Chapter 1: Colin
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.
Chapter 2: Teacher's talk
An armed guard at the door to Maynards’ mansion regarded Naomi with steely eyes.
“She is my teacher,” Colin said brashly and tugged Naomi inside the door, into a spacious foyer.
A tall lean man with a long blond braid appeared in the doorway to their right. Dressed in colored silks like an elf, he looked elegant and utterly masculine despite a checkered kitchen towel gripped in one hand and a red checkered apron wrapped around his middle. Behind him, Naomi glimpsed a range and several copper pots on the wall. A delicious smell of fried onion and potatoes drifted to her nose.
“Colin?” the man said, his eyebrows lifting.
“Papa.” Colin swallowed. “This is Miss Peterson, my… teacher. She wants to talk to you.”
“Hello.” Naomi stepped forward and offered the man her hand. “I’m Naomi Peterson, your son’s dance instructor.”
Automatically, he shook her hand, then frowned. “Dance?”
She sighed. “Yes, sir. I wanted to talk to you about it. You’re Colin’s father?”
“I’m sorry.” He winced, and pink spots bloomed on his sharp cheekbones. “Where’re my manners? Yes, I’m Derek Maynard. I wasn’t aware Colin had a dance teacher.” He tossed a quick glance at his son.
“Colin,” Naomi said. “Why don’t you go and put everything away while I talk to your father.”
“Yes, Miss Peterson.” Colin rushed up the stairs as if pursued by a monster.
“You were cooking.” Naomi turned back to the father. “If you need to do things there, we can talk in the kitchen.” She motioned with her chin. “I’ll talk, and you’ll continue whatever you’ve been doing.”
“Come in then,” he said dryly.
She followed him into the large kitchen. He hung the towel on a hook beside the sink and faced her, his expression inscrutable.
“What did you want to talk to me about, Miss Peterson?” He pointed to a stool at the granite-topped isle. “Please, sit down.”
Naomi sat, and he took a seat across the island from her.
She plunged. “Colin said you want him to enter a military school, and he doesn’t want to go. He wants to dance, to enroll in a dancing school.”
“That’s not his decision. He’s a child.”
“Have you seen him dance, sir? He has a real talent.”
“Wait a minute. Is he taking dance lessons now? Or does he want to take your lessons?”
“He has been coming to my class since October,” Naomi said. “Twice a week. And he paid from his allowance.”
She cringed inwardly before continuing. She wouldn’t tell Maynard everything, certainly not about the dagger Colin tried to sell. She hoped the boy already put it back into his father’s collection. This man didn’t seem very forgiving, and he was obviously ex-military. She didn’t want to bring unbearable trouble onto the boy’s thin shoulders, but she had to say something.
“Unfortunately, his allowance is not enough for my lessons, so he said he stole some money from you.”
“You’re not a schoolteacher?”
“No, sir. I teach children at the community center on Oak Street. I also have a flamenco class for university students, and I teach a class of elves at my home studio.”
“You teach dancing to the elves?”
“Yes. They are my best students, especially the sekasha.”
“You teach dancing to sekasha?” He seemed flabbergasted.
Naomi would’ve smiled, if the situation wasn’t so fraught with tension. “Yes. They like ballroom dancing. Waltz and tango. I also showed them some capoeira videos, and they’re keen to learn it too.”
He visibly shook off the distraction of the sakasha and capoeira to concentrate on the more important issues.
“Colin told me he takes fencing lessons. Did he lie?”
“It depends.” Now, Naomi did smile.
“On what?” He didn’t return Naomi’s smile. He drummed his long fingers on the gray granite of the isle, his face expressionless, his eyes intent on her.
“On your interpretation of fencing lessons. He has a role in our Christmas recital in a few weeks. We’ve been busy with rehearsals. Some of his moves are fencing moves, with a sword. I asked one of my sekasha students to show him a few basic moves, and Colin took to them like a natural. Falcon was very pleased with him.”
“It seems I don’t know my son at all,” Maynard said. “He lied to me. I never thought he would ever lie to me.”
“I’m sorry. He lied to me too. I don’t like it either, but in his defense, he thought lying was the only way for him to follow his dream. He said you would never allow him to dance, to make dancing his career. He really doesn’t wish to go to a military school. He said he would run away, if you insist on it. I believe he will, even though I asked him not to.”
“Miss Peterson. My son is eleven years old. He doesn’t know what he wants. It is just a childish phase. Tomorrow, he’ll want to be a glass blower or a policeman.”
“No, sir. He knows what he wants. He is very talented. When I was eleven, I knew I would be a dancer, and I don’t have half his talent. He could be a star with the best ballet troupes on Earth, if he gets the right training, and that training should start soon, before he is fully grown. He is fighting for his life, sir, with the only weapons available to him at the moment: lies. You’re a former military man. You should appreciate his tenacity.”
He shook his head, his lips a stubborn line on his chiseled face. “I was a career military, as were my father and grandfather. I’m not in the army now, but I know that a military training could shape a man.”
“It could also ruin a dancing career, Mr. Maynard,” Naomi said. “A military school has different priorities than a dance academy. It emphasizes training of the body that might be damaging to a dancer. Your son is an artist. He will always be an artist, regardless whether he attends a military school or a ballet school. Creativity finds a way. It always does. But sometimes, if it is not allowed an optimal outlet, it gets twisted and ugly. Colin is a bright and delightful boy. His artistry is like a fountain of joy. It would be a pity if he loses those qualities. And he will, if he is denied his heart’s desire.”
“This sounds like a fairy tale, miss.”
“No. I’m not promising that his life would be easy and glittery like a Disney cartoon. No artist’s life is ever easy. The more talent he has, the harder it is. But it could be fulfilling, or not. Please, consider a ballet school for Colin. I know some people in the dancing world. I might be able to help.”
Maynard frowned. “Look. I’m not saying that it is an impossibility. What I hate most in this situation is that he lied to me.”
“What would’ve happened if he told you the truth?” Naomi counted. “Would you have allowed him my lessons? Would you have paid for them?”
She saw the answers in his unyielding eyes. “No, you wouldn’t. Lies are not the best course of actions, but sometimes, they are the only way, especially for the weak and helpless.”
“Colin is not weak.”
“Compared to you? He is. Colin had a choice: submit to his father’s will or follow his own heart. He chose the latter. He lied and disobeyed you. I know that as a teacher, I should discourage disobedience. But as a dancer myself, I can’t condemn him. You’re his father. Please, help him achieve his dream. You’re the only one who can.”
He gazed at her for a few moments in silence. “Should I let his lies go unpunished?” he said at last. “I represent a link between humans and elves in this city. For the elves, a lie is the worst sin. Should I allow it in my own family?”
“Mr. Maynard. I’m just a teacher. I don’t have any say in what happens between you and your son. But I have to ask: do you wish to know the truth about Colin? Do you wish to see him, the real him? No masks. No lies.”
“Yes!” he bit out.
“Then come and see him dance. Allow him to continue my lessons. Come to our performance and witness your son shine on stage. Share his triumph. He is a star of the show. He doesn’t lie when he dances. No true artist ever lies with his art, and that’s what Colin is. A true artist. Would you come?”
He sat silent and immobile for a few moments before he nodded. “I’m good at what I do, Miss Peterson. I have been the EIA director in Pittsburgh for over two decades. I command an international force, and my people obey me without questions. But in my own family…”
“Ah. It’s different with the family, Mr. Maynard.”
“It shouldn’t be.”
Naomi chuckled at his suddenly flustered look. “Oh, it should. Family relations have one ingredient lacking in your professional interactions. You love your son, and he loves you.”
“It should be simple then,” he said grudgingly.
“I don’t think so. Love muddies the water. It confuses everyone, makes a simple decision turn into a multidimensional tangle. Love is like art. The more you love, the more complicated it is.”
“So it seems,” he said reluctantly.
“I should be going.” Naomi stood up. “Thank you for listening to me. I’ll send the ticket to the show with Colin when I have the exact date.”
“Thanks for talking to me, Miss Peterson.” Maynard accompanied her to the door. “I see that you care for my son. I’m grateful, even if dance wouldn’t be my first choice for him.”
Naomi shrugged. “It is his first choice,” she said.
She drove home deep in thought. Would Maynard allow Colin to continue? Would he come to the show?
