The time has come, my gentle one,

To save our planet's rings.

With shoes and ships and Shimmer songs

With cabbages and kings

Why are the seas so boiling hot?

What makes the crystals sing?

Chapter 1

I squeeze Willen's hand and plead in a quiet whisper, "Let's go. There's nothing for us here." I want to slink away, unnoticed.

"Patience, Nishka," he says using his pet name for me. He twirls his pageboy cap in his other hand. "We have as much right to be here as anybody else."

I want to scream, "No, we don't," but I bite my tongue. Willen wasted a penny on one of those underground newsletters again - The Friend of the People or something like that. On the outside, he's calm. Yet, on the inside, his thoughts are twisted with revolutionary ideas. We all share the equal right to be stupid. One day short of my twelfth birthday, my Celot, I can't get arrested. Willen would be detained for expressing such treasonous ideas. I'm more concerned with right and left than right and wrong, and my right is a mess.

I am Nelissan Chanter. The youngest child and only daughter of the failed, less than famous inventor, Agustin Chanter, who now plies his skills at toys. Born under the scintillating glow of the Vernal Shimmer, I am a Shimmer Child, a child of luck and fortune, blessed thrice times thrice. That's what they say, but I don't see it.

Three of those blessings are supposed to be knowledge, wisdom, and grace. I have none of those things – least of all, grace.

Let me get this straight, right off – I don't want your pity. I'm not some stupid cripple begging in the street. You're no better than me just because you wear fancy shoes and walk without a limp. I hate that pathetic glance that makes me think I'm a side show novelty – a two-headed guinea hen or a bearded lady. I don't want you to sympathize because you once had a hang nail.

I'm not even sure why we're here in this shoe shop bursting with highbrow northies. My mind races through half a dozen scenarios, all ending with them laughing at me or, worse yet, pitying me. My fingers are comforted by Willen's strong, callused hands, but all I can feel are stares of disdain. Their noses held high above the stench of those born south of the Mesmer. Wellborns with faith so shallow, they believe paradise can be purchased with a deathbed donation and a new pair of shoes.

They say, the Shimmer is the day that brings our land closest to the heavens. The peak of Mount Solitary is said to join with them. Many have claimed to hear the hymns of angels. Others say that they speak with the prophetess or the Most High himself.

That is what will happen to me. The Most High will speak to me. It is my birthright. I have prayed for His guidance since my Celot minor. Either He or His messenger will speak to me. I am so different than everyone else. I want to know why. I deserve that knowledge.

I will ascend Mt. Solitary and ask all of those unanswered questions. How can I be special because of an accident of birth? What does my mother think of me? And, why is my hair such a puke green color?

First, I need some decent shoes. You can't climb a mountain or a destiny with a ratty old pair of hand-me-downs.

The small shoemaker shop is in the trade section of town, only just across the river, but it could be a foreign land. My brother Willen and I look completely out of place.

We're not poor, mind you. Willen and Benjen have decent jobs at Kimberling Garmentworks. Between them and my father's toys, they earn enough to buy food and pay our Tennantmaster. It's a comfortable narrow rowhome on Pollisus Hill. Well-insulated and dry, even during the spring thaw, with a coal burning stove. Three stories plus an attic. Nothing fancy, nothing like this shop.

Strongly scented candles fail to chase away odors of damp leather and rubber cement. Wall displays glisten with shiny patent leathers of red, black, and green. Bursting with well dressed, preholiday shoppers, several of the patrons stare at Willen and me for much longer than should be considered polite. Excited for the holiday, two giggling young girls, dressed in lacy pink dresses chase each other around the store while their mother ignores them. Despite their best efforts at removing shoes from the wall and hiding them all over the shop, the store is immaculate.

Willen pretends to study the variety of men's shoes, as though he belongs, but he saves a few glances for the you saleswoman finding and replacing the wayward shoes. She smiles in return and Willen glances away. Her long, flowing auburn hair held in a simple pony tail with a silver clasp. She is graceful – the epitome of a Shimmer Child. Willen's mundane tan work shirt and pants look as out of place as I do in my coveralls.

I fiddle with my hat flap and make sure that all of my hair is tucked safely underneath. We already stand out more than we should. I can stomach laughter and mockery. I'm used to those. I dread that look of pity.

A salesgirl, not much older than I, with blonde ringlets and a long dress with a yellow floral print completes the sale. The customer takes three shoe boxes and the two calamitous toddlers, leaving the store a much quieter place.

