Part One | Chapter One

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Tia Inkman plucked a myreskeet from the teeming bucket and ran her finger over its cool, slippery abdomen. At her touch, the creature drew its six stubby legs up into its shell, and she steeled herself, dreading the next part. Shucking skeet wasn’t hard—just one movement, much practiced, quick so the poor thing wouldn’t suffer. The job was a necessity; shucked myreskeet were the crucial ingredient used to make myreink, and it was myreink that put food on the Inkmans’ table. Yet the feeling of her thumb digging through the soft meat of the underbelly and ripping flesh from shell—that Tia could never get used to.

Tia Inkman plucked a myreskeet from the teeming bucket and ran her finger over its cool, slippery abdomen. At her touch, the creature drew its six stubby legs up into its shell, and she steeled herself, dreading the next part. Shucking skeet wasn’t hard—just one movement, much practiced, quick so the poor thing wouldn’t suffer. The job was a necessity; shucked myreskeet were the crucial ingredient used to make myreink, and it was myreink that put food on the Inkmans’ table. Yet the feeling of her thumb digging through the soft meat of the underbelly and ripping flesh from shell—that Tia could never get used to.

She cupped the skeet in her hand, putting off the inevitable. The upside-down skeet was beginning to relax again, gray legs poking back out of its shell. It waggled them around, trying to right itself.

Carefully closing her fingers over the skeet, she pivoted on her stool to face her older sister. Natlin’s face was set in a look of concentration, and Tia saw she had already made a sizable dent in her bucket. This dirty job never seemed to bother Natlin as much, so maybe…

She drew in a breath. “I’ve just had a thought.”

Natlin dropped a skeet shell to the grimy cellar floor before looking up at Tia.

“What’s that?”

“What would you say to a couple hours with Hob tomorrow? I’ll sneak out to the market early and buy everything for you, and you can go see him while I’m minding the store. No one will be the wiser.”

Natlin’s eyes dropped to Tia’s hand, still palming the skeet. One eyebrow twitched upward.

“Very kind of you to offer,” her sister said, voice deadpan. “And here I was, thinking you didn’t like Hob…”

Tia rolled her eyes. “It’s not that I don’t like him, just… you know…”

Natlin crooked a smile at her. “I know.” A girl from an upstanding merchant family did not have romances with Mirish bog runners in training, especially when said girl was being courted by other, parent-approved suitors. The Yarren Street merchants might let the bogmen lead them out into the peatlands to harvest iron and myreskeet, and they might let them sell a few bits and bobs in the corner of the general store, but it did not mean they kept close relations with their Mirish associates.

As for Tia’s opinion of Hob himself, she chose to keep those private. The way she saw it, Natlin’s secret beau was all sweet nothings, with an emphasis on the nothing—but he made her sister happy. Besides, Natlin always reciprocated whenever Tia helped her find time to meet with Hob. Her sister was not the only one with a secret.

“Go,” Natlin said as she reached for another skeet and shucked it in half a second. Tia shuddered. “Should be past sixth hour now.”

“You’ll cover for me?”

“Of course. Though… You know, I think you should just tell them. Why be embarrassed?”

Tia huffed out a sigh. “I’ll show them once I’m perfect.”

Her sister snorted. “Don’t think for a second I’ll still be keeping your secrets when you’re eighty.”

“Very funny.” Tia uncurled her fingers and dropped the spared skeet into her apron pocket. Standing up from the stool, she wiped her hands clean. “Thank you.”

Natlin bobbed her head, then pointed up the cellar stairs at the door. “Get going.”

She didn’t have to be told twice. Climbing the steps, she cracked the door and glanced about the storefront.

Perfect—the general store was empty, the shop door bolted and curtains drawn. She wound her way through the shelves to the front door and unbolted it, then fished the myreskeet out of her pocket. With gentle fingers, she set the skeet down on the ground.

“Pelas bless you.” The little skeet would need to be on the good side of the goddess of luck and the seas to scuttle all the way from here back down to Bleskar Bog—but anything was possible, she supposed.

Tia bolted the door again, then turned toward the staircase leading up to the attic. She moved quickly up the steps, breathing a sigh of relief as soon as she closed the attic door behind her. The day had been full of the usual exhausting slog: scouring and dusting their apartment, then studying figures with Pila until she was seeing cross-eyed, then working a mortar and pestle to pound the desiccated skeet into the powder used to make myreink. A day like any other—but at least she could end it well.

The attic might not look like much to someone else, but it was her haven, and she had made the room her own, pushing the old ledgers and rickety tables and chairs to the side to make an empty space in the center of the room. That was all she needed: an open patch of floor and the little round window opposite it facing the street below, like a porthole in the side of a ship.