Chapter 3: Murphy's Law
Several days later, Naomi was stuffing tickets and invitations into the envelopes, for the kids to take home, while she waited for her flamenco class to start. The girls were trickling in, their heels clicking on the wooden floor. Their hushed conversations and swishing of the skirts, interspaced with giggling and the occasional staccato of the castanets, were so normal a sound in a dance studio, she easily tuned it all out. Until a sudden silence jerked her out of her preoccupation with the tickets. She whirled in her chair to face the trouble.
One of the girls, Shirley, just entered the door. She wore a sheepish expression and a cast on her arm.
“Shirley!” Naomi gasped. “What happened?” She jumped to her feet.
“I broke it,” Shirley said. “Sorry about that, Naomi. Would it fuck up your choreography too badly? I know the dance was made for eight, but I don’t think I can dance with this.”
“No, no, you can’t dance with a broken arm. Don’t worry about the performance. I’ll adjust it. Tell me how it happened.” Naomi hugged the upset girl and led her to sit on a bench stretching along one wall of the studio, under the mirrors. The others surrounded them in a tight ring of concerned faces and colorful skirts.
After that, one calamity after another plagued their scheduled recital. Another girl of the same group, Verity, took all the shoes of all the flamenco dancers to a local cobbler to hammer nails into the heels and toes. It was the girls’ own initiative, of course. Naomi would’ve never countenanced the expense. As any dancer, she knew that only a few select companies in the world, mostly in Spain, made real flamenco shoes. Predictably, the Pittsburgh cobbler butchered the job.
“Don’t get too upset, Verity,” Naomi consoled the girl, who was sobbing and sniffling in misery. The mutilated shoes piled up at Naomi’s feet like a crime evidence. “You should’ve asked me first. If you girls want to continue with flamenco, we’ll order the professionally made flamenco shoes from Spain.”
“But what about the recital?” Verity wailed. “We don’t have time to order from Spain now. The show is in two weeks. I’ve ruined it for everyone.”
“No, my dear. We’ll get through. You all have other shoes. The nails are not necessary, not in the beginning. You’ll do fine.”
By the time the shoe crisis was averted, the younger girls, the fourth and fifth grades, decided to have an extra rehearsal of their number, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Snowflakes, in their school’s art room. They wanted to please Naomi with their progress. They had their white tutus on for the rehearsal, when some of the boys started messing around with paint. Of course, by the end of that dustup, all the white costumes became splashed liberally with multicolored paints. They looked like a crazy polka-dot designer’s creations, especially in a helpless heap in front of them.
“What are we to do?” The girls clustered around Naomi; their concerned faces illuminated with hope despite tears and pursed lips. For some reason, they all thought she could do anything, even remove acrylic paint from white tulle.
“Well.” She grinned as she surveyed the results of their lost fight against the boys with paint squirts. “We could do polka-dot snowflakes, I suppose.”
“No!” the girls cried in unison, unanimously indignant at her irreverent attitude towards the revered snowflakes. “They should be white.”
“Right.” Naomi bowed to their communal opinion. The next day, she drove to a fabric store and bought several yards of tacky silver lame polyester. She cut out snowflakes of different sizes and asked the girls to sew them on their costumes to hide the paint stains. The result was amazingly festive. What was even more important, it made the children happy.
Everyone anticipated the recital with baited excitement, until a real disaster struck. Naomi had arranged with the manager of the community center to have the center’s small auditorium available for the recital. It was sold out already, as all the parents of the participants wanted tickets, plus many local residents. Pittsburgh wasn’t awash with live shows, and everyone wanted such a treat during the holidays, even though most of her performers were young kids.
For the last week, she had rehearsed not in their usual studio but on stage, to get the children familiar with its configuration. Today, three days before the show, was their last rehearsal. The snowflakes danced to the Tchaikovsky’s immortal music, while Naomi watched and corrected periodically. Her eyes skipped from one girl to another, checking posture and hands and feet positions. The girls tried very hard. They had all learned the choreography by now; it was rather simple to accommodate their primitive skills, so nobody stumbled… much or bumped into another snowflake… too often.
“Good job, Irene, Naomi called out. Irene was very shy and needed frequent encouragement.
“Miranda, a little bit to the left.” Naomi mimicked the needed pose. Miranda adjusted her stance in mid-motion, and Naomi nodded and showed a thumb up.
“Taa-taa-taa-ta-ta,” she sang to the music, swaying a little, dancing in place together with the girls, her arms following the same pattern as theirs.
Suddenly Irene squealed and stopped. The others ran into her. Naomi dashed towards them. “Irene, what is it?”
“Naomi, there is water,” Irene said in her breathy thin voice.
Indeed, water bubbled up between the floorboards in the corner of the stage. The puddle was spreading fast, and the girls backed up to avoid getting their feet wet, their little faces scrunched in puzzlement.
“Okay, off the stage, everyone,” Naomi directed. “We only have five more minutes left for the class. We stop now. Go change and go home. I’ll deal with it.”
“But we haven’t finished,” Miranda objected.
“You’re ready, all of you,” Naomi said firmly. “It will be a wonderful performance. You’re great, ladies.”
She shooed the flock of the girls towards the change room, and they ran giggling and chatting, with happy smiles on their faces. She hurried in the opposite direction, to the manager’s office.
“Water? On stage?” the manager said grumpily. “Not good.” He lumbered towards the stage entrance.
Naomi went to the change room, to make sure all her pupils were safely picked up by their respective responsible adults. When only Miranda, who lived with Naomi, was left, they went together to talk to the manager and see what was wrong with the water.
He met Naomi’s inquiry with a grimace, as he slammed down his old-fashioned landline phone. “A sewer pipe broke. I’m closing the center, until it’s fixed. It’s unsanitary to keep it open, and they just told me it’s not going to be fixed until after the holidays.”
“But our recital…” Naomi said helplessly. “It’s in three days. It’s sold out.”
“Sorry.” He shrugged. “I can’t do anything. I’m not a plumber. We’ll have to cancel your show and reimburse the money for your tickets.” He winced at the prospect. As the center was to receive most of the tickets’ money as their auditorium rental, she understood his sour mood.
“But where are we going to dance?” Miranda exclaimed. Her elven ears strained up over her unruly mop of auburn hair. Seventeen years old, she looked ten. As far as Naomi could tell, mentally, Miranda was about ten as well. All the half-elven children on Elfhome matured much slower than humans. The elves became legally adults on Elfhome at one hundred. Would Miranda, a half-elf, become a grown up at half that age—fifty? Naomi shook her head to disperse her irrelevant musing and concentrated on the manager.
“Not here,” he said firmly. Disregarding Miranda’s distress, he ushered them both out of the office. “You have to leave, girls. I need to lock up.”
Miranda picked up her duffel and shuffled after Naomi along the long corridor. Colorful posters of previous performances adorned both walls.
“It’s not right,” Miranda said angrily. “Our poster should be here too. You have it ready, Naomi, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Naomi was as depressed as her young charge. “I got it out of the print shop yesterday, the entire print run, twenty-four posters. All going to waste. Drat it!”
“But where’re we going to dance?” Miranda demanded.
“I don’t know, darling. Not here, obviously. We can’t perform here with a broken sewer.”
“But where?” Miranda persisted. “You’re not canceling the show? We all tried so hard.”
“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “I need to think and make some calls. Stop pestering me.”
Miranda subsided, just muttered quietly in elvish under her breath.
Naomi wished she spoke a language Miranda didn’t understand. She wanted to swear, loudly and elaborately. They exited the building by now, and she kicked a snowdrift savagely. “Drat!” she repeated.
All the children worked tirelessly to make this show ready. They looked forward to showcasing their abilities to their friends and family, and now she didn’t have a venue for it. She hated to disappoint her students. Of course, she had her and Miranda’s home studio, but it couldn’t accommodate all the people who had bought tickets. Her private performances could cram a dozen guests, up to twenty in a squeeze, but not a hundred plus of the current ticket holders.
“I’m sorry, Miranda,” she murmured to the girl.
Miranda stomped along the sidewalk to the parking lot without slowing. She tried to make noise with her boots, but the soft dusting of snow on the ground defeated her angry tramping. “I want to dance!” she screamed and shook a gloved fist at the dark sky. A few snowflakes landed on her red knitted woolen mitten.