Another customer, a haughty old dowager, does not even try to mask her contempt at us. She glares at Willen when he bumps into her wide brim hat. He stumbles and knocks over her lacy, white parasol next to her chair. He leans down to retrieve it and bumps her brim a second time. "Don't touch it," she says.

Please, please be more careful, Willen, I think to myself. I want to cry for him. My stomach churns with worry. I hate it here.

"Forgive me," Willen says. She grimaces, unable to find any kind words in return.

A chestnut haired youth with a round, pudgy face and soft chin stops lacing up her gaudy boots with large hooks. He jumps up, and recovers the parasol.

I don't get it. I mean, seriously … why does she need both a bonnet and a parasol? That's just flaunting her wealth.

"Let's just leave," I whisper. Willen shakes his head.

I move to a wall with scads of women's shoe samples and leather swatches. There is nothing here. Mount Solitary is said to be a rigorous climb. I can't find a single, practical, wearable shoe. Instead the wall is filled with garbage. Fancy shoes, with heels, wedges, and intricate patterns and frill. Shoes which have no place on the mountain or in the muddied streets of South Mesmer. Some with as much as six inches of sole and others with practically none. And this is supposed to be one of the finest shoemaker in all of Empyrean.

"Excuse me. May I help you?" It's the salesperson with the tight, blonde ringlets. She wears a wooden badge with the name, "Delcine." She can't be much older than I am, but she wears a gold ring on her largest finger. She's reached her Celot major.

I panic with my voice trapped by fear. Finally, I manage to croak out, "Where are all of the good shoes?"

"These are the best shoes we have." She has a gap between her enormous front teeth that whistle when she says the letter S. "Would this be a Shimmer gift for your mother?" she asks in a lofty voice as though she can't wait for me to leave so that she can attend wealthier customers.

"No," I say. I try not to be irritated. She has no idea that I don't have a mother. "It's for me."

"Oh, in that case, the boys' shoes are over here." She places her hand on my shoulder and trying to steer me to the other side.

"I'm not a boy!" I say growing irritated at her pretty dress and huge, fluttering eye lashes. They're like whips they move so fast. I wonder if she invented the term whiplash.

"Oh, okay then," she says, with a practiced, crestfallen stare at the ground. After a measured pause for regret, she recovers elegantly and says, "Why don't you take this seat here?" She points to a wood chair across from the lady's shoes. "I'll measure you up."

My stomach lurches. I sit in the padded, sturdy wooden chair that she suggests for me and hold out my left foot. "I'm Delcine," she continues as though I can't read.

I don't offer my name in exchange. I don't ever want these northies to know anything about me. I hold out my left foot. She unlaces the shoe and gently removes it revealing my thin linen sock, darned within an inch of its life. "It's a hand-me-down, from my brother," I say in a way to explain why it is so loose.

She nods and motions me to stand. She grabs a wooden caliper with one fixed end and one adjustable. She slides it to touch my toes. "That's a pretty outfit you're wearing," she says. "So … uh … earthy."

I snort and shake my head. There is no way that Delcine could ever find herself in a pair of canvas coveralls.

The other salesman helps the dowager to her feet. He's young, but well dressed in a starched, round collar white shirt nicer than Willen's Churchday best. He holds her hand while she teeters on those six inch heels.

"It's still not right, young man. They're not even."

"You've tried them on seven different times. They just take a little getting used to," the boy says.

"No, no. This will never work. My hips aren't in balance. Get your father." She dismisses him with a backhand swoosh. "I won't abide anything less than perfection."

"Yes, M'lady." He looks relieved like he had earned a well deserved break.

Delcine moves the calipers and measures the width of my foot. She records the results on a second sheet of paper. "You're a size six, just like me," she says. "I hope I don't grow beyond a size seven. I'd have to cut off my toes. She chuckles.

Why would she cut off her toes because of a shoe size? I don't understand these people.

The front door bell tinkles. A statuesque man enters the store wearing a shimmering emerald floor length coat and matching V-shaped cap.

"Good day, Lord Y'Ustem," the pony-tailed saleswoman says. "Your boots are ready." She pulls a set of cordovan ankle boots from beneath the counter. "Would you like to try them on?"

"Thank you, Serina. That won't be necessary."He doffs his cap. "I must remain steadfast in my quest to complete Lady Y'Ustem's task list for the holiday. I have seven stops remaining."

When the light strikes his deep olive cheeks they glitter as though they are made of purple crystals. He's from Umvaria. The nation we defeated in the brutal Battle of Ramyde. Several thousand of his countrymen have settled in the city since the war. Many have become residents in the poorest parts of the tenant district southside, the low district which floods every year in the spring thaw. I haven't seen any so wealthy as Lord Y'Ustem.

