Naomi Peterson had only arrived on Elfhome in September, but by the beginning of December, she already felt like a Pittsburgher. All the differences from Earth—the elves, the magic, the hoverbikes, even the occasional monster—didn’t dilute the giddy, glad bubble she floated in, just added to it. She belonged here.
She taught four different classes. Her two dance classes for the middle grade children at the community center on Oak Street were crammed with students. Her flamenco class for the university students was a huge success too. The Pitt’s art faculty even discussed adding it to the curriculum next year, although no decision had been finalized yet. And every session of her ballroom dance class for the elves was a pleasurable romp. Elves were amazing at waltz and they tried very hard to master tango.
After Christmas, she would add four more classes. Until then, she was busy with rehearsals. All her students—from the eleven-year-old human boy, Colin Cromwell, to the thousand-year-old elf Marigold—worked hard to make their Christmas recital perfect.
The only thing that marred her happiness was that she didn’t perform herself. With only about sixty thousand permanent residents, Pittsburgh was not a large city, and since the first Startup, most of its performing companies had moved out. She still had some hopes for the Greer Cabaret, but she didn’t want to dance in the corps, and the management didn’t want any unknown solo performers. Well, she would dance at her students’ recital. She would become known.
Her head full of choreography, she stomped across the flea market without looking around, until a familiar voice piped up behind her and stopped her in her tracks.
“A real elven dagger, sir, a sekasha dagger. I’m not asking much—it’s a fair price.”
What? What was Colin doing here selling sekasha daggers? The sekasha didn’t sell their weapons. Her friend Falcon was a sekasha and he considered his weapons his most prized possessions.
Maybe she was mistaken. Maybe it wasn’t Colin, or the blade was a forgery. She hoped she was mistaken. She whirled.
Alas, no mistake. It was Colin, her star pupil. An artist’s soul lived in that boy’s skinny body. He lived and breathed dancing. He had perfect physical proportions too, and his acting abilities were outstanding for the one so young. He had two solo roles in their recital.
Colin told her once that he had watched all the ballet vids he could find in Pittsburgh. He even ordered some from Earth. He wanted to be a ballet dancer, wanted to enroll in a real ballet school on Earth, and Naomi supported his dream. The boy had a huge potential. She was going to talk to his parents about it. Why was he selling elven daggers at the flea market? Did he need money? Was the dagger stolen? She hoped not, but how else could a human boy get a sekasha blade?
“Colin!” Naomi marched towards the blond boy.
A bearded man who had been fingering the large ironwood knife in its ornate sheath took one look at Naomi’s face, thrust the dagger back at Colin, and melted into the crowd.
Yes, the dagger was real, all right. Naomi even recognized the pattern of the maker on the sheath. Her own dagger had been made by the same master. When last month, Falcon had presented her with an ironwood dagger as a gift, he made it clear that it was a sign of great respect. He also taught her to use it and insisted she carried it with her at all times. Made with magic, the ironwood blades were hard as steel and very sharp. They would cut anything. How did Colin get one?
“What are you doing?” Naomi demanded. “Where did you get it?” She saw Colin’s desperate look, saw his body tense in preparation for a flight, and grabbed the hood of his winter jacket.
“Oh, no, you don’t. Where did you get it?” she repeated sternly.
Colin hung his head and maintained his silence.
“Fine,” Naomi said. “I’m very disappointed in you, Colin. Did you steal this dagger?” The beautiful, carved with flowers hilt was even prettier than her own. At any other time, it would’ve given her a pure aesthetic pleasure. Now, she eyed it with disfavor. “Put it into your backpack and let’s go. I want to talk to your parents.”
“No!” His scream was filled with despair.
“Colin?” Naomi squatted in front of the boy. The market goers swirled around them. Many watched them covertly with troubled eyes.
“What is going on?” Naomi demanded. “You have to tell me.”
Colin wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Miss Peterson, please.”
“I can’t let it go. Tell me where you got this dagger.” Fear squeezed her heart. Would Colin steal from the elves? What would happen to him if they found out?
“It’s my dad’s,” Colin whispered. “He collects elven stuff.”
Naomi felt light-headed with relief. It was bad to steal from parents, but at least he hadn’t stolen from the sekasha. If he had, the consequences could’ve been lethal.
“Why? What do you need the money for?” She had thought he belonged to a well-to-do family. Her lessons weren’t cheap.
Colin kept his stoical silence, his eyes on his boots. “Come on.” Naomi straightened. “I must talk to your parents. This is a serious offence, and I can’t let a thief dance in our recital. You’re barred from practices, starting today, and you’re barred from the show.”
She winced inwardly as she said it. Colin really was her best student, talented and fearless. Without him, the numbers she had created for the kids and for herself, wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. In fact, both might collapse.
“Miss Peterson, you can’t,” Colin said, echoing her own doubts. His eyes pleaded with her. “Who else would dance with the dragon? And with you?”
“I’ll change the steps,” Naomi retorted and steered him towards the parking lot and her car. “It wouldn’t be as good without you, granted, but I can’t let you continue.” She stopped to face the boy. “Unless you convince me that I should. Can you?”
“My dad doesn’t want me to dance,” Colin said with such bitterness, Naomi started. “He wants me to be a soldier, like him. He wants to send me to a military school on Earth. But I don’t want to go. I told him. He said dancing is for girls. I was going to run away from the military school and find a dancing school instead. That’s why I need the money.”