“Yeah, me too.”
“But you dance. You have already had three private shows for the freaking elves. And you don’t even let me watch.”
“They were strip shows, Miranda. Not for children,” Naomi said sternly.
“Yeah, yeah, only for the elves.”
“For adults,” Naomi amended. “Besides, they are my friends. Why shouldn’t I dance for them?”
“Friends, ha,” Miranda said darkly. “They are going to leave. They all leave.”
Naomi didn’t know how to answer that. Miranda didn’t like elves. Her elven father hadn’t been in the picture from the beginning; he had only visited Pittsburgh for a few months, just long enough to get her human mother pregnant, before he left for the Easternlands again. Miranda’s mother, a drug addict, had also left Pittsburgh a couple months before Naomi arrived, as soon as Miranda turned seventeen.
With both parents still alive but unavailable, Miranda was essentially an orphan. Naomi had sort-of adopted her, and they lived together, but it took some adjustment on Naomi’s part. Miranda had been through much emotional upheaval this year, one trauma on top of another. The girl was sensitive and anxious, as if always expecting something bad to happen. She cried easily. She often had nightmares. And now, as if to prove her dark expectations, the darn sewer pipe burst three days before their show. Murphy’s Law in action, Naomi thought sourly. Someone surely cursed their show with bad luck. No wonder, she wanted to cuss.
The cold wind tossed wet snow in their faces. Naomi shivered, huddled into her parka, and lengthened her stride. Miranda yelped and sprinted to the car—a yellow Beetle—at the edge of the parking lot.
“I’m freezing,” she complained.
By the time they got home, it was already too late to call anyone.
Chapter 4: Movie Theatre
The next morning, Naomi started calling everyone she knew: her students’ parents, their schools, the university office, a couple other community centers. She recruited Miranda’s help too, but even together, it took them half the day. All in vain. Nobody had a performance space available at such a short notice. At the holiday season, only days before Christmas, every more or less suitable place was already booked. Everyone promised to ask around, but Naomi didn’t hold much hope. If she didn’t find a place by tomorrow afternoon, she would have to call everyone again and cancel the show until some future, unspecified date. After the holidays.
Miranda sulked at the possibility, and Naomi shared her sentiments. They had a desultory, mostly silent lunch.
“I’m going to practice,” Naomi said after they cleaned up. Practicing always restored her equilibrium.
“What is the point,” Miranda muttered. “I’m going to the library.”
She left home ten minutes later, bundled up in her warmest coat and rabbit fur bonnet, but Naomi didn’t go to her studio. She stood in front of the empty kitchen counter and stared out the window. The snow had almost stopped falling. Only an occasional fat snowflake drifted down from the dark, low sky, gray and heavy.
In her telephone activities this morning, she had left out only a few people. She didn’t call the elves, because they didn’t use phones. She would have to visit their enclaves beyond the Rim, and she winced at the prospect. Her elven students wouldn’t be happy, if the recital was canceled. They seemed as excited as the children were to dance in it.
Marigold and Target, her best waltzing elven couple—he a potter, she a laedin soldier—were rehearsing an elaborate number to a Strauss’ waltz. Ivy Tangle and Canary, both sekasha beholden to Windwolf, also planned to participate, if they came to town, which wasn’t certain yet. Her boyfriend Falcon, another sekasha, and herself were going to perform two numbers: the energetic tango La Cumparsita and a song from Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which they danced with the third partner, Colin Maynard.
She hadn’t called Colin’s father either. Even though she had talked to Derek Maynard a couple weeks ago, as his son’s teacher, she couldn’t imagine asking for his help in finding a stage for their recital. In the context of Pittsburgh, it would be akin to asking the President of the United States. At least, Colin came to rehearsals regularly. He had obviously reached an agreement with his father, no matter if the recital happened or not. One thing to be grateful for, she thought glumly.
A couple minutes later, a phone call interrupted her blue contemplations. “Naomi,” one of her flamenco students, Verity, said brightly. “I might know something for you. There is an abandoned movie theater in McKees Rocks. My friend drove past it a couple days ago and saw light inside. Maybe it is not abandoned anymore. Maybe you should check it out.”
Naomi’s hopes roared. A movie theatre would be perfect. She wrote down the directions, thanked Verity, and dressed in a hurry. She wanted to be there before the darkness fell, so she could see everything in daylight. She left a short note to Miranda, checked her purse, making sure her Mace and Falcon’s dagger were there, and rushed out of the house. She never left home unarmed anymore.
It took her some time to navigate her yellow Beetle along the snow-chocked roads. The snowplows labored on the central avenues, but the narrow local streets were suffering. Nobody had cleaned the snow from the little wooden bridge over a frozen creek, and the old boards groaned under the combined weight of wet snow and her car. If it was a bigger vehicle, not her tiny Beetle, the bridge might not hold, she thought in consternation and not a little fear. Pittsburgh didn’t have the resources to maintain all its bridges nowadays, and some of the older ones, leading to the abandoned neighborhoods, had collapsed since the first Startup. She hoped this particular bridge would hold until after she drove back.
After the bridge, all the streets were truly deserted. She made only one wrong turn before she founds the movie theatre. It was relatively small, smaller than the community center on Oak Street, and surrounded by snow. Except a path stomped by feet through the ankle-high snowdrifts from the street to the front door. Naomi could see no cars on the street and no people, but the road had been traveled, and recently, the snow churned by wheels.
She didn’t like the feeling that slithered down her spine. The theatre didn’t look like a place for community entertainment. While most of the public buildings in the populated areas sported at least some Christmas lights and decorations, this little theatre didn’t. It felt like a place where someone would hide something. She executed a U-turn in the empty street, to point her car towards the way back, but hesitated. Should she leave now? She didn’t want to abandon the deceptive warmth and safety of her car for the chilly gray uncertainty beneath the menacing clouds. She doubted she wanted to bring her girls to dance in this place.
On the other hand, she was already here. Might as well check it out. Maybe her misgivings were misplaced. She fingered the Mace and the dagger in her purse, hitched the strap across her shoulder, and plodded towards the entrance.
The front door was unlocked. Cautiously, she stuck her head in. The lights were off in the small foyer, empty of furniture or any signs of occupancy. The curtain-less windows, narrow and grimy, gave some illumination, but the day was gray and already turning towards evening.
She pulled one of the large doors leading to the auditorium. It creaked open reluctantly, the hinges complaining of disuse. Nobody had opened these doors in a while. Inside, all was pitch dark and smelled stale. Naomi didn’t see the condition of the seats or the floor, but she didn’t think they could be made ready for a crowd in two days.
The stage in front was all but invisible. Only the pale rectangle of the screen distinguished it from the darkness. There might not be enough space there, behind the screen, for dancing, and she wouldn’t trust the wellbeing of her girls to the ancient floorboards anyway. The whole structure felt like a disaster waiting to happen.
She waved a hand in front of her nose to disperse the dust disturbed by her entrance and stepped back hastily. The floor of the foyer was universally dirty, but the dirtiest path led from the front door to the stairs in the corner. Someone had walked that way. Repeatedly.
Naomi already knew this theater wasn’t what she needed. It wouldn’t solve her recital problem, but something pushed her towards the stairs. Her prior experience with unoccupied buildings in Pittsburgh suggested there might be someone in need of help there. She sighed and began climbing.
Her supposition was correct. The lounge on the second floor was occupied. A girl in a gray sweat suit sat on a sofa. Earbuds in her ears, her eyes closed, she swayed softly to the music Naomi couldn’t hear. The girl’s dreadlocks, wild and long enough to reach her shoulders, swayed with her. A remainder of a takeout Chinese meal littered a low coffee table in front of her.
Naomi crossed the small room and tapped the girl lightly on the shoulder. “Hello?” she said.
The girl’s eyes flew open, and she hastily pulled the buds out of her ears. He plump lips twisted in distaste. “I told them, men only,” she said. “I don’t do women.”
Naomi parsed the sentence twice, but it sounded even worse the second time. “They?” she echoed quietly. “Someone’s been pimping you?” Her eyes traveled over the girl, from her dreadlocks to her round dark face, down past a sturdy body to her feet in thick socks. A metal cuff circled one sock. A chain attached to it ran toward a corner of the room and disappeared onto the closed door to the washroom.
