The dance finished with a flourish as the musicians gave one last triumphant exclamation point to the masterful performance. The dancer posed, twin rings held up, one over her face, the other over her belly. Shae understood now how people might think a person was an avatar of some higher being – the woman defined grace, strength, and power while at the same time being the most beautiful person she had ever seen.
It was unfair, really, but Shae could not find in herself the ability to be jealous. The woman simply existed on a different plane – a rock cannot be jealous of a mountain, nor a lamp jealous of a star. She was the last of the crowd to turn away. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she imagined the woman’s voice would call out to her, would say…
Yes, just like that. She kept walking, glad no one could see the flush that crossed her face. As if the woman would be pursing her.
“You, Viera. Come here.”
Shae blinked and stopped. Perhaps it was not her imagination? She turned with deliberate pacing so she could wait as long as possible for her illusions to be shattered when she found no one there.
The paragon was there. Shae lost her breath at the improbability of it all. She nodded at the woman; her tongue was not to be trusted.
“You were watching pretty intently there, but I noticed you did not clap. Did you not like the performance?”
The flush returned in full force, this time in front of a witness. Shae’s tongue appeared to have given up trying to talk – it sat in a huff, stuck to the top of her suddenly-dry mouth. She fought to speak.
“I…no. I…was just…surprised?”
The woman arched a perfect eyebrow, a trick Shae had never been able to master. Yet more evidence of the woman’s perfection. “Surprised? By what?”
“I…” Shae gestured with feeble hands at the woman, at the rings, at the stage, at nothing at all in particular. “Um. Everything.”
“I…see. I am looking to hire more girls. You have a unique look – we don’t see many of your kind in the outside world. Interested in learning?”
There are moments in a person’s life when a decision comes that will shape their destiny, shape who they are for the rest of their days. For good or ill. This was one of those days for Shae, one that would fuel pain and regret, sorrow and loss, the very last vestiges of her childish innocence – but also the stir the embers of what she would one day become. It began that moment, when she though about Alfrond and how she had begged him to teach her to play music the way he did, and how she somehow felt indebted to him for saying yes, those four years ago, despite…well, everything that had followed.
And would not only continue, but escalate over the next twelve long years because, though her mouth tasted like bitter ash and bile and her heart shrank, she found herself shaking her head. “No. I have…other commitments. I’m…sorry.” She bit her lip and turned away as she felt tears begin to form, but not before she saw the woman’s eyes narrow.
“I see. Very well. My name is Sybilance. When you are ready, seek me out. I promise you this: you will never feel powerless again.”
Shae nodded but did not look back. Could not. Her feet moved her forward as if of their own volition; she felt as if they were marching her to her doom.