“Oh, dear,” Naomi said faintly. “But he lets you study dancing, take classes with me. Maybe if you talk to him…”
“No,” Colin said. “He doesn’t know. He thinks I’m in a fencing club. I do some fencing in my role, so I showed him. Made him happy.” The boy almost spat the last word.
“But who paid for your class?”
“I did. My allowance.”
“It couldn’t have been enough,” Naomi said.
“I took some money from him too, okay?” Colin said sulkily. “He has so much he didn’t notice.”
“You stole from your father? Oh, dear!”
Colin pursed his lips and didn’t reply.
Naomi opened her car and shoved the boy into the passenger seat. She slammed the door shut, climbed in herself, locked all the doors, and glared at him. He sat beside her, defiant, his expression closed, so unlike the open, exuberant boy he had been during the lessons and rehearsal, it made her heart ache.
She needed a few minutes to compose herself, so she could speak properly, say the right words. She needed to reach him somehow. This was a crossroad for him. Maybe for her as a teacher too. What could she do? What should a good teacher do?
Naomi turned the key in the ignition to warm up the car, but she left it at idle. She sat with her hands clutching the wheel, while thoughts whirled in her head. She understood the boy’s wish to dance. It burned in his bones, same as it did in hers. His father was against it, so Colin stole and lied to attain his dream. On the surface, it was wrong. But if her own father had been against her dancing, she might’ve lied too.
Just a short while ago, events had forced her to contemplate truths and lies. She knew that the elves considered lying a taboo. They didn’t lie, but there were ways to twist truths and lies almost beyond recognition. Not lying didn’t necessarily equate being honest. She was convinced that lies were acceptable in some cases, if they benefitted someone else; that she could lie, should lie in fact, if her lies would help people and didn’t damage anyone. But now she was facing the same problem from the other side. Colin lied to her. Were his lies acceptable? Could she as his teacher condone his actions?
No. She couldn’t. That would kill her teaching career on Elfhome. It would make her a liar by extension, at least in his parents’ eyes. But what about Colin? What about his dream to dance?
“I’m not sure this is the path you should take, Colin,” she said finally. “If lying and cheating is the only way to achieve your goals, maybe those goals need adjusting. As your teacher, I can’t go against your parents’ wishes. And I know that stealing is wrong, no matter the circumstances. I will talk to your mom and dad. We might convince them, if we talk to them together…”
“I haven’t got a mom. I live with my dad.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. But Colin, I’ll have to talk to him anyway, whether you want it or not.”
Colin turned towards the window, away from Naomi. “You don’t know his phone.”
“It’s in my files. You gave it to me when you registered.”
Colin’s answering headshake was almost imperceptible. “No,” he whispered to the window.
“You gave me the wrong number?” she guessed.
He didn’t reply.
“So you didn’t only lie to your father. You lied to me as well.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Peterson,” he mumbled.
The boy had put himself into a corner and didn’t know how to climb out. “I can find your phone number, Colin,” Naomi said gently. She didn’t want to crack him and break his spirit. He was still a child, and under normal circumstances, a delightful one. “I know your school. I can talk to your teacher, but I don’t want to. Maybe instead, you just take me to your home right now. Don’t make me go behind your back.”
His voice shook slightly, as he recited his address.
“Thank you, Colin.” Naomi started the car. “I won’t tell your father about the dagger,” she said. “But you have to put it back as soon as we get to your place. Promise me.”
“Yes,” he said. He still looked out the window, his shoulders tense. “I told you the wrong name too,” he said after a while. “It’s not Cromwell. It’s Maynard. I’m Colin Maynard.”
“Maynard? As in Derek Maynard, the EIA director? Your relative?”
“My dad,” Colin said almost inaudibly.
“Oh-oh,” Naomi said. “Your dad is the biggest hot-shot in Pittsburgh, all-powerful, and you put me in this spot. You little shit!”
Colin span around, his eyes aglow. “You don’t have to go.”
“I don’t have a choice, Colin.” Naomi’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Neither do you. You started on this slippery slope when you lied to him and to me about your dancing.”
Colin deflated. Naomi kept her eyes on the road, as the evening advanced and the daylight dimmed. Streetlights came on, one by one, washing the street with their soft, diffused light, pushing back the darkness. Their cheerful glow didn’t disperse her bleak contemplations.
Maybe she should re-evaluate her own position on lies and truths as fluid abstractions, she thought morosely. Maybe the elves had the right of it when they refused to lie. If Colin didn’t lie, to her and to his father, neither he nor herself would be in this predicament right now.
Colin’s father headed the UN agency that ruled everyone human in Pittsburgh. She had already heard stories about Derek Maynard. People talked about him as if he was the God of Pittsburgh. And now Naomi had to talk to the guy as his son’s dancing teacher. Argh! What if he didn’t like what he heard? Could he deport her back to Earth? She didn’t look forward to the conversation.
“I’ll do what I can for you, Colin,” she said at last. “I’ll try to convince your father that dancing is your best option. But promise me something. Never lie again. Please. Unless your lie could save a life, literally, don’t lie. Will you promise?”
“I promise,” he whispered after a long hesitation.
“And even if I don’t succeed, and your father does send you to a military school, don’t run away. Earth is a dangerous place, especially for someone who doesn’t know anything about it. You were born on Elfhome, right?”
“You could get into so much trouble on the streets if you run away from school. Please, Colin. I know Earth and its cities. I grew up in New York. I need to know that no matter what, you’ll be safe.”
“Okay,” he said quietly.
She wasn’t sure his reluctant concession equated a promise, but she had to be content with it. For now.