“They chained you?” Naomi gasped.
The girl jumped to her feet. She breathed heavily. Her eyes widened with a mix of hope and despair. “They didn’t send you? Could you free me? They promised, but… I don’t believe they ever would. Please.”
“I should call the police.” Naomi fumbled in her purse for her phone.
“No!” The girl grabbed her arm. “I’m… illegal. They helped me get here, but then… They promised, but…” She was trembling and almost crying, spasms flashing across her features. “The police would deport me. I have nowhere else to go.”
Slowly, Naomi took her hand out of her purse, phoneless. “Do you have anywhere to go here?”
“I can turn tricks,” the girl said. “For myself. I heard housing is free in Pittsburgh. I’ll do fine. I can’t go back. But I can’t free myself. They lied to me, the bastards! Could you, I don’t know, get some tools for the chain?”
“Fine.” Naomi sighed and pulled out her dagger. Falcon had said it would cut anything. She would just test his statement and see if it would cut the stainless steel of the chain.
“Put your foot on the table,” she directed. “I need a hard surface. I can’t cut on the carpet.”
“You can’t cut the chain with a knife,” the girl objected, but she obediently lifted her foot to the table.
“We’ll see, Naomi said. She selected the second fragment off the cuff, the first one that lay on the table, took a deep breath, and started sawing with her dagger. Falcon could probably hack it in one blow, but she didn’t have his upper body strength. And the darn elf didn’t have a phone, so she couldn’t call him for help.
The girl whimpered. “It works. It cuts,” she whispered.
“Mmm. Slowly,” Naomi said. “What is your name? I’m Naomi.”
“I’m Willie,” the girl said. “It really cuts. Do you live here.”
“Yes. I teach dancing.” Naomi was almost half-way through the steel. Amazing how an ironwood blade would cut metal, but her hand was getting tired. She switched hands.
“Do you want me to try? I’m strong,” Willie said.
“I don’t know you,” Naomi replied absently. “I’m not about to hand you a knife that cuts through steel. Besides, it is a gift.”
Willie giggled. “Suit yourself.”
At last, the severed chain fragment fell with a faint clang.
“Wow!” Willie said.
“Let’s go.” Naomi straightened and examined the blade. Not a notch. What an astonishing material. She sheathed it and dropped it back into her purse. “I have a car. Where are your shoes?”
“They took them,” Willie said glumly. “Scumbags! They took my money and my computer too. I don’t care. I’ll run barefoot if I have to.” She pulled a red rucksack from beneath the table and scampered to the stairs, her one remaining chain link tinkling against the cuff.
Naomi glanced out the window before following. It was already getting dark, but she could see a large pickup truck pulling up to the curb in front of the theatre. Two men got out, glanced at her Beetle, circled it, then turned to wade through the snow to the front door of the theater.
“Drat!” Naomi rushed to the stairs. “Down, Willie, and into the theater. Some guys are coming.”
Willie squealed and flew down the stairs, her remaining chain link ringing madly. Naomi pushed the girl into the darkness of the theater proper and squeezed in herself. She didn’t even have time to close the door all the way before the front door banged open. She was afraid the men would hear their frightened breathing.
Fortunately, the men didn’t. They didn’t hurry either and didn’t look around. They ambled towards the stairs. As soon as they were out of sight, Naomi sprinted to the front door and out, with Willie on her heels. They had a few seconds at the most, and she didn’t want to find out what those men would do when they realized their captive had flown.
She rummaged in her purse for the car key. “Start the Beetle, Willie.” She tossed the key to the girl.
“What about you?” Willie panted. “They have guns. Come on!”
“I’ll try to slow them down. One moment. Start the car.” Naomi pulled her dagger out of its sheath again. “Don’t disappoint me, fellow,” she whispered to the blade and plunged it into the front tire of the men’s pickup. It went in without a hitch. Wonderful! She pulled it out and hit the tire the second time. Then another front tire. After that she sloshed through the sludge on the road towards her Beetle.
Willie already flung the driver door open for her. “Come on! They are out. They’ll shoot.”
Naomi dived in, shifted into Drive, and hit the gas without even bothering with the safety belt.
“Buckle me in, Willie,” she said tersely. “And yourself.”
The men shouted and ran towards the road, but they couldn’t run very fast through the messy snow.
Willie fumbled with the seatbelts, while Naomi gripped the wheel, trying to keep steady on the slippery slush of the road. She couldn’t, not entirely. The car swerved randomly, and that was probably what saved them, when the men started shooting. At least Naomi didn’t run into a light post before she turned a corner, out of sight of the men with the guns, and speeded towards the flimsy bridge.
She kept glancing in the rearview mirror, but no big truck appeared on the road behind them. She crossed the bridge into the more populated streets, her heart pounding. She suspected her hands would be shaky, if she didn’t clutch the wheel so tightly. Trying to relax her hold on the wheel, she slowed down. Turned. Turned again. She didn’t care where she drove, just away from the cursed theater. Beside her, Willie kept silent.
Thirty minutes and some miles after her foray into the theater, Naomi parked the car near a random pharmacy and turned to her passenger.
Willie sat hugging her rucksack and staring straight ahead, into the darkness illuminated by streetlights.
“So what is the plan?” Naomi asked quietly. Her adrenaline rush was receding, leaving empty giddiness in its wake.
“I should go,” Willie said. She turned to Naomi. “Thank you.” But she didn’t unbuckle her seatbelt. “Where should I go?”
Naomi sighed. “You said you’re illegal. How did you get here? And when?”
“A couple weeks ago. They smuggled me in. Made lots of shiny promises.” Her lips curved unpleasantly. “Of course, I didn’t believe any of their shit, but I didn’t think they would chain me. Stupid, huh?”
“And then, they pimped you.”
“In fact, you don’t have anywhere to go. Do you know anyone?”
A tiny headshake was her answer.
“Fine,” Naomi said. “I’ll tell you what. I live in a large house with another girl. We have a couple empty bedrooms. You could stay in one of them, but no tricks, no men. I make enough money to feed you for a while, and then we’ll figure out what you should do. Perhaps, I could find you a job. Not officially, as you’re illegal, but maybe under the table. Then we’ll figure something out. Together. How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” Willie said. “I’ll be eighteen in March.”
“Have you graduated high school?”
A headshake again, accompanied by snort.
“Where are you from?”
“Philly. Look. I was in trouble. That’s why I hooked up with those pigs, but… I don’t want you to get into my troubles too.”
“Did you prostitute in Philly?”
“What do you think?” Willie said contemptuously. “I ran away from a foster home. I lived on the streets for the past year. I can take care of myself.”
“But you got into trouble you couldn’t handle, did you?”
“Yes,” Willie said softly. “I thought I would come here, get pregnant with an elven kid, and stay. That’s how a girl could stay here, right? That’s what I heard. Nobody would find me here.”
“Is someone looking?”
“Maybe,” Willie said quietly.
Naomi liked the situation less and less the more she learned of it. Whatever Willie didn’t say, Naomi could fill in the blanks. She didn’t want to risk her well-organized life here, but she couldn’t leave Willie on the streets alone.
“I live with the girl who is half elf,” she said. “Her mom did what you want to do. Got pregnant with an elven baby. Then she decided it is too hard and went back to the States. She left Miranda here alone.”
“I wouldn’t leave my baby,” Willie said indignantly.
“Elves mature very slowly,” Naomi said. “Miranda is seventeen, but she looks and behaves like she is ten. She would be a child for a long time, decades maybe. If you want an elven baby, you should be prepared for a long haul. All your life, in fact. Pureblood elves are considered adults at one hundred. Half-blood—maybe fifty or sixty.”
“Oh,” Willie said. “Sixty years a child? That sucks.”
Naomi chuckled at the girl’s dumbfounded expression. “Well, you have time to think about it. I’ll help. Let’s go home.” She restarted the car.
Chapter 5: Miranda and Willie
Miranda eyed their guest with unconcealed hostility. “Of course, you like her,” she accused Naomi. “She’s black, like you. I don’t want her here. It’s my house.” She wheeled and stomped upstairs to her room. The door slammed shut.
“Miranda,” Naomi said helplessly.
Willie hovered uncertainly just inside the door. “Maybe I should go.”
