Fenlick wasn’t a small town, but before she knew it they’d left the city center and were winding a meandering route through the poorer residential areas on Fenlick’s outer edge. Tia didn’t pay attention to any of the passing scenery or to the dance master beside her, opting instead for staring into space.
Her thoughts were warring inside.
I could ask him to turn around.
Don’t be stupid. Who gets homesick ten minutes after leaving home?
But what about once I get to Haplyr?
She chewed the words in her mouth, wondering if she could conjure the nerve to demand they turn around. But some internal force stayed her tongue.
The cobblestones gave way to packed dirt, jolting the carriage. They were passing the city limits now. When was the last time she’d been this far from home? It had to be several years at least. The rolling fields of crops on either side of the trundling carriage made her feel strangely vulnerable. She was used to the close-pressed feeling of shops and inns lining the streets. Seeing the horizon was unfamiliar, uncomfortable.
The carriage interior had grown hot under the beaming noonday sun. She turned to her travel companion to ask if he’d mind if she opened the window, only to find Master Maaj napping soundly beside her. He gave a breathy yawn, mouth hanging open slightly. Surely he wouldn’t mind. She undid the latch.
He roused himself with a harrumph as soon as she opened the window. “My, that breeze smells wonderful.” She took a whiff; the air did smell sweet. “I notice it every time I go to Fenlick,” he said. “People there might not realize it, but Fenlick air smells sour from all the industry. It does the body good to get out into the countryside every so often.”
She gave a noncommittal hum.
“In fact,” he continued, “I’ve been thinking about health a great deal lately—your health, mainly. Since we have a good span of time before arriving in Haplyr, it would be in your best interest to prepare yourself for life at the academy.” His blue eyes studied her shrewdly. “In Fenlick, how much time did you have to dance each day?”
Tia looked down, embarrassed. “It… it wasn’t even every day. An hour or two, if I could get away.”
“Academy students take eight hours of classes each day.” He saw her shocked expression and raised a finger to qualify. “Granted, some of that includes acting, stretching, and dance history, but the curriculum is intensive. It could be quite hard on you, and we must prevent injury.” He steepled his fingers, thinking. “Another thing to consider is that, as I said when we first met, your dancing is fine, but unconventional—a product of your self-study.”
She flushed. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve taken an impression of Hygotian dance and made it your own. Tell me, how many dance performances have you seen?”
“Only the Queen’s Fair dance, when I was young.”
“Yes, just so. Through the passage of time and the blurring of childhood memories, all viewed through an untrained eye, you’ve formed an impression of the most prominent aspects of that specific choreography. You’ve perfected your dance, Tia, but you must become accustomed to all styles—modern and classic, somber and merry, and everything in between.”
Her chin wobbled. Maybe now was the time to scramble out the carriage window and head home. “I thought you said I had talent.”
“You do! You just have a lot of learning to do and a few bad habits to correct.” His mouth crinkled into a smile. “Be prepared—you’ll find in the next few weeks that we must cover some of the very basics.”
She bowed her head. How was she to ever catch up?
“Try not to look so dismayed. These things I speak of are details—crucial details, but details nonetheless. There is some sort of core spark drawing you to dance. That is what kept you practicing in secret for years. That is why you must go to Haplyr.”
“You know all that from the few seconds you saw in the window?”
“Yes.” They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, he untying the paper bag to make a start on the sugar prunes and she peering out the carriage window at the passing fields. The land to the west of Fenlick was hilly and open, perfect for farming, with only the occasional tree. It made the peat fields of Bleskar Bog, which lay to Fenlick’s eastern side, all the more precious. Without peat, firewood would have to be lugged from the forested lands across the Anthol River—half a week’s journey away from Fenlick. The people of Fenlick were lucky to have the bog as their neighbor, despite the dangerous creatures that dwelled there.
Master Maaj offered her the sugar prune bag. They really weren’t her favorite, but she took one all the same, feeling obligated out of politeness. Besides, it was getting on towards lunch time.
“I think,” he said, in between bites, “that though we’re cooped up in this carriage, we may yet be able to take advantage of this time to ready you for academy life. You’ll need to understand the history of Hygotian dance, marking, stretching… We have just enough space to work on arms…” He trailed off, lost in thought. “Yes, there are many things we can do in these two weeks. We’ll start immediately. After our sweet snacks, of course!” he said, reaching back into the bag.
The sunlight outside suddenly looking a bit brighter, and she didn’t feel quite as tempted to leap from the carriage.
After Master Maaj had successfully decimated the rest of the sugar prunes, Tia’s lessons began.
What a change from keeping her fixation a secret! She could ask him all her long-kept questions—and what better authority to answer them than the lead dance master of the Royal Dance Theater?
