Fabric gleamed in the flickering candle flame. Shadows danced on the cave walls. Blush pink ribbons slid through her fingers—soft and smooth. Once, before her mother died, she had stroked a m’retta with fur like this.
“What are these?” Entranced, Choli held out her find to the man who sat cross-legged in the corner, who had watched without speaking while she rummaged through his few possessions. Tall and slender, dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned, austere in his charcoal robe, he looked like the men of her world. But no man of her world would have tolerated her presence, never mind giving her free run of his home. This one sat, still as the rocks at his back, hands folded like a scholar or a priest. Or so they said, the people of the caves.
Choli wondered how they knew. Scholars were rare among the Kazrati. In her thirteen years, she had not met a single one. Priests were not so rare, but they were intimidating. Danion, of course, was not Kazrati, although he appeared to be.
His deep, cool voice answered the question she had almost forgotten asking. “They are shoes.”
A lock of straight dark hair fell into Choli’s eyes as she squinted at the shoes. Restless hands pressed them, prodded them. The uppers were soft, the soles like blocks of wood in her palms. “They’re so hard. Who wears shoes like that? Are they yours?”
“Not mine.” The man before her did not smile; he seldom smiled. Still, a note of something that might have been amusement tinged his voice.
“Ballerinas wear them, so they can stand on their toes, like this.” He took one shoe from her and stood it on its toe, balancing it with a long slim finger, then handed it back. “As you see, that one is not new.”
Examining it more closely, Choli saw he was right. Someone had scraped satin off the toe, scored the sole with a knife, sprayed the front with varnish. The ballerina, she assumed. Whatever that might be. She asked.“A human dancer,” Danion said. “Usually, anyway. Not necessarily human.” He flicked the shoe. “It is difficult to dance on your toes. The shoes must be just right—not too hard, not too soft. They prepare a dozen pairs at once, wear each one for a single performance, then throw them out.”
“I have never seen a ballerina.” Under the pressure of her hands, the shoes became more malleable: warm, flexible, alive. What would it be like—to dance on her toes? “These were not thrown out.”
“No,” Danion said. “Because she cannot wear them again, the ballerina sometimes gives them away, to mark a special performance. That is how they came to me.”
As though they had a will of their own, the shoes turned in her grasp, ribbons spilling toward the floor. Anxious, she leaped to catch them, but Danion stopped her with a touch. “It’s all right, Choli.”
Someone had written on the pink satin, flowing passages of Tarkei script. Choli put her head on one side and pondered. Would Danion be angry if she asked what they meant? But he was teaching her to read, so perhaps he would not mind.
She held out the shoe with the writing on it. “What does it say?”
In the candle flame, garnet flashed in one diamond-shaped ear. Danion reached for the shoe. He did not look at it, but his long fingers encircled the satin, caressing it. With his thumb, he pressed the heel inward, winding the ribbons into a neat circle around the arch. “Come here,” he said. When she stood beside him, he pointed the letters out to her, one by one.
“‘For thee, kaleita,’” she read, “‘may the stars always smile.’ I can’t read the rest. It’s not Tarkei.”
Choli looked at her mentor, eyes wide. “Who wrote it?” Then, considering what he had taught her, “Stars don’t smile.”
For an instant, she was sure, his lips curved. “Not literally,” he said. “But life is not always literal, my child, even on Tarkei. The shoes were given to me, long ago, by a great ballerina. Some say the greatest ballerina of the century.”
“Really? But who was she?”
“Her name was Alessandra Sinclair. That is her signature, the part you can’t read.”
Alessandra Sinclair. A name like music. A human name. And Danion sounded sad, more sad than she had ever imagined he might feel.The child stared at this teacher who never failed to surprise her. “And you knew her? But how?”