Despite Natlin’s protestations, Pila and Alan had bombarded Tia with questions when they’d gotten back to the tent, but her one- and two-word answers stoppered the conversation in short order. Eventually Alan gave up and Pila stomped outside to start packing up the wagon, trailing grumbles behind her.
Tia felt no hesitation about going with them back to Fenlick. She couldn’t stomach staying at the academy, not when every moment would bring some fresh reminder of her slain friends. Natlin loosed a sigh of relief when Tia said she’d travel back with them. From the look of it, she’d been gearing up for a fight.
She took a seat by the cookstove as Natlin went to go find her some proper clothes, a blanket, and a crutch. Her body ached as tendrils of heat pushed the cold out from her limbs, but she didn’t mind. It felt good to hurt.
That night she lay beside her sister in one of the cramped wagon beds, her tossing and turning twisting the sheets into knots. Sleep came in fitful spurts; she didn’t trust herself to close her eyes. Any foray into dreams could only bring nightmare after nightmare.
So far, everyone’s fears had remained unfounded; no more bombs had gone off. Yet the killer continued to elude the city guards, so the king’s ban on travel in and out of Haplyr remained in effect. The boundless rumors twining their way from ear to ear hinted the perpetrator was Corimian; the speed at which he’d struck down the dancers certainly seemed magical. The city held its breath as the hours dragged on, waiting for a capture that seemed less and less likely to happen.
The next morning Tia took up her same seat by the cookstove. She didn’t eat, as she wasn’t hungry, and hardly moved. Tears came and went and came again, and she let them fall silently, turning her head so the others would not see.
Pila eventually came by and pressed a bowl of soup into her hands. It was an action so unexpected, so unlike the distinctly un-motherly candlemaker, that tears rose again to her eyes. What she wouldn’t give for everything to return to the way it had been before the Queen’s Fair massacre.
She looked down at the bowl of soup in her hands. Danger—everything around her could serve as a dangerous reminder. The steam wafted upwards…
Wynna looking at her, clutching a steaming mug of hot water, jittery with excitement. “I don’t care so much about the rest of me being cold. But I can’t stand having a cold nose!”
She stifled a cry as her hands burned with a sharp heat, and she blinked back to the present. She’d slopped some of the broth over the rim onto her hands. Her stomach rumbled, and she hated herself for it. Eating, sleeping, carrying on into the future… it was a betrayal of Wynna and all the others.
The others. Wynna’s staring, deadened eyes had fixed her in place, but from the corners of her vision she had seen the figures slumped on the ground. Annet, Suse, Prin, Brissa… the company dancers… And what of her teachers? Had Master Maaj survived? Mistress Oerfall? She envisioned the dance mistress observing her protegees from behind the curtain, oblivious to the man skulking behind her in the shadows with his knife at the ready.
Hands shaking, she set the bowl down on the ground and curled in on herself, trying to disappear.
Time crawled as the entire city waited for the killer hiding amongst them to be found. She had never heard the city so quiet.
Everything was wrong. Why was she here, cozy by a stove in the presence of loved ones, while Wynna—
Stop! She clutched her head in her hands, trying to drive out the spiraling thoughts.
She raised her head and met her sister’s shocked gaze. Good—anything to distract her from the enemy that was her mind.
Natlin sidled over to the cookstove. She took in the cold bowl of soup on the ground, then cast her sister a wary look.
“If you need to ta—”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” she snarled. She needed distraction, not a shoulder to cry on.
A door snapped shut in Natlin’s eyes. “Fine. But at least eat something. We’ll be on our way soon.”
Natlin came a step closer, allowing Tia to fully take in her sister’s drawn face and red eyes. It seemed Tia wasn’t the only one not sleeping.
“They’ve arrested the killer. The travel ban’s been lifted.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go back to Fenlick with Natlin, Pila, and Alan; why stay in a city that would haunt her with visions of her dead friends? It was just that she hadn’t expected to leave so soon.
“I don’t know. Crazy Everil next door is spouting some nonsense about the culprit being your Firefly Hollow Killer, but I don’t believe that for a second.”
Her mouth fell open. “It can’t—”
“I know, it’s crazy. People will say anything. They’re looking for someone to blame.”
Her mind skittered from one thought to the next. “Natlin, that man who attacked me was Hygotian. His face, his accent… I’d stake my life he wasn’t Corimian.”
“Perhaps he wore a disguise…”
She recoiled. “You don’t understand, Natlin. I was there! He whispered in my ear! I stared him in the eyes!”
Natlin backed away, drew in a long breath. “Tia, I know. I know. I believe you. But it doesn’t matter what’s being said. We’re leaving in a few hours. I thought…” Her voice dropped to a soft, plying tone. “I thought you might want to go back to the academy with me, to collect your things.”
Her first instinct was to shake her head—too many memories awaited her there. But would she ever have the chance to see Alindy and the others again if she didn’t go back?