“The right side of my body is less flexible than my left…?”
“Quite normal. Stretching will even you out in time.”
“Which direction should I tilt my head here? It never looks right.”
“Keep it in line with your leg, unless choreography calls for something different.”
“Is it bad if my muscles start to shake?”
“It just means you’ve never ventured so far in that pose. The muscle will find the position easier as you progress.”
Once he’d addressed her most pressing questions, the proper lessons began with a historical overview of Hygotian dance. As the carriage jolted its way down the dirt road, Master Maaj guided her along the murky history of the kingdom’s dance traditions.
“Queen Osanne’s story is mired in shadows,” he said, speaking animatedly. “Did she ever truly exist? Most versions of the legend say she lived a thousand years ago, but historians have found no artifacts that point to her existence. Any relics from that long ago are a rarity as it is. As for the so-called Ahrenni kingdom, there is, of course, no current realm of that name—though perhaps there is a tie to the modern kingdom of Arnyuth? From a historical perspective the whole matter is up in the air. The tale as it’s told now is simply a fairy story—but a fairy story the kingdom takes pride in each year all the same.”
Tia bit at her lip, trying to remember all the details of Osanne’s tale. The way her mother had always told it, the young and unmarried Hygotian queen had been beloved by her subjects for her kindness, beauty, and the grace of her dancing. The ruler of the powerful kingdom of Ahrenni would have no other for his wife, but Osanne refused him, having heard the king suffered from madness. Yet the Ahrennian king did not accept her refusal, and in a fit of rage he declared war on Hygot. Osanne begged the gods for protection, and they heard her prayers. Yet the gods did not grant favors freely. In exchange for their auspices, they demanded the young queen sacrifice her unnatural talent for dance to them. Osanne agreed, and danced before the gods in a sacrificial ritual. She began slow, but spurred on by her sorrow and passion began to move faster and faster until she was just a blur. And then she was gone—vanished. The gods had been so pleased with her performance that they had spirited her away to the world of the divine. After that, the advancing Ahrennian soldiers were struck down by deadly illness, and Hygot was never threatened again.
Master Maaj continued his lecture. “Though the historical basis of the tale is dubious, it has certainly inspired Hygotian dance tradition, principally the Queen’s Fair dance.” She nodded, remembering the twirling dancers disappearing behind a wall of fireworks. “Without the legend of Osanne, Hygotian dance would not have the respect or the complexity that it does today. The Carved Kingdom may have its magic, but Corim has nothing like our dance tradition.”
Following his swift overview of dance history, he gave her a lesson on arms, making do with the cramped space of the carriage. Master Maaj was an exacting teacher; Tia had never concentrated so hard on the angle a pinky finger could form with the rest of the hand or the way a flick of the wrist could inform the other movements of the arm.
A call from the coachman up top roused them back to the journey. They were nearing the village of Fimbleful, where they would stop for the night. Outside, the light of the setting sun was thick and honeyed, the shadow of the carriage stretching long and distorted over the fields. She hadn’t realized they’d been working so long—a good thing. Back home, helping make myreink or skeet jewelry was always onerous; one hour could feel like five. Here, she was part of a private and magical world of dance, a world only as large as the confines of the carriage, populated by just two people. Here, every minute was an indulgence, a joy, a challenge. Here, she belonged.
They rolled into Fimbleful just as the last rays of sunlight were limning the horizon. Fimbleful was a sleepy village that kept mostly to itself, though Tia had sometimes seen farmers from the village selling pigs and sheep in the Fenlick marketplace. The inn in the center of town thankfully had two rooms available, as was only proper for an older man and a younger woman traveling together.
It was astonishing how a day spent sitting down could be so tiring. After a hearty dinner of thick brown bread, spiced cabbage, and roast beef, she collapsed into bed and was asleep in an instant. She sank into dreams of hands—hands that carved a story in the air, mangled and clawing hands tensed with energy, hands that moved like an ethereal, downy feather buffeted on a breeze.
The next day she woke to sore arms and a mind tired from a whole night spent dreaming of dancing. They got back on the road straight after breakfast. This formed the pattern of their travel over the next few weeks: depart early in the morning, practice as best they could during the day, and stop at an inn before night swallowed up the small carriage. Despite their small quarters, Tia soon found herself stronger and nimbler. Aside from their daily practice in the carriage, Master Maaj also showed her new exercises for flexibility and strength that she performed in her room each night. Every day was a joyous blur dedicated to her craft, helping the journey pass swiftly. It was with a giddy shock that on the fourteenth day of their travels she heard the coachman call out that Haplyr was cresting the horizon.