Y'Ustem fishes out his purse and removes a few coins. He makes small talk by adding, "Are you planning anything special for Shimmer's Eve?"

"We've been invited to the Kimberling's," she says.

I glance over at Willen. That got his attention. He has worked at Kimberlings since his Celot. I doubt the Kimberlings thought to invite him to their Shimmer's Eve Fest.

"The Shimmer often turns young hearts to love," Y'Ustem says. "I hear Rydolf has plans to announce a betrothal." Serina smiles gracefully. "I'm sure you will have a marvelous time. Give my regards to Lord Rudyard." He turns and nods to the dowager lady.

As soon as he opens the door to leave, the old bitty whispers "barbarian" loud enough for all of to hear. The word hangs in the air longer than the bell's ting. We're saved when Mr. Shoemaker enters from the back. He removes his apron and places it on the front desk.

"Lady Vandenhalt," he says rubbing his hands together, "what seems to be the problem?"

"Vandenhalt," I whisper. "Is that the Lady Vandenhalt?"

Lady Essa Vandenhalt is the wealthiest person in all of Empyrean and a member of the Triumvirate, the three-member council who rules our great nation.

"No," Delcine says in her own whisper. "That is a Lady Vandenhalt … Litscha Vandenhalt, Essa's cousin. In truth, she's not even that. She is Essa's deceased husband's cousin." Delcine rolls her eyes and reaches for my right foot.

I jerk my foot away. "Wait, what are you doing?" I ask.

"I'm measuring your other foot," she says.

"Willen?" I whisper with doubt. My skin turns cold. I shut my eyes. I want to leave now. Run, I command myself. I steady my voice for Delcine, "Why do you need to measure my right foot?"

"Most people have one foot larger than the other," she says. "I need to make sure I have the right size for you."

"Willen?" I scan around the store before I locate him. He walks over and places his hand on my shoulder. "I don't need you to measure my right foot," I say firmly. "I'm sure my left is the larger foot."

"It's no trouble to measure," Delcine says. She reaches for my foot again. Tied with a long piece of twine, my mid-foot bulges out.

Willen places his hand on my shoulder and whispers in my ear. "Nishka, this is why we're here. She needs to do her job."

"Yes, Nishka. It's my job," Delcine says as though my brother's words confirm her authority over my foot.

"My name is Nelissan," I insist. "Only Willen calls me Nishka."

Delcine shrugs and removes the shoe, revealing a thick woolen stocking which I use to pad the extra space. "It's no wonder this shoe is so tight," she says. "You shouldn't use such a thick sock." I swallow dry sit and lick my lips. My stomach is tied in knots.

My right foot is a secret, like all of my secrets. I don't like to share them. I stare around and notice Mr. Shoemaker leading a wobbly Lady Vandenhalt. He's not being as gentle or as careful as the youth was, but she is not complaining. The heels and hat make her tower over everyone else. I imagine her falling like the north tower cased in ice. I would like to see that. I catch the young salesman's grin and I believe he might be wishing for the same thing.

Delcine slowly works of my wool sock, reveals a hooked foot and scabs all with way down the outside of my foot and on the top of my toes. She blinks her eyes a few time hoping they will adjust. The she says, "Whoa. That's weird." She leans back on her heels. "Serina, I don't know what to do here? She has a claw."

Willen squeezes my shoulder with his hand. "It's not a claw," I say angrily. Sure, my foot is unusual, but it's no claw.

"Oh, you poor dear," Lady Vandenhalt says.

I grit my teeth. I don't need her pity. She has a huge, ugly wart on her nose. That's handicap "Let's go, Willen."

Serina walks over and kneels on the floor in front of me. "It's all right, Sweetie. We'll take care of you." She takes my foot in her hand and rubs her hands over the scabs. Her touch is warm and gentle. "You have the deepest green eyes I've ever seen."

"Thank you." I feel my face growing warm. "At least you didn't compliment my earthy coveralls."

Serina darts a glance at her sister. "You should treat those sores before they become scars. We have some salve you can use. Do you have flexibility in the ankle or is it rigid?"

"I don't know," I say. She nods and starts rolling my ankle around, testing its flexibility.

The doorbell tinkles again and a little boy in a white suit comes running in. "Hey, Nana. Are you ready?" he says. He runs up to Lady Vandenhalt and plows into her, wrapping his arms around her thighs.