“Where?” Naomi shot back. “You have nowhere to go. She’ll deal. I’ll talk to her. Come upstairs. You need a shower. Tomorrow, I’ll buy you some winter boots… if they are not all gone already. I don’t think we have anything in your size.”
She took Willie to one of the empty bedrooms, showed her the bathroom, gave her clean linens, and left her alone.
Miranda sulked in her room. “I don’t want to talk,” she declared, when Naomi entered.
“Tough. You’ll listen.” Naomi perched on the edge of Miranda’s desk.
The little half-elf glared at her from her nest in the huge rocking chair. The chair’s faded upholstery had once been red. It was vaguely brown now, with bald spots. Naomi hated the ugly chair, but Miranda loved it and wouldn’t consent to throwing it away.
“Miranda,” Naomi started. “Willie is alone. She has no one and no place to go. She’ll stay with us, at least for a while, until she is on her feet. I helped you when you needed it. Now, we should both help Willie. She is new to Pittsburgh. She doesn’t know what to expect. She would need a local guide, because she doesn’t know the dangers. She might go to the river edge and be hurt by the fish.”
“Good. Let the fish eat her,” Miranda muttered stubbornly.
Naomi slid off the desk and hopped into the chair. It was so large it could easily accommodate both of them.
“Come on.” She hugged the girl and felt Miranda’s thin shoulders stiffen under her hands. “I know you don’t mean it.” She kissed the shaggy auburn head that came to rest against her collarbone. “I love you, Miranda. I won’t leave you, but Willie needs to be loved too. Everyone does.”
“What about her mother?” Miranda murmured into Naomi’s chest.
“She said she was in a foster home. I guess, her mother wasn’t available. You could ask her.” Naomi threaded her fingers through Miranda’s hair. “You could be her local guide, at least in the beginning. I don’t have the time, you know. I’m adding more lessons after Christmas. My waiting list is too long. Willie is your age, and hasn’t graduated from high school either, like you. You might take evening or correspondence classes together.” She kissed the girl’s cheek, and her lips tasted salty wetness.
“Miranda!” Naomi pulled away to look at the girl. “Don’t cry. There is nothing to cry about.”
Miranda sniffed explosively and turned away. “I wanted to dance,” she said.
“Oh dear. I have to call the police.”
“Why?” Miranda paled.
“We were shot at, but we escaped. And I punctured their wheels with Falcon’s dagger, so they wouldn’t chase us. But I have to tell the police about the movie theater.”
“What? Tell me first. Who shot at you? What did you do?” Miranda grabbed Naomi’s sweater with both hands. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, no, we’re both fine.” Naomi told her a slightly edited version as she climbed to her feet. She felt the traces of adrenaline sing up in her blood again, just from the recounting of their harrowing adventure. It made her jittery.
“Would you cook something for dinner while I talk to the police?” She kissed Miranda’s perfect little nose and propelled the girl towards the door. “You’re wonderful.”
“You tell that to everyone,” Miranda said darkly, but she allowed Naomi to tow her downstairs to the kitchen.
“Because I love everyone,” Naomi said cheerfully and settled on a sofa in the living room. Miranda was their designated cook most often than Naomi herself. The girl loved to cook and was good at it, better than Naomi. While Miranda bustled around the kitchen, Naomi dialed 911.
She told the police about everything: about her dance classes, her planned recital, the busted sewer, the movie theater she went to check out, but at that point, her story deviated from the truth. Willie was totally erased from it. The men tried to shoot at Naomi simply because she was there. Maybe those men used the movie theater for some nefarious purposes, Naomi speculated piously, while Miranda chortled into the kitchen sink. “I saw a long chain upstairs, but I didn’t see anyone. Maybe they had some animals there, I’m not sure. Or a person.”
The police promised to check it out. When Naomi finally turned off the phone, Miranda regarded her with huge troubled eyes.
“You lied. Again. You lied to the police for her.”
Naomi sighed in exasperation but swallowed an expletive that sprang to her tongue. No matter how Miranda disliked the elves, the elven postulate of lies being sins was engraved in the girl’s soul. She never lied herself and was very upset, when Naomi did.
“Willie was smuggled here by those nasty men. If I tell the police about her, they will deport her back to Earth. And she told me she can’t go back. I can’t betray her now. I just saved her life. Or maybe just her freedom, but it is almost the same. Those criminals chained her, Miranda, like a slave. They deserve to be punished. She doesn’t.”
“I suppose,” Miranda said. “Chained? That’s horrible.”
Naomi nodded. “I cut the chain with Falcon’s dagger. I swear it’s a magical blade. It cut stainless steel.”
“Of course, it is magic. They make such knives with spells. You can’t work with ironwood otherwise,” Miranda said. “Why didn’t you use your magic?”
“It takes a while for me to assume a pose, and I still don’t know how to use my fingers.”
“Ah.” Miranda stirred the pasta simmering on the stove, then abruptly turned to face Naomi. “Oh, I forgot. Falcon came to see you. Asked where you were. I told him about the broken sewer and the movie theater. He was upset, said he might come later.”
“Thanks. Pity I missed him. I hope I’ll teach him to use a phone soon.”
Miranda stuck out her tongue.
“Is the pasta ready? I’m hungry.”
“Not yet.” Miranda stirred the pot again. “Why don’t you make a salad?”
“Okay.” Naomi got the ingredients from the fridge and pulled up a cutting board.
“No movie theater, huh?” Miranda asked quietly. “No recital?” She sounded resigned. “I wanted to dance so much.”
“Sorry,” Naomi said. “Maybe something turns up tomorrow, but if it doesn’t happen by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have to call everyone and cancel.” She attacked the cabbage with her knife. It was better than throwing things around in frustration. “Drat!” she muttered.
“Call Colin,” Miranda said. “Maybe his father has something.”
“After dinner,” Naomi replied firmly. “I can’t talk to Derek Maynard on an empty stomach.”
Miranda snickered but didn’t argue.
After dinner, while Willie and Miranda cleaned up, Naomi called Maynard. He listened to her tale without interrupting, the same tale she told the police. Naomi squirmed, just a tiny bit. She was happy he couldn’t see her through the phone. She didn’t like lying to him so blatantly. A few weeks ago, she had reported to him that his son was lying. Now, she felt like a hypocrite. What right did she have to tattle on Colin, when her lie was so much bigger? But she couldn’t tell him about Willie.
“I was actually looking forward to this show,” he said when she finished. “I’m not sure about a theatre. I hope I can find something for you.”
“I need to know by noon tomorrow, at the latest, either a Yes or a No. I need time to call everyone and I have to drive to the elven enclaves to tell them. Why don’t they use the phones, like normal people?” she exclaimed in frustration.
He laughed and promised to get back to her as soon as possible tomorrow. “You should’ve called me earlier,” he said.
“Mr. Maynard. People call you the God of Pittsburgh. One doesn’t call gods about burst sewers. I’m just that desperate.”
She still heard him chuckling when the call ended, but her improved mood didn’t last long. Raised voices drifted in from the kitchen. Now what? The girls just started to cooperate. Were they quarreling already? Probably not a good idea to put together a prickly teenage whore and an elven kid with the abandonment issues, but what could she do? She couldn’t kick Willie out. Naomi headed to the kitchen to avert a disaster.
Chapter 6: Recital
Maynard was really the God of Pittsburgh. He had called Naomi the next morning and offered her a conference chamber in the EIA headquarters. After that, she had spent the two days till the recital arranging the stage and the dressing rooms for her dancers. Willie and Miranda helped, although they didn’t stop bickering, not even when they hung the gauze backdrop together, both on ladders across the stage from each other. Naomi stopped mediating peace at that point and just ignored them.
The recital itself was a success too, especially Colin Maynard’s two numbers. And hers. Their common dance even received a standing ovation. Afterwards, after she thanked everyone and talked to so many parents, she lost count, she was finally alone in the dressing room aka someone’s office, enhanced with a large mirror.
She stared at herself in that mirror. Something had changed in her since she came to Elfhome, although she wasn’t sure what. Did she become older? Wiser? More stupid? Addicted to danger. She had always been a law-abiding citizen on Earth, never got into any trouble. Didn’t lie too often. Now, in the space of three months she had spent on Elfhome, she had lied right and left, got embroidered in one murder, killed another man, a dreadful man, granted, but still, with her magic—imagine that—and now was helping an illegal immigrant. And the only feeling she had about any of it was elation.
