Chapter Nine

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“And this is what we do every single day?” she asked.

Wynna chuckled as she piled more chicken onto her plate. “It’s the premier dance academy in all of Hygot. What did you expect?” After the class with Mistress Primbuck had ended, another teacher had led them through strength-building exercises on the floor and then a final, lengthy stretching session. Tia stumbled out of the studio on heavy, wobbling legs, feeling like a lost desert trader searching for an oasis as she followed Wynna to the dining hall. She guzzled down water as Wynna watched on with an amused smile.

Wynna pointed her fork at the dishes spread across the table. “Make sure to eat something. If all you have is porridge today you’ll pass out by the time we get to partnering.”

She choked on her water. “Partnering?”

Her spluttering earned her another wry smile. “That’s right—couple’s dance. Scared?”

She opted for honesty over a feigned cool. “Yes. Does everyone already have a set partner? Who will I dance with?”

“Probably no one for the next few days, until they formally ask Selitta to leave,” Wynna said. “Then you’ll be paired with Simas.” She crooked a finger towards a lanky, blonde boy several tables down. His lunch companions were guffawing with laughter as he spooned a veritable mountain of mashed potatoes onto his plate and carved it with surprising dexterity into a sagging fort. Taking in Tia’s dismay, Wynna said apologetically, “Completely different person in class, I promise.” A second glance at Simas revealed he was now torpedoing green peas with his spoon toward the droopy potato fort. Any secret visions she had of being miraculously paired with the gray-eyed boy fled from her mind, replaced by premonitions of galumphing around with someone who played with his food. Nonetheless, it was a small price to pay for only having to deal with Selitta for a few days longer.

After lunch they had an hour-long class with Master Sonnen, who led them through an acting and expression class. The session mainly involved him shouting at the dancers to maintain their serene expressions as they balanced in complicated poses and executed bounding leaps across the floor. “Stop biting at your lip!” he bellowed at Tia, then rounded on a red-haired boy who was raising his eyebrows too high.

“No one likes him much,” Wynna whispered as the bell sounded and she moved toward the studio doors, a dejected Tia trailing behind her.

The next class took place in a room that looked more like a library than a dance studio. The walls were lined with overflowing bookshelves, so that the whole room was suffused with the smell of dust and paper. She had never seen so many books before in her whole life. She was used to picking through the general store’s ledgers, but these were real books, thick tomes all inscribed with titles like A History of Northern Folk Dance and Myth and Muse.

As soon as the students arrived they set to moving a cluster of large, wheeled mirrors from one corner into the empty center of the room. The whole class conversed in quiet voices as they finished getting set up for class; the cramped, dusty atmosphere of the room did not invite loud conversation. Tia wheeled her mirror next to Wynna’s own, then looked around expectantly. “Where’s the teacher?”

“Mistress Laserie will be here soon enough,” Wynna murmured. “Sometimes she gets a bit caught up is all.”

A moment later, a small side door that Tia had not noticed swung open with a creak, and a hunched, plump old woman shuffled into the room. Her short, gray hair was a frizz of corkscrews around her lined face, and she was draped in wispy black chiffon that caught and trailed in the air as she moved. The woman clutched a stack of four or five weighty books in her left hand and an ornate, wooden cane in her right, which made steady clicks on the floor as she walked to the center of the room. Without a word, the woman cast a slow, appraising gaze over her students, finally alighting on Tia. Big eyes magnified to twice their size by thick glasses met Tia’s own.

“Miss Inkman, is it?” the woman asked, her voice creaking and cracking. “Oh, goodness me! I haven’t spoken a word all day. Well, my dears, you all know how it is. You start reading up on Queen Innelah’s patronage of the Sweetbriar Tumbling Troop and soon enough it’s past tea time and you haven’t even had breakfast!” Wynna giggled and gave a small, eager nod, as if she too often found herself so engrossed in dance history that she missed meals. In her mirror, Tia caught a glimpse of Selitta rolling her eyes.

“Master Maaj told me all about you last night, my dear,” the dance mistress continued. “Only seen one performance of the Queen’s Fair sequence, no training, and yet here you are! Remarkable…” Mistress Laserie’s gaze flickered toward the bookshelves, as if she could not help but contemplate adding a few more books to her already sizable stack. From the corner of her eye Tia saw Wynna give her an abrupt look.

After a few moments more, Mistress Laserie tore her gaze away from her beloved book collection and clapped her hands for the whispering class to come to order. “We’ll start with a jig of the Western Hills,” she croaked. “Imagine, if you will, that Lord d’Chyarip arrives at court with sorry news—a great storm has devastated the coastal towns of the Western Hills, and he has come personally to the king to beg for aid. King Orrus wishes to cheer the disheartened lord with a merry jig to remind him of the better times in the Western Hills. Likely the king will wish you to craft the dance such that the court can also participate in the jig.” She beamed at the class, her eyes crinkling behind her glasses. “Groups of twos. You have thirty minutes—begin.” The class burst into a flurry of activity as Mistress Laserie clicked to the side of the room, leaving the class to their own devices. She was already flipping through the top book of her stack, oblivious to the chatter of the students.

