Chapter Thirty

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She awoke suddenly with a shiver, cold despite her thick blankets. The room was cast in dark gray shadows, the sun not yet risen, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep.

Might as well get the day started then. She descended the ladder, grimacing as her bare feet touched the frigid floor, and got dressed. Only then did she really consider where she wanted to go. The performance was mere hours away, and last minute practice in an empty studio wouldn’t be any help. Wynna and Alindy’s room wasn’t an option; Alindy, at least, would still be sleeping. That left the dining hall. There wouldn’t be any breakfast there this early, but she wasn’t hungry anyway. She grabbed yesterday’s abandoned book and her pouch of willow bark tea, then slipped out of the room.

She was surprised to find the dining hall not entirely empty as she had expected. Suse and Prin were sitting together at one of the long tables, conversing quietly. They were both pale and bleary-eyed; clearly she wasn’t the only suffering from nerves.

Prin motioned for her to join them, and the three of them sat together, chatting idly about this and that. The dining hall door creaked open a few minutes later, and Wynna strolled in.

“Trouble sleeping?” Tia asked her. Wynna stifled a yawn in response and took a seat at the table.

Soon a girl from the kitchen wandered in, did a double take at all the early morning risers, and bustled off with promises of porridge forthcoming. Nobody complained about the simple fare; Tia’s stomach was fluttering with nerves, and she guessed the others felt the same.

The frigid weather outside permeated the academy walls, so the dancers spent the morning and afternoon warming up and stretching, in keeping with Master Maaj’s advice. If she were being completely truthful with herself, Tia didn’t mind the cold. Though it made her limbs feel heavy and slow, it was soothing as a poultice on her ankle.

Before long it was time to go. With Mistress Oerfall in the lead once more, they wended their way toward the fairgrounds. The jollity of the group was subdued this time around, despite the revelers filling the streets.

The space beside the vendor tents was empty no more. People of all walks of life had come to see the performance—beggars, merchants, courtesans, scholars, priests, nobles. The townhouses lining the square already had raucous parties in full swing on their balconies. A troupe of tumblers onstage entertained the crowd, drawing scattered oohs and aahs. As the dancers threaded their way toward the stage, the tumblers’ act ended and they were replaced by a man who breathed great gusts of fire over the delighted audience.

Tia, enthralled by the billowing flames, forgot to watch where she was going and collided with a man in front of her. She stumbled back and gasped as her foot caught on the edge of a flagstone. Sharp needles of pain rocketed up her leg. “Watch it, love,” the man barked at her, his breath reeking of liquor. She mumbled an apology and hurried past him, not wanting to get separated from everyone else. Stumbling along, she tried to ignore the angry heat building in her ankle, though with every right step all she could think about was easing the pain with a step on the left.

The dance was only ten minutes long. Just ten minutes. But with pain like this, ten minutes could last a lifetime.

After much jostling and a few well-placed elbows to the ribs, the dancers finally made it to the front of the crowd. There, twenty or thirty guards stood in a proud, unmoving circle around several rows of carved wooden chairs. One chair, taller and more ornate than its neighbors, was positioned front row center—a stand-in for a throne.

“No time for gawking,” Mistress Oerfall snapped. After a quick word to one of the guards, they parted ranks, and the dancers shuffled around the stage and into the tent.

They began getting ready with quick precision. Tia tried to block out the muffled clamor of the crowd outside by focusing on all the little tasks she had to do. Fix her hair, apply dark powder to her eyelids, paint her lips, ease on her costume and cinch it in at the waist—every detail was both a distraction and another step towards the performance. When they were all dressed, the dance mistress came in and led everyone through a few short exercises to keep them warm, then told them to stretch as necessary.

A sharp blare of trumpets outside could mean only one thing: the king and his court had arrived. Mistress Oerfall popped her head back into the tent.

“Just a few minutes now! Let’s go!”

Tia walked out of the tent and coughed. The cold had deepened while they’d been getting ready inside, and it tore through her silken costume and whipped her breath away.

“There’s hot water here to drink!” called the dance mistress from the wings. “Come up here, girls!” But despite the curtains blocking the wind and a warm mug of water in her hand, Tia’s limbs still felt closer to icicles than living flesh.

Every part of her limbs except her right ankle, that was. She bent down and massaged her calf, not daring to touch any lower than that. It felt hotter by the second, as if instead of tendons, muscles, and bones beneath the skin there were warm coals slowly being stoked to a blaze.

Just ten minutes. Just ten minutes. Just ten minutes.

Wynna appeared at her side, holding her mug so close to her face that the steam curled in lazy patterns around her jaw and nose.

