Chaos Choreography (InCryptid, #5)

Written By: Seanan McGuire

Chaos Choreography (InCryptid, #5)

Seanan McGuire



Prologue


“Children know who they’re meant to become. It’s on us to see to it that they live long enough to get there.”

—Enid Healy

The Dance or Die stage, live finale, Los Angeles, California

Three years ago

“WHEN WE TOOK THE STAGE at the start of this season, twenty dancers stood before you, ready to dazzle you with their talent, strength, and personalities. We’re down to two, America: the two dancers you have voted all the way to the end.” The show’s host, Brenna Kelly, towered over the remaining contestants. She was taller than either of them in her stocking feet, and her fondness for sky-high heels when on stage meant that she currently had almost six inches on Lyra and eight inches on Valerie.

The girls clung to each other’s hands, heads bowed, as the lights and glitter swirled around them. Standing at the center of the stage was so bright it felt like standing on the sun. Valerie’s thighs ached so badly she was almost shaking. The live finale had opened with the top four doing a complicated jazz number, and had continued from there, never letting up, never relenting. She’d been allowed to rest when the eliminated dancers returned to the stage to perform the judges’ favorite routines from the season, but even then, she’d been changing costumes, doing warm-up exercises, doing whatever it took to stay limber and ready to go. She couldn’t afford to miss a beat. Not now, not even with the votes already cast and the outcome already determined.

The show was called Dance or Die. If she didn’t win, there was a good chance that Valerie Pryor—dancer, redhead, innocent human with no connection to the cryptozoological world—was going to die, or at least cease to exist as more than a dead link on the show’s Wikipedia page. She’d been created as a mask, intended to prove that the woman who wore her was good enough to leave the family business and forge her own future, complicated and difficult as it might be. Valerie had fought her way through auditions, grueling rehearsals, backstage drama, and she’d done it all to stand right where she was, breathing in this moment.

She was grateful for the lights, even as they blinded her. Their glare meant she couldn’t see the audience. Week after week, her fellow contestants had pointed out people in the crowd, mothers and fathers and siblings and lovers. She never had. When the judges asked if she had anyone there to cheer her on, she’d only ever shrugged and said her family didn’t support her dancing. The lie ached. Her family supported her more than she could ever have asked. Without their support, she wouldn’t have been allowed to craft her Valerie persona and audition in the first place . . . but supporting her career didn’t mean they could risk being seen on camera. Every week she’d danced for the families of strangers. She’d never danced for her own.

Lyra’s hand was sweaty, her fingers like twigs that clutched and bore down on Valerie’s palm until it hurt. Valerie didn’t snatch her hand away. That would have looked bad, and petty, and the camera wouldn’t miss a second of it. The camera would make sure everyone knew she was a sore loser, and any chance she might have had at a career would be damaged past repair.

Brenna stopped talking. The clip reel music started. A hush fell over the crowd, and Valerie and Lyra obediently turned to watch their season’s highlights play out on the jumbo flat-screen monitors. It was eerie. Valerie knew she was the girl with the red hair and the coquettish smile—she’d been living the part long enough to recognize her reflection—but it still felt like watching a stranger, someone who happened to share her footwork and her tendency to fling her left hand dramatically forward. She could see her flaws more easily when they were coming through a stranger. She could also see her merits. And she was good. Really, really good.

Please, she thought, as the clip reel wound to an end and the audience erupted in cheers (which were only slightly orchestrated by the show’s producers; this was reality television, after all). Please let me win, please let me keep being Valerie, please let this be my life from now on. Please let me be the first one in my generation to get out. Please.

“The time is here: we’ve kept you waiting long enough. Are you nervous, my darling girls?” Brenna cast a sincere smile toward both Valerie and Lyra. “You’ve both been amazing. No matter what this envelope says, you’re both winners to me.”

Valerie forced a smile. She’d never felt so small, or so certain that everything was about to change. One way or the other, everything was about to change.

“All right. Here we go. The votes are in, and America’s Dancer of Choice is . . .”

Please, thought Valerie, and closed her eyes.

“. . . Lyra!”

The crowd went wild. Lyra’s hand was pulled from Valerie’s as she covered her mouth and began to sob. Valerie turned to hug her, feeling like her entire body—her body, which had always listened so well to her commands, carrying her through so much—had gone numb.

“Congratulations,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure Lyra heard her. The other woman was too busy grinning through her tears, and being handed a bouquet of red roses bigger around than her chest, and then one of the stagehands was there, helping Valerie back, out of the spotlight, out of the way.

Valerie Pryor closed her eyes. Verity Price opened them. It had been fun to be someone else for a little while. She’d even allowed herself to hope it might be forever. But nothing was forever, was it? Valerie Pryor was just a mask she’d been wearing, and now . . .

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