She crossed the floor and watched from the window, transfixed, as twilight settled over the city. Situated on the very border of Hygot, Fenlick was an industrial, no-nonsense town that woke and slept with the sun. There were no sprawling, manicured parks, nor dance halls filled with glittering chandeliers and crowds of silk-clad dancers. But though Fenlick was too practical for such grandeur, whenever Tia managed to make her way up here she watched the city transform into something else—something beautiful—before her eyes. The Yarren Street general store was at the top of a hill, so from her vantage point she could see the rest of the city and the peatlands beyond. The sprawling peat fields disappeared under the press of the darkness, and warm spots of light from lanterns and candles flickered on all across Fenlick. Tia could almost believe she’d been transported to some fancier place, maybe Haplyr, or even far across the bog to the strange, sculpted lands of Corim, the Carved Kingdom.

She lit the candles she’d placed around the room, until a healthy, yellow glow suffused the attic. With the contrast of the candlelight inside and the falling darkness outside, she could just make out her dim reflection in the window. Mirrors were an expensive luxury, so this was her makeshift alternative. There, in front of her porthole, she danced.

When Tia was seven, her father had brought her and Natlin on the annual winter journey to Haplyr, Hygot’s capital, leaving their mother behind to mind the storefront. Every year, the Yarren Street merchants loaded up a caravan of wagons with their best goods and made a slow, steady progress to Haplyr for the Queen’s Fair. Never mind that the past few queens of Hygot had been simpering and dull and lucky to leave behind even an estate to commemorate their passing, let alone inspire an annual festival. No, the Queen’s Fair was so-called for Queen Osanne, and Queen Osanne alone.

Yet even calling it a fair wasn’t quite right; this was no quaint village fair that concluded with a pie contest. Everyone who was anyone made sure to attend, which meant it was well worth the Yarren Street merchants’ while to attend as well. They set up a tent on the fairgrounds and hawked bog iron nails, tools, knives, and padlocks, myreink and skeet shell jewelry, grazewax candles, and heathsbane rope. The bog runners tagged along the caravan and set up their own stand in the corner of the tent with all the rare and magical items they’d picked up on the peatlands or out on the wild expanse of Bleskar Bog.

The last day of the festival culminated in a performance for the revelers by the Royal Dance Theater. Realistically the performance was for the elite, but Tia’s father had somehow secured entrance to the performance for the three of them, at what she realized later must have been an exorbitant price. Nine years later, the details of the Queen’s Fair had blurred together in Tia’s mind, but she could still picture the graceful dancers. They started slowly, limbs bending in impossible arcs, every motion intentional. Their long, shimmering sleeves floated delicately behind them, rippling with every movement. The beat picked up, but the dancers never lost their grace. The drums grew frenetic, and they spun in place, a swirl of colored sleeves—like the whirling dervish figure that had been Queen Osanne in her finest, final hour a thousand years ago. The performance finished with a dazzling blaze of fireworks erupting from the front of the stage, dazzling the audience. When the sparks died, the dancers had vanished.

Every night on the road back to Fenlick, Tia lay on her cot, arms reaching toward the dusty, creaking wagon ceiling, wrists and hands waving and undulating. How had the dancers moved like that? As the jostle of the wagon rocked her to sleep, her last thought was, I want to do that. I need to do that.

Tia scrutinized her silhouette in the porthole window with squinted eyes. Keep that elbow in line. Space between chin and shoulder. Get your knee up—and farther back. More, more, MORE… Groaning inwardly, she arched her back and held the pose. She felt the tickle of a sweat droplet dangling from the tip of her nose, and fought the urge to flick it off.

Come on! Five more seconds. Or three. Three, two, one… and down. She shifted the weight in her standing leg and slowly lowered the other leg, careful to maintain control. A dancer was graceful at all times. Even when Tia was haggling over eggs in the market, she kept her posture in the back of her mind.

The dance was her own choreography. After the Queen’s Fair, she had never been to another performance, and aside from the odd, beer-inspired jig performed in a tavern, Fenlick wasn’t exactly a dancing sort of town, so she took what she remembered and did her best. Sometimes she could catch a faint strain of music from the pub down the street and improvise. Once, a traveler with a mandolin had settled right across from the shop for two weeks and played any tune for a copper. Pila had railed on and on about “the vagrant outside,” but Tia had managed to sneak away to the attic every day during those two weeks to enjoy the live accompaniment. Most days she resorted to dancing in silence.