“I don’t care so much about the rest of me being cold,” she said. “But I can’t stand having a cold nose!”

“Me too…” Tia said, picking at her costume. Just ten minutes. Just ten minutes.

“Is everything all right?” Wynna asked. “You look pale.”

“No!” she stammered, a blush rising in her cheeks. “I’m fine!”

Wynna smiled. “Nerves. I understand.” She huddled in closer. “I know how much the Queen’s Fair dance means to you, and this is your first proper performance. Here’s a trick: imagine everyone in the crowd is in their underclothes. Someone told me that once. I’ll admit I don’t really understand it, but at least it might lift your spirits.”

Tia nodded and sipped her hot water, the throbbing in her ankle still dominating every thought.

A shadow appeared at the edge of her vision—Selitta, clad in the Osanne costume, though it was all for naught. Tia eyed her warily. She looked strangely… ashamed.

Selitta leaned in towards Tia, her clear blue eyes wide. “Can I have a word? Please?” She sounded apologetic, guilty.

Tia hesitated for a second, then nodded. Selitta jerked her head away from the others, further back into the wings. “Sure, fine,” she said, feeling a spark of annoyance. Did this have to happen right now, of all times?

Wynna was clearly having similar thoughts, looking at the two of them with an incredulous expression. Now?! she mouthed, and all Tia could do was shrug.

Once they were out of hearing range of the others, she turned to Selitta. Her words came quick and sharp. “Gods above, what is it? I’m really, truly sorry about finding… you know, but now’s not exactly the best time to talk.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” Selitta answered in a cold voice. “Now is exactly the right time.”

And then Selitta drew back her foot and leveled a kick at Tia’s leg. The smoldering coals in her ankle exploded, and her vision clouded with white stars.

Thurie sat perched on his father’s strong, steady shoulders, eyes wide and looking this way and that. Today, however, it wasn’t so much from nervous habit as from delight. They’d already seen mimes, puppeteers, magicians (though only the sleight-of-hand kind, of course), and even a fire breather. If that was the entertainment they showed before Queen Osanne’s dance, then how magnificent must the actual performance be? He squirmed, anxious.

There! Peering in the direction of the stage, he saw a few girls draped in shimmering costumes dart out from their dressing tent. Only a few minutes, then, until the show would begin.

The air shot out of Tia’s lungs as she hit the ground hard. She gagged, gasping for breath. Her ankle was on fire, the pain furious and hot.

“Y-you kicked me,” she croaked. “You—”

Selitta knelt down beside her, her face inches away from Tia’s own. She smiled. “That’s right. You thought you were so smart, keeping your secret from everyone.”

She coughed as she tried to draw breath to speak, then coughed again.

Selitta patted her on the cheek, watching her gasp. “You must have some inkling by now, but just so we’re clear, I don’t care about the academy, and I especially don’t care about Osanne’s gods-damned dance. But I do know you care about it a great deal. I hated you as soon as I saw your ugly swamp face. You were going to replace me, take me away from A-Annalise. And then she d-died, and you took her spot, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let things keep going your way. So you’ll have to excuse me—I have to prepare for my grand finale. Oh, and if you’re thinking about telling people what’s in those letters? Go for it. My life’s been over ever since I started loving Annalise.”

Selitta stood, and Tia saw her slippered feet pad away.

“Places, girls!” Mistress Oerfall cried. “Remember to stay on your mark!”

Selitta’s high voice rang out, all innocence. “Mistress Oerfall, it’s Tia! Something’s wrong!”

“Wrong?!” The dance mistress was at her side in an instant. “Tia, what is it? What’s happened?”

But she was crying now, great, gulping tears of fury and pain, and the words wouldn’t come out. The dance mistress took her by the shoulders and shook her. “Gods above, what is the matter?”

Tia pointed at Selitta, who was looking as aghast as everyone else. “She—she—”

“This is no time for children’s squabbles,” Mistress Oerfall said. “Get up, wipe your face, and get to your mark.”

The dance mistress extended her hand, but when Tia grasped it and tried to stand her leg gave out after a few wobbly seconds. The other girls gasped.

“She’s hurt!”

“Her leg!”

The crowd outside started to quiet. A stagehand rushed over to Mistress Oerfall. “Sorry, but we need to get started. Curtain’s opening in thirty seconds.”

She tried again to stand, but sank to her knees. She ducked her head in shame. She could only imagine what it looked like from their end—a newborn foal taking its first few tottering steps before falling in a heap to the ground.

Wynna let out a little cry, her face white. She took a step forward, caught between wanting to help and not wanting to leave her mark, and then looked from Tia to Selitta and back to Tia.