Lady Vandenhalt tries to direct her fall into the nearest seat where she lands awkwardly. "My, my, dear child," she plays her hand on her chest. "You must be more careful. You could have killed me."

Another, younger woman with a sharp, rigid nose and a chartreuse Shimmer's Eve hat cocked at a sharp angle with a large white pirate feather enters behind the child. "Chop, chop. " She claps her hands together. "Times a wasting. Have you been keeping poor Trindle busy the entire time we were gone?"

The boy looks around the store until his glance freezes on my foot. "What da heck?" he says. I jerk my foot away from Serina and hide it under the chair.

"I don't mind," Trindle says. He collects Lady Vandenhalt's shoes them from beneath her chair and holds them out.

"The coach is waiting," she says. "We are expected soon at Aunt Essa's."

"Oh, all right," Lady Vandenhalt mutters. "I'll wear these out. You can put those old shoes in the bag."

Trindle heads behind the shelves to find a box and record the sale.

Lady Vandenhalt pays with a few coins. When she leaves, an elder man in a solid black uniform holds the door and collects the package.

As soon as she's gone, Serina smiles and says, "Trindle, could you lock the door for us? Lady Litscha can be very trying."

"Should we go?" Willen asks. Serina shakes her head and recovers my foot and continues to roll my ankle.

Delcine plops down on the seat next to me and frames her eyes with a V sign with both hands, "Lady V." She giggles. "Better watch out. I think she likes you Trindle."

"Shut up," Trindle says. He wanders behind the front desk and pulls out a glass of water. He finds a powder wrapped in wax paper and swallows it along with water. "I can't believe she has nothing better to do than pester me. "

My range of motion is increasing and my foot is getting warm. Serina pushes on my toes. For the first time, I can feel them. Beads of perspiration form on her forehead. With the quiet, Serina says to Willen, "She needs to flex her foot like this every day. "Would you like to try it?"

Willen nods his head and kneels on the ground next to her. He bends my toes back with his callused hands. It feels good, but it is not the same flex as Serina.

"You almost have it," Serina says. "Bend her entire foot, not just the toes."

Mr. Shoemaker returns from the back shop to the main showroom. All three of his children stiffen. Even Serina looks like she's kneeling at attention. "Trindle, could you attend me for a moment?"

"Sure," Trindle jogs into the back room.

Serina places her hand over top of Willen's and helps him push. "I think I'm getting it," Willen says.

"Yes, that's it." Serina stands up and presses her hands together. "Is she your daughter?"

"No," Willen laughs. "She's just a little urchin I found in the sewer."

"He's my brother," I say.

"I don't suppose you two can afford to pay for a good pair of shoes," Serina says.

"I … I," Willen stutters, "I've saved up twenty farthings." He pauses knowing it is not enough. A farthing is a fourth of a penny. He has five cents. "How much will it be?"

Serina sighs, "Normally, we charge around two and a half silvies."

Our coinage, minted by the triumvirate, is based on forties. It takes forty copper farthings to make one silver and forty silvers to make one gold sovereign. Two and a half silvies, that's a hundred farthings. I doubt Willen can find that much money.

"I can pay you the twenty now," Willen says, "and owe you the rest."

Delcine chimes in. "We take half down, but we don't let you take the shoes until it is paid in full."

There's a moment of silence where nobody knows who will speak next. I stare at Willen, embarrassed, he studies the floor. "Nishka, I'm sorry," he says. He dons his hat. "I put you through all of this for nothing. We can try again next year."

"It's just shoes," I say. But I'm disappointed, too. My foot feels alive from the first movement in years. I'm almost too frightened to put weight on it. I reach for my wool sock.

Serina grabs the sock from my hand. "Twenty farthings," She says. "That's the price. It will almost cover the cost of materials. Delcine, would you get the casting kit?"

"We don't need the charity," Willen says.

"It's not charity," Serina says. "You're paying twenty farthings … and something else. You will owe me a favor … " she looks at my face and caresses my cheek, "or something to make up the difference. They will take about a week for me to make them."

After a moment of joy I realize that her kindness won't help at all. "I need them tomorrow," I say.

"Tomorrow?" Delcine chuckles while returning with a bucket of materials. "It's Shimmer's Eve. You can't expect her to work all night."

"Don't be pushy," Willen commands. "The Shimmer comes twice a year."

"Why do you need them tomorrow?" Serina asks.

"It's my Celot Major," I say.

Serina brightens up with a big smile. "A Shimmer Child? Thrice blessed thrice. Were you born during the shimmer shine?"