She was still staring at her reflection, when Willie stuck her head into the room, her round brown face in the mirror grinning happily.
“We are done taking off the backdrop.” Willie was wearing her new jeans and a huge red sweater with a Christmas design of reindeers and snowflakes. Naomi had bought them both for her yesterday, as Willie didn’t have anything else to wear, and the only sweaters available at the store so close to Shutdown had reindeers on them. They had all laughed at the cheesy design last night. The girl presented such a difference from the tight wad of misery she had been only two days ago, when Naomi had first seen her, chained and enslaved, that Naomi’s heart squeezed.
“Perfect,” she said lightly. “Thanks.”
“What else should we do?”
Before Naomi could answer, a tall figure appeared in the mirror behind Willie. Maynard.
“Miss Peterson. Do you have a few minutes?” His face was serious, no giddy parent’s smiles.
Willie froze, her animated expression going carefully blank. She already knew who Maynard was: the one who could deport her.
“Take my costumes, darling,” Naomi said, “and go wait at the car with Miranda. I’ll be there as soon as I talk to Colin’s father. Come in, Mr. Maynard.” She intentionally didn’t use Willie’s name. She didn’t know what Maynard had found out about the movie theater, but she didn’t want to give him any ammunition. She didn’t smile either. She had an excuse: she was tired after the concert.
Willie slipped in, grabbed Naomi’s costumes in their plastic cases, and was out the door so fast, Naomi was afraid she would stumble. Fortunately, she didn’t. She disappeared down the hall. Maynard came in and sat down in the chair where the costumes had been. He didn’t glance in Willie’s direction, all his attention on Naomi.
“I want to thank you, Miss Peterson,” he said. “This show, Colin…” He swallowed. “It was a revelation. He is… really talented.”
“Yes.” Naomi’s lips twitched. “He is. He was wonderful.” Maybe this was what Maynard wanted to talk to her about, but she didn’t think so. His gaze seemed perturbed. This was probably the opening gambit, to put her at ease.
His next words confirmed her supposition. “I need to ask you something,” he went on. “I talked to the police about those men who shot at you.”
“Did they get arrested?”
“One of them. I hope the police would get the entire gang soon. The one they have, he talked. He said they stashed an illegal immigrant, a young girl, in that building, and the girl escaped with you. Do you know anything about it?” His eyes were watchful.
“No,” Naomi said calmly. “I did see the chain on the second floor. I wasn’t sure what it was for.”
“Surely, the police found it.”
“No. No chains.”
Naomi shrugged. “Maybe the guys removed it. I didn’t see anyone but those two who shot at my car.”
He frowned. “Miss Peterson. I think you’re lying.”
Naomi’s grin didn’t hold any mirth. “Really? And you think he was telling the truth. He is a criminal. I’m your son’s dance teacher. And you would believe his word over mine?”
“Miss Peterson. I’m sorry if I offended you, but I serve the law. And the law doesn’t allow illegal immigrants. I don’t want to cause you any troubles, and I promise I won’t, but I have to apprehend and deport that girl.”
Naomi’s grin melted away. She was suddenly, blazingly angry. “Your statement about the law doesn’t sound the same to me as it does to you, Mr. Maynard. Some laws should be obeyed. Others should be defied. Look at me. I’m black. Not so long ago, there was a law in America. By that law, I would be a property of a white man. He could do anything to me: kill, beat, rape. It was okay, by the law.”
“Miss Peterson—” Red spots bloomed on his cheekbones.
“Let me finish. If I tried to run away, that same law required every citizen to help my owner to recapture me. Fortunately, there were some brave men and women who defied that heinous law. They risked their freedom, sometimes their lives, to help people like me. Because of their courage, that law was eventually changed.” She glared at him, her heart beating like a drum. “I only hope that if that girl you’re seeking, or another like her, comes to me for help, I would have as much courage.” She stood up.
He stood up too, his face white and immobile like marble. “That was uncalled for,” he said.
Naomi tried to stifle her anger. “Yes. I’m sorry,” she said very softly. “Law is my trigger point. I had a class at a juvenile facility for girls on Earth. They all broke the law, yes, but they lived such hard lives. Somebody needed to help them long before they got into troubles, but nobody ever did. Those girls all had stories… you can’t imagine. I certainly couldn’t, before they started talking to me. And the law required them to be locked up in that place.” She wiped the tears that sprang to her eyes. From the first moment they met, Willie had reminded her of those girls. She would do anything to help Willie avoid such a fate.
“I’m sorry too,” he said. He opened his mouth, closed it, and moistened his lips. He seemed to be at a loss for words.
“I’m really sorry. Good night, Mr. Maynard. Thank you for your help with our recital.” She swept out of the room and hurried towards the lifts.
He didn’t follow her.
“What did he want?” Willie demanded from the passenger seat, when they were on their way home.
Miranda didn’t say anything, but her little face in the back mirror looked troubled.
“They captured one of those guys, and he sang,” Naomi said. “Told them they had a girl hiding in the movie theater, and that girl ran away with me.”
“Did you tell him?” Willie’s voice hitched.
“You’re insulting me,” Naomi said. “I don’t tattle on my roommates. Nor would I ever betray a trust. I’m a teacher.”
“Sorry, Naomi,” Willie mumbled. “I should probably move out anyway.”
“Maybe. In case Maynard decides to raid our house. But where could you move? I should find you another place to live. I’ll ask around. You’re not the only one, you know. I heard about a commune of illegal girls.”
“She can’t move out yet,” Miranda interjected. “We already have a Christmas three and everything. I was going to bake a cake. Christmas is in two days. I… got a present for Willie.”
Willie glanced back at Miranda, and her lips started trembling. He bunched her fists. “You’re such a sissy,” she snarled.
Miranda frowned. “What does it mean, Naomi? It’s a bad word, right? If you want to bandy bad words, Willie, I know some words in Elvish you wouldn’t understand either.” Then she dropped a long string of Elvish words that hadn’t been included in Naomi’s lessons yet. Miranda’s thin, childish voice rang with triumph.
Naomi shook her head and kept driving. She shouldn’t have antagonized Maynard, but what was said couldn’t be unsaid. She didn’t regret anything. Besides, she didn’t think Maynard would actually order a raid on her house.
Chapter 7: Snowstorm
The day before Christmas, it snowed again, and the weather reporter on TV promised a blizzard later in the evening. In the morning, Naomi and Willie drove to a used clothing store to buy more wardrobe for Willie. Then Naomi practiced in the studio, and the girls retreated to the kitchen, ostensibly to bake cookies. The sounds of their heated arguing drifted into her studio, like jazzy counterpoints to her soothing practice music.
The sky, heavy with snow, darkened soon after noon, but inside the house, the warm and cozy atmosphere was punctuated by Miranda’s laugher and Willie’s half-hearted snarls. Naomi felt content despite Willie and the problems she embodied. They would deal with all those problems after Christmas. Somehow.
When the phone rang around five in the afternoon, it was already full dark outside, and the snow roiled tempestuously behind the windows.
Naomi reached for the phone with a smile. Who would be calling her on Christmas Eve? Maybe it was Falcon. She hoped it was Falcon. He had said he needed to go back to Easternlands; some emergency with his family. He was going to leave town this morning, take a train east, but maybe they had solved their emergency without him. She would be happy to see him. She liked the dratted elf too much for her own good. She missed him already.
“Hello?” she said brightly.
“Miss Peterson.” Derek Maynard sounded grim, and Naomi tensed involuntary. Before she began imagining all sorts of disasters concerning Willie, Maynard’s next question blindsided her. “Is Colin with you?”
“Colin? No. I haven’t seen him since the recital. Isn’t he home?” She glanced outside, at the white angry churning, and her heart plummeted. Was Colin missing? “What happened?”
A moment of heavy breathing answered her frantic question, before Maynard pulled himself together. “He went to see a friend. He left their house a couple hours ago. It’s fifteen-minutes walk, but he hasn’t come home. Hasn’t called. I thought… I hoped…” He cleared his throat before continuing. “I called all his friends. I called Merci.”
He meant the local hospital, and Naomi’s mind shied away from that possibility, although perhaps the hospital was better than the alternative.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t seen him,” she whispered. “What are you going to do? Call the police.”