Tia turned to Wynna, but she’d disappeared. She caught sight of her poring over book spines on the far wall of the classroom. After the girl had selected five or six volumes, she hustled back.

“All right,” she said, flopping into a seat on the floor and thrusting two books toward Tia. “We’ll work together. Start looking through these and see if you can find anything about the Western Hills or jigs. I know a bit about the Western Hills style of sword dancing, but beyond that I’m lost.”

“We’re coming up with our own jig?” Tia asked, feeling a bit slow.

“That’s right,” Wynna said, with a look indicating she’d rather Tia got to work than waste time asking questions. “But luckily Mistress Laserie says the court will participate, so it needn’t be anything overly complex.” She handed over a copy of Customs of the Western Peninsula, then began flipping through a book labeled Party Dances Through the Ages.

“Ah hah!” Wynna crowed after a few minutes, drawing jealous looks from the students around them. Tia leaned in, reading over her shoulder. Wynna tapped a passage, which read:

Despite their considerable geographical distance, the style of jig common to the Western Hills is remarkably similar to that performed by the inhabitants of Hygot’s far eastern regions. This potentially confirms scholarly suspicions of an eastern peasant migration during the reign of King Weydon.

“But no mention of what an eastern jig actually looks like,” Wynna said, scowling as she reached for another book.

A thought was nibbling at the back of her mind. If western and eastern jigs were as alike as the book indicated, then perhaps…

“Listen,” she said, putting a hand on Dance: The Kingdom’s Heritage to pause Wynna’s flipping. “I-I’m from Fenlick, right? So if the eastern and western styles are so similar, let me just show you what an eastern jig looks like. That’ll at least give us something to work with.” From her porthole window, she had seen many a tipsy group of merrymakers spill out of the pub further down Yarren Street and perform an impromptu dance in the street.

Wynna put a finger to her lips, considering. “All right, why not? We don’t have much more time anyway.” They set to work. Wynna was a blazingly fast learner, and she peppered Tia with questions.

“Should there be two claps or one here? Two? Place the accent on which clap?”

“The first clap. And make sure you don’t hunch your shoulders when you wind through the other line. Keep your torso flat.”

Wynna adjusted her posture as she studied Tia’s reflection in the mirror. “Like this?”

“Yes. Oh, and make sure your hips jut out when you turn. Exaggerate the movement.”

They had just enough time to put together a minute-long jig before Mistress Laserie clapped her book shut and called for the class to return to order. Everyone moved to the outer edges of the classroom and began to clap, a stand-in for the usual fiddle and pipe accompaniment. Simas and his partner were first up; they executed a complex routine heavy on the foot stomps and heel clicks.

“Very interesting,” was all the dance mistress said as they ended with a final flourish. Tia could not hazard a guess whether the boys had been right on or far from the mark. It seemed Mistress Laserie would remain close-lipped about what a Western Hills jig actually entailed, at least until everyone had shown off their individual approximations. Tia wasn’t relishing the thought of performing with everyone watching. The incessant drumming of Wynna’s fingers on her knee spoke to her partner’s similar nervousness.

Most groups’ jigs focused either on jumps or intricate footwork. After two more groups had gone, Mistress Laserie called for the gray-eyed boy and his partner to perform. Tia watched with rapt attention as he performed an intricate pattern of hops with his partner, a brown-haired girl with droopy, sleepy-looking eyes that had sat in their group at breakfast. Here she came to life, her natural expression lending a relaxed feel to the detailed choreography. With each jump the two of them seemed to hang in the air for a moment before falling down to earth.

“That was excellent,” Wynna whispered to Tia once they finished. “But too complex for the court to follow along, I think.”

There were now only two groups who had not performed: Selitta and her partner, and Wynna and Tia. Tia shifted anxiously as Mistress Laserie called for Selitta’s group to perform next.

Selitta ambled into the center with perhaps more sighing than strictly necessary. Her partner, a girl with black hair who Tia thought was called Alindy, followed in her wake. Their version of the Western Hills jig was similar to the rest of the class—a great deal of quick footwork interspersed with small jumps. Yet Selitta again stood out from everyone else. From the way she walked to her dancing technique, Selitta moved with a careless flouncing. To Tia’s eyes, the girl was as capable and flexible as everyone else; it was the perfunctory air floating about her that made her stick out from the crowd.

Yet Tia found herself wanting to heave her own Selitta-like sigh as the two girls finished their routine. They were up.

They faced one another several paces apart. In Fenlick, such a jig would normally pair male and female partners; Wynna had gallantly offered to take the man’s role. The other students took up their clapping, and there was no more time to think or worry; their dance began.

They crossed the floor to one another in four quick steps, shoulders turning in opposite directions from hips. Their hands clasped for a quick second, only to be pulled apart a moment later as they spun around, heads high and necks stick straight. Tia had always seen the jig as a dance to tease lovers; without fail there was a turn or a clap or a partner change in the next beat that tore the original pair from each other’s grasp. It would take until the last second for the two to come together and hold hands for good.