Like today. She studied her reflection for a final moment in the porthole window, the silence only broken by her breath and the occasional pop from a guttering candle. Her tired reflection stared back, her freckled cheeks ruddy from the exercise. Sometimes from the corner of her eye she could catch a glimpse of a graceful dancer in the window. Yet when she confronted her reflection head-on that elegance always seemed to disappear, leaving behind her familiar reflection: hazel eyes, brown hair streaked through with copper, a figure her mother called “willowy” but that Tia thought looked more like that of an overly tall twelve-year-old.

She turned away from the window. That was enough for today; Natlin couldn’t cover for her forever. She blew out the candles and made her way through the general store back to the attached merchant apartments. Tia and Natlin’s bedroom window lay in a shadowy corner of the small courtyard at the center of the apartments, so she was able to climb through the window, the very picture of stealth, and avoid questions about where she’d been the last few hours.

The truth was that Tia had kept her dancing a secret from her parents. Not that they wouldn’t approve, but when she’d started dancing she hadn’t seen any reason for them to watch her fruitless attempts at balancing on one foot or twirling like a top. She’d had her fair share of falling and bruises in those first few years. And then, after she had practiced enough and found some grace, it would have been just so obvious to her parents that this was something their daughter had been keeping from them for a long time. Best to maintain her secret and not hurt any feelings.

“Back so soon?” Natlin lay on the bed, absentmindedly twirling a piece of twine around her fingers.

“It’s been more than two hours. Thanks, by the way.” Tia jerked her chin at the string as she began easing the hairpins from her bun. “What’s that for?”

Natlin flushed. “Oh, just something Hob showed me. Look.” She held up the twine, looping it around her fingers. “A girl is weaving by the hearth…” She slipped the string off her left index finger and pinched it between the thumb and index of her right hand, weaving it back and forth. “…when she hears a knock at door…” She continued the string story, ending with a stolen kiss between the weaver girl and the dashing rogue knocking on her door.

“Romantic,” Tia said dryly as she drew on her nightgown.

Natlin scowled at her. “Anyway. While you were out Ma told me the runners are taking Da and the others out to the bog tomorrow. We’ll have a quiet day.”

Tia nodded. “Good. I can’t take much more of Pila’s figures.” The candlemaker also kept the shop’s books and had been training Tia whenever she could conjure up a free moment.

They settled into bed, and Natlin doused the lamp. Tia imagined the current view from the attic porthole. The city would be winking into darkness as the people of Fenlick blew out their candles and went to sleep, resting before the new workday. She sighed to herself as she scrunched up her pillow, trying to get comfy. Anyone living here couldn’t help but get pulled into the clockwork rhythm of the city. Where was there room for a dancer in Fenlick?

Tia traced the wood grain of the shop desk with her finger. It had been more than three hours since her last sale; the oppressive summer heat was keeping customers away. For once, Natlin had looked almost happy to have to help their mother out with shucking the myreskeet. The painstaking process of making myreink demanded the skeet be kept chilled in the cellar, so while pulling the meat from the shell was a dirty business, at least it kept one’s hands cool. Tia almost felt jealous.

Almost.

In the downtime she had already straightened the displays, dusted, and even strung together a few bracelets. With a bit of effort, the myreskeet shells could be burnished to a high shine and fashioned into jewelry that proved popular with people passing through the city. But Tia’s fingers had started to smart from pushing the needle through the hard skeet shells, and she’d abandoned her helpful intentions for staring blankly into space.

Might as well do something fun.

She stood up behind the counter and cast an eye around just to double-check she was alone. Her mother and Natlin were down in the cellar still, and the merchants and bogmen would only start back home when the light began to fade—several hours yet. Walking to the door, she stuck her head out and cast an eye up and down the road. The normally bustling Yarren Street was near-deserted, save for a few women already laden down with purchases from the market, hiding under their parasols from the blistering sun.

She returned to the counter. Behind the desk, she moved her hips from side to side in a lazy, steady rhythm to match the languorous feel of the day. One arm rested at her side as she slowly brought the other one up to the ceiling. Imagining the movements of a snake, she traced a twining pattern in the air with her arm as she brought her leg up to join it, her foot high above her head. She fought to maintain the difficult pose, grinding her weight into her standing leg, and then shifted her hip and arched her spine, sending her leg shooting toward the back of the shop. Then, quick as a snake strikes, she scissored her back leg forward to meet the other, jumping out from behind the counter and landing with a soft thud in the main area of the shop. The dance quickened: the snake stalking its prey. She leapt sideways between the shelves, arms outstretched, then followed immediately with another, larger jump, twisting in mid-air to face the other wall. Normally she would want to warm up more before any big jumps, but her muscles were relaxed from the heat, and she couldn’t resist the luxury of being able to move around in the large shop. The cramped attic did not allow for flashy jumps.