“That… bitch! She hurt her, somehow! Kicked her, or—”

The dance mistress threw out an arm to silence her. “That’s enough from you, Miss Farrin! Selitta, take her place. Your marks, girls. Quit your staring, and get on your marks!”

At the dance mistress’s furious roar, everyone fell into places. Tia met Wynna’s gaze; her friend’s eyes were glassy with tears.

Seconds later, the curtain parted, the crowd quieted, the conductor raised his baton, and the strings began to play.

She couldn’t watch from the wings, couldn’t watch as that miserable, gods-damned bitch stole her spot. So Tia took a breath and then another, readying herself for what came next. Slowly, gripping one of the wooden beams that ran upward to support the curtain, she hauled herself to her feet and with an awkward, hopping gait managed to make it out of the wings and down the side steps to the ground. Thank the gods she’d been blessed with good balance. The movement wasn’t sustainable by any means—she’d need to find some sort of crutch soon—but she didn’t care about that for the moment.

Nor did she care about the biting cold or how conspicuous she was in her costume. All she wanted to do was get away from it all. So she soldiered on, taking a wide path around the dressing tent before staggering back into the crowd.

Pila, Alan, and Natlin were out here somewhere. Were they close enough to the stage to see she wasn’t dancing with everyone else? Were they wondering right now what had happened, where she was? She hoped she didn’t see them—didn’t want to deal with their disappointment and pity.

She realized as soon as she was in the crowd that she didn’t feel any better than when she’d been in the wings. Every gasp, clap, and whistle felt like a dagger thrown her way. She yearned to be in a bed somewhere far away from Haplyr, where dancing was a frivolity and she didn’t know anyone.

Feeling her ankle about to give out again, Tia lurched towards one of the townhouses that lined the square and leaned against the brick facade, breathing hard. She hated that she could see the stage from this vantage point, hated that she could see how beautiful they all looked up there. There was Selitta, her expression serene and proud, the perfect image of a queen. And there was Wynna right beside her. Her friend’s movements were a bit sloppier than usual; anybody untrained wouldn’t notice, but Tia could tell the difference.

The dance was finally coming to a close now. The harp’s sweet, sorrowful melody was almost over, and the drums were beginning their slow, steady build. Selitta hadn’t practiced staying on her mark with everyone else, Tia realized. Hopefully she would lose control and careen offstage or maybe even catch her costume on fire. She wanted to look away, but the perfect spinning synchrony of the dancers was mesmerizing.

And then she saw something odd. There was something moving within the dark depths of the wings, right at the edge of the curtain. Just a trick of the light, perhaps? But now she saw the same dark, furtive movement again, shadow within shadows. She squinted, trying to make out what was going on.

It was just a stagehand, dressed in the usual black outfit. She almost wanted to laugh. Oh, what a furor this would cause; any stagehand should know to stay well back, lest they be seen. She could nearly hear Mistress Oerfall’s horrified screeches right now. Bumbling, useless idiot.

The dancers spun like tops on the stage, blurs of whipping, brilliant color… But now the stagehand was taking a step forward, actually onto the stage. She heard a few people laugh nervously; everyone had spotted the rogue stagehand now, but most of the audience seemed to be taking his entrance in stride. They had never seen the dance before, she realized, and might not know this strangeness wasn’t a planned part of the show.

“Get off the stage,” she muttered. The man had to be unhinged. He’d be flayed alive for his transgression.

Prin, who was closest to him, maintained her turning. She likely didn’t even realize the stagehand was there, what with trying to keep her balance.

And then the man drew Prin in close to his arms, moving so fast he was no more than a black blur. As one, the crowd exclaimed. A tall man with white hair standing behind the courtiers took off at a run toward the stage: Master Maaj. The guards surrounding the seats in front watched him go and then looked back at the courtiers and the king and queen, obviously trying to gauge whether they should follow the dance master or stay in formation.

In the arms of the man in black, Prin shook her head, clearly dizzy from breaking her turn, and looked back at her captor, wriggling a bit against him. He held her fast.

And then as the deafening drums beat on and the other dancers spun obliviously beside the struggling Prin, the stagehand drew a knife and sliced through her throat in one smooth, unwavering line. Prin dropped to the stage, eyes wide and lifeless, blood gurgling out from her throat.

The man darted sideways, seizing a company dancer by the wrist. She teetered towards him, spotted Prin bleeding on the ground, and jerked out of his grasp, but the man was faster and grabbed her again. One slash of his knife and she, too, crumpled to the ground.