Next Wynna stamped and stomped her way through a syncopated rhythm, which Tia echoed in the following count. (“If there’s call and response, it will be easier for the court to learn,” Wynna had suggested.) The two rhythms entwined together in the next eight count as they spun round once again. A final four steps to recall the beginning of the dance led Tia and Wynna to bridge the gap once more, their hands meeting for the final time. They’d made it through! Wynna gave a solemn bow, fulfilling the role of the male partner to the end. Tia mustered a return curtsy; her whole body was shaky with nerves.

Mistress Laserie’s face was all smiles as she looked around the room. “Very pretty dances, my dears. Some groups did give a satisfactory interpretation of an eastern style jig—” her eyes flicked around the room, resting in Tia and Wynna’s area for a second, “but it seems no one discovered the most crucial part of a Western Hills style jig: a click of the teeth accompanying every clap, thought to have developed in the mass migration under King Weydon’s reign. In those times, there were a number of counterfeit coins, so the migrants got in the habit of testing with their teeth any change they received back from merchants and innkeepers. This practice over the years became integrated into their dances, and by the time they settled in the west, no jig was complete without a tooth click or two, or even a good gnashing.

“It’s quite all right, though, my dears!” the dance mistress reassured them. “Even if one were called upon to perform such a jig and managed to somehow omit this critical element, the folk of the Western Hills have always been an amiable people! Now, the people from Hillock Bay, on the other hand…” The dance mistress launched into a tale of when she’d been but a young dancer herself, performing for a delegation from Hillock Bay. Again, Wynna’s expression was bright and attentive, hanging on the dance mistress’s every word.

Soon enough the dance mistress’s story wound down, and she dismissed them a few minutes before the bell sounded. (“So take this as a warning, my dears, to never crook your little finger in the presence of a new bride from Hillock Bay, lest you find yourself at the wrong end of her husband’s sword! Now off you go!”)

As they left the studio for the next class, Wynna turned to Tia. “Isn’t she wonderful? Some of the other teachers come and go, but Mistress Laserie has been with the academy for nearly fifty years… She’s a treasure.” Wynna stared at her for a moment. “That was a good idea you had in there. Thank you—I don’t like to disappoint her.”

Tia raised an eyebrow. “Seems like the whole class got it wrong, though.”

“Get used to it,” Wynna said. “When it comes to Mistress Laserie, that assignment wasn’t even tough. Most days she asks us to do something more historical. Those routines can be a real sore sight to see.” She stopped in front of another studio. “Well, here we are! Last class of the day: partnering. I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to it,” she said with a knowing smile as she pushed open the door. Tia followed Wynna into the studio, but she stopped just inside the door.

Mistress Oerfall stood in the center of the floor, waiting. She marched over to the two girls at once. “How is our new charge surviving the day?” she asked Wynna, though she kept her gaze on Tia, taking in every detail. She prayed her hairpins were all still in place.

“Very well, Mistress Oerfall,” Wynna said, the very picture of demureness.

Mistress Oerfall gave a pleased nod, then told Tia she would spend the class switching off with Wynna and her partner Arlus. Tia breathed a sigh of relief. For one horrible moment, she’d wondered if the dance mistress would make her join Selitta’s group.

It was by far the most difficult class of the day. Even though Arlus acted a thorough gentleman, any touch of his hands made her feel skittish, which in turn kept her from finding her balance. Mistress Oerfall, who was spending a conspicuous amount of class time in their area of the room, soon came over for a word.

“Girl, you cannot hope to succeed at this institution, let alone in the company, if you do not allow the touch of a partner. Would it be seen as improper in another situation? Perhaps. Do those perceptions influence how we perform? No. If we were to dance in a way so as to never offend, we’d never move a muscle. Stop worrying about what others may think, and start using this time to show me at least five proper turns by the end of class.” The dance mistress’s expression dared her to disobey and discover the consequences. With a shudder, Tia called for them to go again and did her best not to flinch when Arlus took a firm grip on her waist and spun her around.

Yet as soon as the turn began she could feel her balance was off. The studio tilted, and she hit the floor with a thundering boom, garnering a round of gasps and laughter. Mistress Oerfall swept over, her expression glacial.

“I understand it is your first day here, but there is little time for you to fumble around learning basic moves. I have one year—one year—to prepare you for entrance into the company.”

“I’m sorry, Mistress—”

“What are apologies? I need skill. Half an hour of extra partnering practice with Simas for the next week.”

She ground her teeth together, trying to ignore Selitta’s gleeful look in the mirror. Wynna shot her a supportive smile as the class got back to work, but it didn’t do much to bolster her mood. The fourth hour bell soon sounded, marking the end of the day’s classes, but Tia remained in the studio, steeling herself for extra partnering practice with the potato fort extraordinaire. It was a low end to an exhausting day, and she darted out of the studio as soon as the half hour was up, ready for a bath and dreading the soreness that would no doubt be an ever-present companion for the next few days.