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It took a few more hours to reach the outskirts of Haplyr, and then they still had to make their way into the city proper. Hygot’s capital was situated in a highly defensible position between two Sheserp River tributaries, which flowed from the mountains to the north and converged just south of the city. As the carriage reached the wide bridge connecting the banks, Tia stared at the murkhound statues posted at each end of the bridge. They were enormous and weathered, the murkhounds’ muzzles bared to reveal slavering tongues and the beasts’ famous, giant fangs.
“The ancients thought they would put any invaders on edge,” Master Maaj said, catching her staring.
“I can see why,” she replied, shivering as they passed between the statues.
The light began to fade as the carriage wound its way through the city. The Haplyr streets bent this way and that, gnarled as tree roots. They were evidence of Haplyr’s humble beginnings and gradual expansion over the course of hundreds of years. It was not a city that had been drawn up first on an architect’s map, but instead had built and rebuilt itself after fires, plagues, and the occasional violence from regime changes. Apartments and shops piled on top of one another in a great jumble, as if each new layer of the city were pushing the next down into the ground, condemning its forbears to a fate of fossilization and eventual disintegration into dust.
She could only stare transfixed at the new world just outside the confines of the carriage. Haplyr was calling for her to explore, to get lost in its maze. Through the open window she could hear the calls of a priest imploring passersby to acknowledge the providence of Pelas with a donation, and then the faint strains of a bawdy tavern song. A gang of small children ran pell-mell down the street, hooting with laughter, and a woman with hair undone and lips and cheeks stained red called out to a man strolling down the street before melting into the shadow of an alley.
“Our fair city is rough around her edges,” Master Maaj said. “I beg you to not judge Haplyr by the outer quarters. Our destination is closer to the palace, in the Firefly Hollow district. You’ll find it more civilized than these streets, I daresay.” She hoped so. If the academy were in a dangerous area and her parents found out, Tia already knew it would be back to Fenlick straightaway.
The city stretched out far, and as the carriage slowly traversed from borough to borough they ate snacks as their supper, so as to make good time to the academy. The further they drove into the city, the wider the streets grew, the lay of the road more and more even. The buildings lining the streets were dignified in their old age rather than crumbling, and she spied many couples and families enjoying the night’s cool summer breeze as they took an evening stroll. Street vendors hawked freshly cut melon strips as fiddle and flute players took song requests for a copper. She craned her neck this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of the palace between the buildings, but the light was fading too fast to see clearly.
The carriage made an abrupt turn down a wide boulevard just as the last rays of sunlight fled the sky. By this point, Tia could scarcely believe she was still in the same city, so different were the structures here from the outer quarters. Stone buildings to each side of the street soared into the sky, and gargoyles and filigree made every roof an exquisite, fearsome work of art. It seemed that every minute they were passing a mosaicked public square or a towering, sculptured fountain. Tia guessed from the architecture that the academy was close by.
“And here we are,” Master Maaj announced, confirming her suspicions. She’d been silent in her gaping, but now she couldn’t help a small gasp. Could this really be it?
The academy of the Royal Dance Theater was at once intimidating and inviting in its beauty. The academy itself was a sprawling building crafted of creamy marble, fronted with pillars engraved with images of people in slumber—no doubt in tribute to Jopha, goddess of dreams and divine patron of the arts. The front drive of the academy was flanked on either side by a manicured lawn and gardens, seemingly maintained down to each blade by an obsessive, zealous landscaper. Glass lamps of pale blue were scattered here and there around the gardens, and true to the Firefly Hollow name, lightning bugs winked on and off merrily. The whole effect gave the impression that a flock of fairies had descended for an evening dinner party amongst the lilies and roses.
The carriage stopped before the front gates, and Master Maaj jumped down to have a quick conversation with the guards. Their conversation lasted only a moment before the gates swung open.
The carriage came to a stop before the grand front steps. Master Maaj came around the side of the carriage to offer Tia his arm as she exited the carriage, a good thing as it had been a long day of travel and her legs felt shaky. Her breath was quick and heart pounding as they climbed the steps toward the front doors. Halfway up the stairs one of the doors swung open to reveal a woman’s thin silhouette, framed in the doorway by the warm light beyond.
“Here you are at last,” the shadow said. Her voice was light and creaking. “And who is this in tow?”
“Cathra!” Master Maaj exclaimed. “This is Tia Inkman, who was wasting her talents in Fenlick. She’ll be your new project.”
The woman stood still in the golden yellow frame of the door for a moment, and then she spoke again in her papery voice. “And how old is this girl, Willy?”
“Sixteen! Impossible! Simply impossible!” The figure was shaking her head in the doorway, and Tia heard the next few words with a sinking heart. “No, no. She’ll have to go back.”
Tia sat on the front steps of the academy alone, glumly picking at a hangnail, while Master Maaj and the woman he’d called Cathra argued back and forth in lowered voices just inside the academy. The doors were cracked slightly ajar, so she was able to catch snippets of the argument. “Impossible” so far seemed to be the woman’s favorite word, but Master Maaj was putting up an admirable defense on Tia’s behalf.
“She’s trainable,” she heard him say. “I’ve been instructing her on the road for the last two weeks, and she’s made remarkable progress.”
“That’s no matter,” the woman hissed. Tia strained her ears, hanging on the woman’s every word, painful for her to hear as they were. “—is the issue,” Tia caught through the door, missing the first part of the sentence. “What would you have me do? Our patrons won’t allow another student.”