“I have. They said they would look, but nobody knows where to look. I already drove through all the streets between our house and theirs. The streets are mostly empty, everything is closed. Christmas Eve. Nobody has seen him.” Maynard’s voice hitched. “Sorry to bother you. I’ll keep looking.”
“No, no. I’m glad you called. I’ll help you look. I know where your house is. Where is the friend’s house?”
He told her the address. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.
“I’ll leave Miranda home, so she could be by the telephone. If you learn anything, call her. I’ll do the same. You know my cell phone number?”
They exchanged the cell phones numbers, and Naomi rang off. “Girls!” she called. “Colin is missing. I’m going out to look for him.”
“I’m going with you,” Willie declared.
“Me too,” Miranda piped.
“No, Miranda. You stay by the phone, just in case. If anyone calls with the news, call my cell.”
“Okay.” Miranda went to the window and looked out. “It’s a snowstorm,” she said softly. “Where is he, Naomi? He could freeze in a snowstorm.”
“I know.” Naomi put on a couple sweaters and her parka. “Willy, dress as warmly as you can. Several layers. Put on both your sweaters and a couple pairs of socks.”
Willie came clattering down the stairs. She didn’t have much in the way of clothing, but it seemed all of it was on her. She also carried a couple of blankets.
“In case we find him, he would need blankets. He’ll be cold,” she said and whisked herself out to the garage.
“Stay safe,” Naomi said to Miranda, kissed the girl’s pale cheek right under her sharp elven ear, and ran to catch up with Willie.
“Good thing I have a full tank,” she commented as she muscled her small Beetle through the snow-bound streets. The engine whined but obeyed her hands. Willie sat silent beside her.
“Where are we going to look?” she asked after a while. “His dad has already looked everywhere.”
Naomi didn’t answer. She didn’t know the answer. Besides, all her attention was on the road. Even though there was little traffic, her wipers, even at full power, could hardly keep up with the riotous slaps of snow exacerbated by the random gusts of wind. Some gusts were so strong, her little car rocked. She didn’t see well through the white soup outside either, so she drove slowly. She hated to think what Colin, alone and unprotected, might be suffering under such a turbulent blizzard.
“What could he think?” Willie persisted. “If we know what he thought, we might guess where to find him. Maybe he wanted to sled down some hills. Maybe some boys egged him on. The blizzard didn’t really start until maybe an hour ago or a bit longer. He is what? Eleven? He might’ve wanted some adventure.”
“Willie, you’re scaring me,” Naomi snapped. “This whole city is nothing but hills and water. And the rivers are full of man-eating fish. No. I can’t think that. But maybe…” Her thoughts veered in a different direction.
“Colin told me once that he sometimes orders ballet movies from Earth, through a video store. Maybe he went to that store on the way home. Maybe some movie has arrived and was waiting for him. The store is not between his and his friend’s house. It’s in the other direction. Let’s check it out.”
“Okay,” Willie said. “Do you really think so?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
It took her almost an hour to navigate to the arcade with the video store Colin had told her about. Every store in the arcade was closed, of course. She couldn’t even see the names of the stores. Everything was obscured by the snow It was almost nine on Christmas Eve, and the narrow street was deserted. Only snow drifts piled up along the sidewalk.
“Let’s check inside the colonnade,” she finally said. She was out of smart ideas anyway.
“I’ll check. You keep the car running, or it might not start again,” Willie admonished.
“Right,” Naomi said.
Willie dove into the angry storm and disappeared in the pitch-dark narrow passage of the arcade. Why didn’t they keep lights on down there, Naomi thought in irritation? The miserly store owners were probably trying to save money.
She waited and fretted and imagined Colin turning into a small snowdrift somewhere. What’s happened to the boy? What could’ve kept him from returning home? Or calling? Did someone kidnap him to apply pressure on Maynard. Would those people hurt Colin?
No, don’t think such thoughts, she berated herself, but they kept coming willy-nilly. Because if he wasn’t kidnapped, then something kept him from reaching home. An injury? In a blizzard, it could be a death sentence. She shivered.
At last, Willie appeared at the other end of the arcade, struggling through the heavy, swirling snow. She was carrying something.
“Colin,” Naomi whispered and hurriedly opened the passenger door.
Willie climbed in with her burden. Colin was as white as snow, his lips almost blue. He was shaking so hard, he couldn’t talk, but his eyes were open. He whimpered almost inaudibly.
“Don’t try to talk, Colin,” Naomi told the boy. She turned up the heat in the car as far as it could go and started for home. Willy in the back seat was undoing Colin’s icy clothing. “I’ll wrap him in blankets,” she said. “Poor mite. Naomi, I think he needs the hospital.”
“The closest place from here is our house,” Naomi replied. “The hospital will take too long. He needs to warm up as quickly as possible.”
“I read somewhere,” Willie said, “that when people were freezing, the best way to warm them was to get them skin to skin with someone who is already warm. Body heat. I could wrap us together in blankets, under my sweater, and warm him by my skin. Should I?”
“Yes, do,” Naomi said firmly. “Thank you. And rub his hands and feet. I’m afraid he has them frostbitten already. He has been outside for hours. Why was he there, do you know? Is he injured?”
“Something is wrong with his ankle. It’s swollen and kind-a looking the wrong way. Sprain, maybe,” Willie said. Then she squealed loudly. “Gods, he is cold!”
“Or dislocation,” Naomi muttered.
By the time they reached home, Colin still couldn’t talk, although his shaking seemed to be lessening. Willie carried him inside, stripped everything but his briefs from him, and deposited his thin body in her bath tube. “Hot water, right?”
“Yes. Could you get in with him. Keep rubbing him. Skin to skin is a wonderful idea. I’ll look at his ankle as soon as I call his dad.”
“Can you fix his ankle?” Willie started filling the bath, and Colin wriggled like a fish to get as much of himself as he could under the stream of hot water.
“If it is not broken, yes,” Naomi said.
“Thank you,” Maynard whispered, when Naomi telephoned him with her news. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
By the time he did get to their house, Colin was finally warm and asleep in Naomi’s bed, with several blankets piled on top of him. Before he dozed off, Naomi heated up milk, added some brandy, and made him drink the concoction.
He had some trouble talking, his throat obviously raw, but he told her that her guess about the movie was essentially correct. “It was Baryshnikov,” he rasped, then coughed and sipped some more of the fiery, brandy-laced milk. His thin fingers were red and wrinkled from the long hot bath, but he held his cup in a dead grip.
“I’ve wanted to see him for so long. And then I slipped and fell and couldn’t walk. And everybody in the arcade was already gone. They all left through the back doors. I thought someone would pass the street, and I could ask for help, but nobody did. And then the wind got so bad.”
“What about your phone? Why didn’t you call your dad?”
“I forgot to charge it yesterday,” he said. “It died. Did Willie find my CD with Baryshnikov?”
“Oh, Colin.” Naomi shook her head. “No, Willie didn’t find your movie. She didn’t look for it. It would probably still be there when the store reopens after Christmas. Sleep, Colin.”
“Uh-uh,” he said and closed his eyes.
Chapter 8: Christmas
Maynard looked pale and haggard when he finally showed up at the door. “How is he?”
“Asleep. Come in.” Naomi took him upstairs to see Colin, but the boy was out in his cozy cocoon of blankets. His cheeks were rosy, and sweat beaded on his forehead—the only part of him visible above the duvets.
“Should he be under so many covers?” Maynard asked doubtfully. “He looks hot.”
“Good,” Naomi said. “He should be hot after almost freezing. If he sweats through the night, he might get off lightly and not develop pneumonia from his long exposure. But you should check with his doctor tomorrow anyway, just in case.”
Maynard nodded thoughtfully. “Of course. I’ll take him home now.” He stepped towards the bed.
“Don’t,” Naomi said. “Don’t take him back outside now. Let him sleep here till morning.” She hesitated before adding, “You can stay here too. You look knackered and almost as frozen as Colin was. You need to rest too. The bed is wide enough for both of you.”
Maynard glanced around the room. “It’s your room,” he said.
“Yes.” Naomi smiled. “I’ll sleep with Miranda tonight. We’re both small. We easily fit together into her bed.”
