only attended the morning class with Mistress Primbuck. The rest of the day was for resting and preparing for the next day’s performance. Tia spent her free time unsuccessfully trying to relax in her room; Alindy was out buying trinkets at the fair, and Wynna had grabbed an empty studio to practice a few trickier bits of the choreography. Tia almost joined her, but decided at the last minute to rest her ankle instead.
Fortunately Lord d’Wygst had arrived in Haplyr at last and swept his daughter off to other parts of the city, so she didn’t have to suffer Selitta’s presence.
She sat on her bed reading through a romance borrowed from Alindy and downing mug after mug of willow bark tea. (Though at this point it was more because she’d grown fond of the taste than because she thought it was having any effect.) She set the book down once she realized she was reading the same sentence over and over again. Her muscles felt twitchy, like they were itching to move. She was accustomed now to the academy’s full schedule, and lazing in bed felt like something other people did. But she didn’t want to stress her ankle…
Perhaps a bit of stretching would do the trick. She wiggled out of the sheets, descended the bunk bed ladder, and dropped into a wide-legged position on the floor. She’d always loved stretching, loved the challenge of coaxing tight muscles to be long and supple. Keeping her legs splayed, she let her chest sink lower and lower to the ground—not pulling, not straining, just letting her weight do the work.
And… there. Her chest bumped the ground, and she rested her cheek on the carpet, her gaze traveling under the bunk bed.
There, right against the wall, was a wooden box. She frowned, eased out of the pose, and slid the box out from underneath the bed.
It was a small box, plain and unadorned. Yet while it had been nestled amongst the under-the-bed dust bunnies, the top of it was clean, as if it had recently been handled. Very carefully, very gently, she lifted the lid.
The box was filled with letters, some in envelopes and some loose, some lengthy and some a few, scant lines. She thumbed through the sizable stack and drew one from near the bottom. Her jaw dropped as she began to read.
I know it’s terrible to say, but I’m glad Verna’s been asked to leave. She always seemed sweet, but you know what this means! I told Papa what good friends we are, so he’s going to speak with Mistress Oerfall and ask her to move us in together and put the new girl in with Brissa.
We’ll have to be careful, of course. Not an inkling of a hint of a suspicion. But even knowing how quiet we’ll have to keep this, I’m still not nervous. I trust you, and I can’t stop smiling.
All my love,
The page underneath was written by someone else’s hand and short, more a hastily scrawled note than a proper letter.
Your eyes—I’m lost in them.
Your smile—so rare, so precious.
Your mouth—all I could ever want to taste.
Trembling, Tia reached for one of the letters at the top of the stack.
I waited to open your present until we arrived in Wygst, just like I promised. It’s so beautiful—but you shouldn’t have spent so much! Is it real silver? I’ll wear it every day.
I hate having to come home. There have been the usual endless parties and functions, but, worst of all, Papa is having me meet with suitors. When I look at them all I can see is a perfect prison: courtship, wedding, husband, children. I’m sure any other girl would think them handsome, but I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. All I want is you.
Maybe I can steal you away from the company to be my maid or something like that. Gods know I won’t be able to keep up the sham much longer and graduate from the academy. Master Maaj will never allow it; he knows my heart isn’t in it anymore. I’m trying my best, but that little girl passion for dance is gone, and he sees right through me. I hate pretending, but pretending is all I know anymore.
I’m sorry, this letter’s awful. The whole point of writing was to tell you how much I love the comb, but instead I’ve written a page of sadness. So here’s what I really wanted to say: I love you. I want to be back there with you, holding you, kissing you, just being with you. A week or two more here, then Papa says I can go back.
Tia’s hands shook as she put the last letter down. She felt like she had just been beaten about the head. Selitta and Annalise had been… lovers? She thought back to all the conversations she’d had with Wynna and Alindy about Selitta. There had never even been the slightest insinuation of a rumor. Faced with an impossible situation, the two girls had kept their love a perfect secret.
And it all made sense. Selitta crying in her bed, caught in the act of mourning Annalise. Selitta sounding the alarm when Annalise didn’t come back the night she was murdered. She would never have done that if Tia had stayed the night somewhere else. Even the words she’d flung at Tia when she had first moved in…
You’ve taken over Annalise’s spot in class, her partner in class, and now her bed. You may think it’s fun to play at taking the place of a dead girl, but nobody else sees it like that.
“Gods,” she whispered. “Gods.”
And then the door opened, and Selitta strode into the room. In one glance she took in the box on the ground and Tia’s abject look of mortification. Selitta gasped, then bent down and slammed the lid onto the box before scooping it up and clutching it to her chest.
“How dare you—”
“I-I’m s-so sorry…”
Selitta was shaking, with fear or anger or some terrible mix of the two. Her words were all mixed up. “You m-meddling little… Can’t tell… Get out…” She hissed this last command, and the force of its fury propelled Tia toward the door. She barely had the presence of mind to grab her coat before she fled the room—
—And ran smack dab into her sister.
“Oh!” said Natlin, startled. “Oh, here I was, thinking I would surprise you, and…” She laughed. “I just came by to ask if you wanted to come back to the tent to eat dinner with everyone.”
“Yes!” she said, all too eager to make herself scarce. Natlin raised an eyebrow at Tia’s overly bright tone, but didn’t ask.
They ate a simple dinner together in the back of the tent, and though Tia was grateful for the company, she had a hard time focusing on the conversation. Selitta, her ankle, Roge, the killer, the fire, her mother… Her mind was a mess of worry. And every second was bringing her closer to that inevitable moment tomorrow, when the conductor would raise his hands and she would spring into motion with the whole city watching.
It was Alan Corder who eventually noticed it had been a few long minutes since she’d said anything. “It’s getting late,” he said, standing up and stretching. “I’ll walk you home, lass.” Tia was grateful for the company, and even more grateful the ropemaker didn’t mind walking home in comfortable silence.
In front of the academy, Alan turned to her. “I know you’re worried about tomorrow. Anyone would be. Just remember that whatever happens we’re proud of you all the same.” He reached out his huge, callused hand and ruffled her hair.
“I’m sixteen, Alan, not five,” she said, shooting him a semi-reproachful look.
“Yes, but I knew you as a five-year-old, too, and it’s still hard not to see you that way sometimes.” His mouth broke into a smile, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s a right shame your parents can’t be here to watch you tomorrow. I know Natlin’s told you all about that. And I’m surely no dancing master, but I’ll do my best to relay every dip and turn to them, so it’s like they were here themselves.”
“Thank you,” she said, feeling a good cry coming on, then bid Alan goodnight. Back in the academy, she reluctantly made her way back to the girls’ dormitory. It took her a good, long minute to crack the door, but when she finally mustered up the courage the room was dark. Selitta’s soft, even breaths were the only sound in the room; she was asleep.
Perhaps the storm had passed. Perhaps, she wondered as she got into bed, Selitta might even relax now if Tia made it clear she wasn’t going to spill her secret.
It didn’t seem likely… but her time at the academy had been nothing but surprises, and it felt like nothing would shock her anymore.