"Yes," I say. "And I'm going to climb Mount Solitary. "

"Oh, dear," Serina says. "That's a tough climb for most people. It might be nigh impossible for you."

"I'll do it barefoot, if I have to."

"I believe you would," Serina says. "All right tomorrow it is then. I'll work all night."

"No, you can't," Delcine says. She has both hands out in exaggerated protest. "We're supposed to be at Kimberling's by the first bell of Vespers."

"I guess I'll miss it," Serina says. "Enjoy yourself. I'm sure the Kimberlings will survive without me."

Trindle returns to the showroom with a big welt rising on his neck behind his ear. I never even heard him cry out. He carries a pail with a few rags draped over his arm.

"Serina," Mr. Shoemaker's voice bellows from doorway into the back. Serina backs away from my foot.

"Delcine, would you get Nelissan started?" Serina rose and Delcine replaces Willen at my foot. She fishes through the pail for a small piece of wood and places it under my heel.

Delcine fishes behind the counter for a leather apron. When she returns, she looks at Trindle, points to her neck, and mouths, "What happened?"

Trindle shrugs. "I ordered a fill of cobbler nails this morning. Benton's hardware raised their prices. It's my fault that I could not negotiate a lower price."

"That's terrible," I say.

Serina's voice could be heard from booming from the back, "I'm not attending the Shimmer's Eve fest tonight, if it's all the same to you." We could hear everything.

"It's not all the same to me," the father said. "Rydolf will be insulted by your absence."

"She shouldn't do that," Delcine whispers. "Rydolf is so handsome …" Delcine cocks her eye. "… and rich. She is lucky to have his attention."

There was a moment of quiet before Serina replied. Her voice shook at the start, but became more confident. "Since I was a child, you taught me that shoes are important. They are the foundation for the entire body. Those were your words. I never once believed that, until now. I can help this child walk and I intend to do that."

The rest of us were quiet in the showroom. Willen squeezed my shoulder so tight it almost hurt.

"Don't use my words against," their father says. "That should tell you the importance of this social occasion."

"A party?" Serina chuckled. "More important that helping someone? If Rydolf cares about anything beyond his beloved sails, then he would want me to help this child."

"You wanted this," the father says. "You were looking for an excuse to escape this party."

They heard a loud slap and nothing more. Serina returned holding her chin. "Let's get started then," she says. "Delcine, you can start the casting. Cast it with a one inch wedge."

Serina wipes a tear off her cheek and kneels down next to Delcine. She lifts my foot up and smoothes out the bottom of the rag before she returns it to the block of wood. "This is going to take a good hour to dry. Try to be patient with us. Trindle, why don't you get started making the left shoe? Make the ankle boot with clasps."

Trindle nods, but doesn't leave yet. "You're climbing Mount Solitary?" he asks.

"Uh huh," I say.

"Tomorrow morning?"

I'm waiting for him to mock the idea. Most people south of the river follow the Solitaries. We're expected to make a pilgrimage to the top once in our lifetime. Followers often never complete the pilgrimage before their death. Those north of the Mesmer tend to follow the Foundation led by the Grand Pretorius. They find comfort in the rituals. Technically we are the same religion, but with different emphasis.

"Yes," I say. "I want to reach the pinnacle by the first hint of Shimmer."

He nods his head slowly, "Do you mind if I join you? I'd like to see the top."

"Really?" I say brightening into a big smile. I barely believe he is serious. "Why do you do this? You guys are so nice. I thought you would be snooty."

"Delcine is snooty," Trindle says.

"No, I'm not," Delcine says. She has wrapped a rag around my foot and ankle. She spread a gooey, white paste across it, carefree as a child playing in the mud. She holds up her goo-covered hands and says, "I'm refined."

"Don't forget," Serina says to me. "You still owe me part of your payment."

"What's that?" I ask.

"You're hat," she says. "I'd like you to take off your hat."

I wrap both hands around my head and say, "My hat? Why?" It's another one of my secrets. This is a big day for that.

"It's just the payment I ask," she says.

"It's all right, Nishka. Do it quickly."

After a deep breath, I place my fingers on either ear flap and pull it off. The hairs crackle with static and stick up in every which direction.

"It's green," Delcine says. My hair is grayish green, almost as green as my eyes.

"I've never seen anyone with a shade like it," I say. It looks like an asparagus.

Serina chuckles. "It's beautiful. You are crowned with a tiny fragment of the Shimmer. I feel blessed that you trusted us."

I'm not so sure. Tomorrow, at the top of Mount Solitary, I will ask.