“—should have left long ago. If you want to talk impossibilities, the company won’t let—” Tia cursed a gust of breeze that set the trees rustling, obscuring Master Maaj’s next words. “—unacceptable.”
“My hands are tied. Lord Irwin—”
“Gods have him! This is a dance academy, not a finishing school!” Master Maaj’s anger shattered the tranquility of the summer night. In the weeks they’d spent on the road together, Tia had never heard him lose his composure. “He’ll be in Wygst this time of year anyway. Just find a solution before he travels here for the fair!” Silence, and then Tia heard a sigh of acquiescence, followed by the creak of the door opening.
“Come, girl.” The woman snapped her fingers, and Tia climbed up the steps, feeling a bit too much like an obedient dog. At last she was past the threshold, and in the flickering lamplight of the enormous marble and gilt foyer she could finally see the woman properly. Cathra was a woman past her prime, but just like Master Maaj, a grace and energy pulsed beneath her skin, belying her years. Wrinkles scored her face, and a tight bun at the nape of her neck fought to restrain mouse brown hair streaked through with silver. Her eyes glittered as she examined Tia up and down, like a woman examining a cut of beef at a butcher’s shop. Tia wondered if she passed inspection.
“Pleased,” Cathra said, and she extended her hand, though her mouth was still drawn in a tight line. The woman’s hand was cool and as wrinkled as her face, her fingers thin as bones.
As soon as they shook hands Cathra turned on her heel to face Master Maaj. It seemed the pleasantries were over. “I’ll get her set up in a spare room, and we’ll take the rest as it comes,” she said to him, then snapped her fingers again at Tia and strode towards a hallway that branched off the main foyer. “We go, now,” she called over her shoulder, the edge to her voice indicating she wasn’t happy about the whole arrangement.
Tia gave one last look to Master Maaj, who winked and made a shooing motion with his hands. She grabbed her bags from the floor, where the coachman had unceremoniously dumped them in a heap, and hurried after the woman.
Cathra’s heels clicked down the hallway, precise and quick. As Tia trailed behind her, she noticed the wooden floor creaking softly beneath them, as if embracing the weight of their footfalls. Portraits of grand lords and ladies lined each wall, clothed in rich furs and silks—the academy patrons? She felt like they were staring at her, paintings or not, and ducked her head.
“What was your name again, girl?” Cathra called back to her, not slowing her pace.
“Tia Inkman, miss.”
“I am Cathra Oerfall, one of the instructors here at the academy. It seems as if you will be joining us here, so you will at all times address me as Mistress Oerfall. Our students here hail from any and all walks of life, but no matter anyone’s background, we at all times uphold respect and maintain propriety. Using proper forms of address is a manifestation of these principles. For some this is a… new experience.” Mistress Oerfall paused for a moment, as if allowing Tia to ruminate on her words. “Master Maaj says you are from Fenlick, and have only been to Haplyr once before, when you were very young.”
“Yes, Mistress Oerfall,” she intoned, getting a sneaking suspicion of how future conversations with the dance mistress would proceed.
“A sixteen-year-old new to Haplyr might become preoccupied with the novelties of a new city. Remember, girl—many of your peers have been dancing since they popped from the womb. You haven’t the time to be distracted. Self-taught—gods above! No matter what raw talent you possess, there are years of old habits to discard and new ones to learn.
“And besides,” she continued, “lately it seems Firefly Hollow isn’t the shining gem of Haplyr it used to be.” Mistress Oerfall threw a sharp look over her shoulder, even as she maintained her magnificent pace. “Best to work hard so you sleep early. Don’t take a chance wandering on unfamiliar streets, especially at night.”
Tia gulped. Her father had warned her about the city prior to her departure, but that had seemed more out of parental concern than a true need for caution. Was Haplyr really so unsafe? “What sort of—?”
“Nothing to worry about, if you take my suggestion,” the dance mistress snapped, ending the discussion as she turned a corner and came to an abrupt halt. It seemed they had finally reached their destination.
Unlike the first few hallways, where the doors had been spaced far apart, this hallway was lined up and down with doors. “These are the student rooms. You may not think it so late, but we rise early here, so everyone is already abed,” the dance mistress said. She squinted with suspicion down the corridor, as if she would personally make a point to tuck in any naughty student she caught still awake. “And this will be your room for the next few days while we do some… rearranging.” She opened the door opposite them. The room was tiny, just large enough to fit a bed, dresser, and desk. “You won’t have a roommate for the time being, but once we’re done with our readjustments you’ll share a room with one of your fellow dancers. Fresh sheets are in the top drawer, and one of the students will bring you a set of spare clothes in the morning.”
“I have clothes—” she protested, only to be cut off once again.
“Of course you do, girl, but you are a dancer now, and you must dress like it. Long skirts and sleeves hamper movement, and we require full range of motion. I expect to see you tomorrow morning in class with your hair pinned back and dressed for the day. We wake at sixth hour.” Mistress Oerfall leaned in close, her eyes solemn and voice low. Tia didn’t dare to blink. “You may be the next Kova or even Osanne for all I know. Or you may be a candle that blazes high when lit, but sputters and dies in the wind. All I know is that Master Maaj has fetched you all the way from Fenlick and demands you enter our academy, so join us you shall. Do not disappoint me, girl.” And with that she swept from the room, leaving Tia to wonder what awaited her with the dawn.