“Maybe.” He sighed, his expression apologetic. “I really don’t have the energy to go anywhere right now. I was driving for hours. It’s already midnight.”
“Come downstairs for a moment.” Naomi beckoned. “I’ll make you hot milk with brandy. It’ll warm you up good. It helped Colin. My grandmother’s remedy; works like a charm.”
He chuckled as her followed her to the kitchen. “Thank you. I owe you so much. Tell me how you found him.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Naomi said. “Sit down.” She warmed the milk for him and told him about their adventure. She added a rather larger portion of brandy into his glass than went into Colin’s.
“So where is that girl, Willie?” he asked between his sips. “I want to thank her too.”
“Asleep. They’re both asleep. I just stayed up to let you in. You can thank her in the morning.” Naomi took a big bowl full of cookies out of the cupboard. “Take a cookie,” she offered. “The girls baked this afternoon.”
The next morning, the Christmas day, was sunny. The snow had stopped during the night, and everything behind the windows sparkled like white fairyland.
Colin was downstairs first, before his father appeared. “You have a tree, Miss Peterson!” he exclaimed with a wide grin. His eyes shined. “With all the ornaments.”
“Good morning to you too,” Naomi said. “Come have breakfast with us.”
Both girls were already eating the hot oatmeal, and Colin slid on the bench beside Miranda.
“How are you this morning?” Naomi ladled the oatmeal into a bowl and set it in front of him. “Where is your dad?”
“Sleeping.” Colin tucked into his food. “Mmm, good,” he said. “How come we never have oatmeal for breakfast?”
“Maybe because you don’t have Miranda,” Naomi suggested and winked to the little half-elf. “She is the designated cook in this house.”
Miranda beamed but stayed quiet. She was too busy eating. Naomi settled on the bench next to Willie and started on her own oatmeal. Laced with honey and cranberries, it was delicious.
“You have gifts too,” Colin said, eyeing the wrapped boxes under their tree with undisguised interest.
“Don’t you?” Miranda couldn’t keep silent anymore.
“No. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Why? Are you Jewish?” Naomi asked. “My Jewish friends on Earth don’t celebrate Christmas either.”
“No,” Colin said. “My dad wants to be like the elves. He said it is political, and they don’t have Christmas.” He stuffed his mouth with more oatmeal. “I wish…” He didn’t finish the sentence but took a huge bite of his toast instead, as if he needed his mouth full of food, so he wouldn’t say what he shouldn’t.
Miranda didn’t have the same inhibitions. “That sucks,” she declared. “I love Christmas, and I’m half-elf.”
“Yeah,” he said and grabbed the second toast.
Naomi and Willie exchanged glances. “You can stay with us today,” Naomi said. “We have turkey for dinner, and nobody but us three to eat it. Miranda even made Napoleon yesterday. And I have a gift for you too.”
“You do?” His eyes filled with so much hope, she wanted to hug him and hold tight.
“You’re spoiling him,” Maynard said from the upstairs landing. He came unhurriedly down the stairs, his lips stretching in a faint smile. His eyes drank in his son. Colin, oblivious to his father’s attention, licked his spoon and pushed the empty bowl away.
“Come, dad,” he invited, and picked up a slice of orange from a platter in the middle of the table. “They have the best oatmeal in the world.”
Maynard laughed silently. “You’re Willie,” he said as he stopped behind his son and inclined his head gravely towards Willie. “Thank you for what you did for my son yesterday.”
“That’s okay,” Willie mumbled. “I didn’t do anything, really. Just drove around with Naomi.” She squirmed uncomfortably beneath his heavy regard and elbowed Naomi. “I’m done. I need to get out.”
Naomi let her squeeze past her, and Willie fled the kitchen. Maynard followed her with his eyes. Then his gaze met Naomi’s briefly, before sliding towards Colin again. She expected some loaded questions about Willie, but Maynard didn’t ask anything. “I’m ready for the best oatmeal in the world,” he announced instead. “I can serve myself, you don’t have to get up,” he added, when Naomi started to rise. “Where could I get a bowl?”
He refrained from asking Willie anything during the day he spent with them. He was the perfect guest, joked and told stories, made them all laugh, and sincerely admired Naomi’s gift to Colin—an enlarged photo of the boy’s dancing she had taken during their recital.
“I thought he would be scary,” Miranda said, after Maynard’s car pulled away from their drive later in the afternoon. “He was so nice and funny. I like him.”
Willie wasn’t so sanguine. “I think he knows who I am.”
“I think so too,” Naomi said. “He is very smart. But I don’t think he’ll give you trouble. He feels indebted to you for Colin.”
“But I really didn’t do anything,” Willie objected. “He might rethink his gratitude. I should move away.” But she didn’t have a place to go, so she stayed and fretted.
Two days later, Maynard called Naomi and asked her to meet him at a coffee shop alone.
“I’ll pack,” Willie said grimly.
Naomi didn’t know how to reassure the girl. She felt uneasy herself, but her intuition told her Maynard presented no danger to her or her roommates.
“Mr. Maynard. How is Colin?” she asked as she seated herself across from him in a small, dimly lit coffee shop, her coffee and muffin in front of her like stage props. She took a sip.
He nodded gravely. “He is okay. He did develop some cold, but the doctor said his lungs are clear. Thanks to you and your friend.”
“No. We didn’t do anything special.” Naomi shook her head. Should she use his gratitude to help Willie? She wasn’t sure how to breach the subject, when he beat her to it.
“I was thinking about what you said the other day, after the recital.” He picked up his pastry, looked at it, and put it back down on his plate. He picked up his coffee mug and put it down without drinking. “You might be right about the law in general, but I’m not at liberty to change the law in this city. On this planet, actually. I’m trying to keep humans safe here, and it requires me to… make tough decisions. Occasionally, I can… cross the line, but not often, you understand.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but her mind went blank. No words emerged. She had only known the man for a few weeks, and she had already corrupted him into bending the rules. She nodded mutely.
He pushed a thin file folder towards her across the table. “I have a lady handling the citizenship applications at the office. She is leaving Elfhome the next Shutdown, on the 29th, the day after tomorrow. Her replacement is arriving on the same day, but she won’t be in the office until after the New Year. There is a several-days window when I can slip in an application without the proper checks.”
He swallowed, and red flags bloomed on his cheeks, but he didn’t look away. Breaking the law he had been sworn to uphold didn’t come easy for him, and Naomi didn’t know how to make him feel better. He tapped the folder with his finger.
“This is a citizenship application. If you know how to reach that girl we talked about, have her fill in the application and get it to me as soon as you can. I’ll put it inside the computer, after my citizenship manager leaves Elfhome. Her replacement will process it, as normal, and no one but you and me will know. But it’s a one-time deal.”
“Of course. Thank you,” Naomi whispered. She felt guilty. She didn’t want this man struggling with his principles, but she didn’t want Willie getting deported either. She took the file.
“I also wanted to ask you if you had any plans for the New Year Eve. We have a party at the EIA headquarters. It starts at five on the New Year Eve. If you don’t have other plans, would you come?”
Naomi’s brows lifted in surprise. He was inviting her to a party?
“Of course, you can bring a date,” he hurriedly went on. “But no children. You can bring your elf friend. There will be other elves there.”
“My elf friend left for the Easternlands,” Naomi snarled. She was still peeved with Falcon for leaving her just before the holidays. At least he had stayed for the recital, so her dances with him didn’t collapse for the lack of a partner. “I’ve only been here since September. I don’t know many people, except my students’ parents.” She smiled self-deprecatingly. Her next boyfriend would definitely be human. No more gorgeous sekasha elves who would leave her without an advance warning.
“Oh,” Maynard said faintly. His eyes gleamed. “Then I could be your date for the party. Right? If the position is vacant.”
Naomi leaned on the back of her chair and studied him with a sudden absorption. The guy was hitting on her. He was as old as her father, but extremely well-preserved. Trim. Smart. Very good-looking. Powerful. He just made her a precious gift of Willie’s citizenship. He loved his son. Why not? She wouldn’t mind getting to know him better.
She allowed herself a small, flirty smile. “I’d be delighted to be your date for the party,” she purred. “Will there be dancing?”
“Of course,” he said. “No New Year party could be complete without dancing. Could I have a waltz with you?”
“Yes.” Naomi beamed.