“All right,” she said haltingly, then turned back to the cookstove as Natlin went to go flag down a carriage.
Thurie could tell straightaway they had arrested a suspect. The very sounds of the city changed, an undercurrent of whispers rippling from the slums to the manicured manors, breaking the shocked hush over the city.
“The bastard’s been caught.”
“Did you hear?”
“Unbelievable—the Firefly Hollow Killer all along.”
The news should have been a relief, but Thurie felt in his bones that there was something wrong with the whole, bloody affair. Tia Inkman had said his Firefly Hollow sketch looked exact, and the portrait that had poured from his pen onto the page yesterday was not that man, no matter the uncanny resemblance.
The noise outside the apartment grew louder as the good folk of Haplyr shrugged off their tension and settled back into normalcy. Thurie looked to his father and raised his eyebrows. His father shook his head at his son’s silent question.
“No, it’s not over yet. Let’s get ready to leave. We need to seek an audience with the king.”
He blinked twice in quick succession. The king! He’d never been inside the palace gates before, never even given much thought to how he lived in the same city as the ruler of all of Hygot. King Orrus felt more like a character in a book than a living, breathing person, so removed was court life from Thurie’s own, spent sketching lowlifes in dingy guard stations.
And what information needed to be conveyed directly to their sovereign himself, instead of a guard captain? More practically, how would they even gain an audience? It sounded like something someone else would do, not his father.
There was no time to grab a pen and paper to ask. His father was rocking back and forth on his feet, clearly aiming to leave straightaway.
He began helping his father strap on the wooden hands, keenly aware of his mother staring coolly at the two of them from her shrine portrait within the flowers. Silk flowers, so she could be surrounded with unblemished, blooming color even on a day like today when whorls of hoarfrost coated the windows.
He shook his head and tried to concentrate on the task at hand as that remembered knocking filled his head. He’d been haunted by the memory ever since the attack.
There are some things worse than death. There are some things worse than death. There are—
His father began moving toward the door before Thurie finished securing the last strap.
“Time to go. I’ll explain on the way.”
Tia shut the window curtain as the carriage trundled through the city toward the academy. There had been no question of traveling back to the academy in any other way; her ankle still burned even though Selitta had kicked her nearly a day ago.
Selitta! She screwed her eyes shut, trying to remember. Had she seen her body? Perhaps the girl had actually survived. Or had that kick sealed her fate, dooming Selitta and saving Tia’s life in the same fell stroke?
The normal bustle and clamor of the city outside the carriage window felt like an affront. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since the brutal murder of the Queen’s Fair dancers, and yet she could hear the usual city hustle and bustle through the carriage walls.
Callous! Had the people of Haplyr already forgotten? She gritted her teeth, anxious to get this visit to the academy over with and commence the journey home.
“Are you all right?” Natlin asked, her voice falsely light.
“Fine,” she said. She wasn’t fine—but what else could she say?
The carriage slowed to a halt, a sharp rap from the top of the cab signaling they’d arrived. Natlin opened the door, and Tia followed her sister out from the carriage to see—
A dimmed version of the academy she had once known, cast in mourning and sorrow. The columns along the front of the academy were draped with black cloth, to honor the dead. Sprigs of pine and holly, stand-ins for the customary flowers, littered the front lawn. Even as they stood there, a woman approached the gates and tossed a handful of holly twigs onto the lawn beyond.
So perhaps there were still some good people in this city who had not yet moved on.
Though night was hours away, the front gates were closed. The two sisters approached the guards, Natlin taking the lead and Tia trailing behind, still eyeing the transformed academy. The black silk, rippling in the slight breeze, made it all too real.
Too late she realized the guards at the gate wore unfamiliar uniforms. Well-oiled leather armor, shining, unscratched metal pauldrons: royal guard. Both guards spared only half a breath’s glance toward Natlin before settling on Tia. Her breath caught in her throat as her gaze met two pairs of cold, assessing eyes that lingered on her wooden crutch.
“Tia Inkman?” the guard on the right asked, already knowing the answer.
She dipped her head half an inch.
“You need to come with us, by order of King Orrus.” Her hand clutched for Natlin’s automatically; her sister seized it tight. The guard’s eyes flicked downward for a moment before rising to Tia’s own again. “You can bring your friend—”
“Sister,” she breathed.
“Doesn’t matter. Stop looking like Death just rapped at your door; you can come back here later. But we cannot keep His Majesty waiting.”
“She’s to see the king himself?” Natlin squeaked, her eyes darting back and forth from the guards to Tia and back again.
“Yes, miss,” the right guard said, as his companion waved to a carriage parked before the academy.
A carriage—they had been waiting for her here. For how long? For what purpose?
But the guards stayed tight-lipped as they herded Tia and Natlin toward the carriage, leaving behind the black-clad academy, stern and solemn as a graveyard.