The creak of the shop door and the ring of the doorbell jolted Tia back to reality, her visions of the snake replaced by the familiar sight of burlap sacks, barrels of nails, and coils of rope. Peering between the shelves, she saw a tall man stride into the general store. He was clearly not a Fenlick man. Local men all donned practical browns and grays, but this man was outfitted in an emerald shirt threaded through with silver, smart black trousers, and leather boots polished to a high sheen. He strode straight towards her, seeming to relish in the click of his heels on the floor.

The man halted in front of her, and they stared at one another for a quiet moment. He was not a young man by any means, and he sported a white frizz of hair to prove it. Yet his eyes, a light blue springing with energy, bespoke a youthful enthusiasm. Tia’s nose twitched. Cologne! Certainly not from Fenlick then. He proffered a hand to her.

“A bit unconventional, but charming! And charmed!”

She shook his hand haltingly. “What’s unconventional?”

“Why, your dancing, of course! To think that out here in these parts… Who do you study with?” He waited for her answer with rapt attention.

Her cheeks grew hot. “Study? I… well… With no one. It’s just a pastime, and I’m sorry you saw me away from my work. Were you looking to buy something, sir?”

“Straight to business with no formalities? Shake a hand yet skip the introductions? I’ll start: Master Maaj, from Haplyr. Again, charmed!”

Tia considered her situation. A strange man from the capital alone with her in the shop, seemingly interested more in dancing than buying any goods. He was upward ranging in years, but strange was strange, and she did not like it. Best to sell him whatever he was looking for and get him on his way.

“I’m the myreink merchant’s daughter. Now, sir, we sell many useful items in our general store that you can’t easily find in Haplyr.” She relaxed slightly as she launched into the familiar sales pitch. “All our metal goods are crafted from bog iron, so they’ll never rust. Our rope is made from heathsbane so it resists fraying, and our myreink is indelible…” She indicated the gleaming bottles of black ink stacked neatly on a nearby shelf. “We sell myreskeet jewelry as well, which can make a unique gift. And our bog runners keep us supplied with some of the strangest items you’ll ever lay eyes on.” She gestured to the far corner at the Mirish curiosities. “That there’s a branch from a lassis tree—light as air, but can’t be broken. They recently found a tooth from a greater murkhound, and that’s a pair of moorwisp wings in the glass jar—so sharp they’ll cut you from a handbreadth away. So you see, we have many oddities, all of them interesting and useful, and any magical properties they possess will still work inland.”

Master Maaj looked at her with a twinkle in his eye. “And have you ever been inland, lass?”

What did this man want?

Her cheeks bloomed redder still. “I… It’s no matter to our business here. Did you fancy buying something, then?” She backed away in a hurry, threading her way through the rows of shelves and back around the counter.

“Not at the present, though I’m sorely tempted to examine the Mirish goods… Magical wares are a rare sight indeed in the capital. But I have a proposal that you can fancy. You see, lass, dancing is my life and so my trade. If you are born with a dancer’s heart, it cannot be plucked from you—something you must know a thing or two about, dancing like that. Dance sustains me, and I in turn sustain it by picking young folk to train for the Royal Dance Theater.”

She gaped at him. The chances of a dance master from Haplyr’s premier dance academy happening to spy her flailing about through a shop window in Fenlick—impossible. Whatever he was up to, he was a liar and didn’t want to buy anything. Best to get him out the door.

He continued on. “Now, myreink merchant’s daughter, I’ve seen a great number of dancers in my day, but for someone with no formal training to dance as you do—that is something I have not seen for a long while.”

She snapped. “I’d be a fool to fall for this. My family won’t be paying for any dance lessons with a ‘dance master,’ nor shipping me off across the kingdom with said ‘master,’ so take your shiny boots out this door and try your routine on someone else a little more naive.”

Those energetic blue eyes blinked, and the man looked like he was suppressing a laugh. “Very well then,” he said, and he turned around and left the store, leaving behind an echo of clicking boots and a last whiff of musky cologne. Tia sighed and unclasped her sweating hands. A con artist, that was all, preying on dreams of a fancier life. Well, that routine wouldn’t work on her. She was Tia Inkman, who lived in Fenlick, who was going to eventually take over the shop’s books, who was someday going to marry some merchant’s son—maybe Denan, Dezel Smith’s son. It was time to face reality.


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