The other girls were breaking their turns, the stage dissolving into chaos. Annet screamed as she caught sight of Prin lying on the ground, and she threw herself onto the girl’s lifeless body, but yelped and jumped back a second later. Her long sleeve, trailing on the ground, had touched the traveling flame of one of the fuses, and an eager, orange spurt of fire rushed up her sleeve. She jerked back and forth as she tried to put out the flames, a horrid caricature of the mythic, spinning figure of Osanne, before blindly tumbling off the front of the stage as the rest of her dress went up in flames.

Meanwhile, the man in black had turned towards Selitta. She screamed and staggered away from him, hiding behind Suse. He gave a quick shrug, as if he didn’t care who he put in a grave, and stabbed Suse in the stomach, once, twice, three times. She doubled over and sank to her knees before slumping face forward onto the ground.

Master Maaj finally arrived onstage, followed closely by two royal guards with swords drawn. The dance master shouted at the stagehand, trying to distract him from his deadly task. A throwing knife appeared in the man in black’s hand, then a second later embedded itself in Master Maaj’s shoulder, the man’s expert movement too quick to follow. Another knife materialized in his hand, and the guards fell back.

And then the man in black was sprinting away from them, disappearing behind the curtain, leaving behind a stage of sobbing, terrified dancers. The guards gave chase, and Tia spotted Wynna looking from Suse to Prin, clutching at her head in shock.

A stagehand, hammered a vague thought in the back of her mind. It was too horrible… this had to be a nightmare.

The dull notion in her mind sharpened. But if he was a stagehand with access to the fireworks, then that could mean—

“Get off the stage!” she shrieked at the dancers. “Get back!”

But the fuses had reached their final destination, and the bombs at the front of the stage exploded with a boom loud enough to put all the orchestra’s drums to shame, ripping Wynna and the rest of the dancers to shreds.

The square was a frothing, panicked mass of people. Just in front of her, a young woman held a screaming baby tight to her chest with one arm, while she tugged her toddler son along with the other back toward the tents. But for all the hysteria about her, Tia had never felt more perfectly alone.

She pushed off the wall and began to hobble back toward the stage.

She must have seen wrong, must have suffered a bout of insanity. It had to be the tears in her eyes distorting her vision. She’d seen Wynna up there on stage, a triumphant, spinning vision… Wynna had stumbled out of her turn, cast a terrified gaze about the stage, and then seconds later an awful, cracking explosion, followed by an ephemeral crimson mist floating in the air where…

No, it’s not true! It can’t be true!

Here she was, almost at the stage. It was easier going now that everyone was running in the opposite direction. She would look up and see Wynna there, beautiful, graceful, wonderful Wynna, sipping her mug of hot water as she tutted about the deranged stagehand who’d gotten his hands on some convincing stage props and decided to play a sick joke…

“Tia!”

Her heart leaped as she whipped her head toward the shrill voice. A moment later Natlin barreled into her, crushing Tia into a hug.

“I thought—I was so sure… You weren’t up there, but he could have killed you in the tent or behind the curtains…” Tia had never seen her sister so panicked, and she felt a stony weight begin to settle in the pit of her stomach. She tried to wheel back toward the stage, but Natlin held her tight, bringing Tia’s head in toward her shoulder.

She tried to break away. “Stop it! Need to find Wynna… Make sure she’s all right—”

But Natlin kept her grasp on Tia firm, blocking her view of the stage. “Tia, she’s gone. You can’t look. Promise me you won’t look.”

“I pr—” As soon as she felt Natlin’s fingers loosen she wrenched away and turned to face the stage.

Wynna’s body lay a few feet back from the front of the stage, her limbs flung out in odd directions. Her thin costume had burned to immodest rags, revealing gaping patches of blackened, blistered skin, and her head jutted out toward the audience at a crooked angle, almost accusatory-looking.

Where have you all gone? We put on such a show for you.

She held Wynna’s unblinking, lifeless stare for an interminable moment until her knees buckled. She fell to the ground and retched.

Once she was done, Natlin’s shadow, long in the setting sun, appeared at her side. Her sister’s hands gripped her shoulders, forcing Tia to her feet.

“We have to go. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but we need to leave the city, now.”

At a halting pace, they crossed the square back toward the tents. Tia didn’t bother to hide her limp, and Natlin didn’t ask. They walked in utter silence.

The fairgrounds were pure chaos as all the vendors made haste to pack up their wagons and carts. Who knew if the killer would strike again? Perhaps there were even more bombs planted around the city, just waiting to be ignited.

But there would be no leaving Haplyr that night, for King Orrus had given the order for the bridges over the Sheserp tributaries to be closed until the citywide manhunt uncovered the orchestrator of the Queen’s Fair massacre.