Chapter 1, part 2

In which Naj and Dev show their scales, and vows are made. 

Greetings, eija.”

Though stiff from neglect, Naj’s muscles fell into the discreet form of the dancer’s bow. He’d never seen her perform, but she must be the eija, the dancer who lead this nest. This place was hers, and she shaped it as surely and deftly as a careful gardener. He’d seen as much in his time up in the rafters. The fact that he had lingered here for so long How long- do you even know? without a confrontation spoke more of his unobtrusiveness than any carelessness on her part. But upon seeing her scales, he knew he must declare himself to her immediately, if he dared to claim any lingering shreds of his serpent heritage. It had been so long since he’d danced among kin…

He’d been wary of approaching this mixed group before, never once seeing any sign of scaled forms, though nods to the traditional serpent style were apparent everywhere. Naj had been doubtful of his place among such an odd collection of dancers, but if they were led by a serpent…

A dancer needed a nest, and a serpent needed a home that was warm and inviting, and Naj needed kinship to tie him to this world, to bring him back from the darkness.

It is just a step, half-forgotten from neglect. The dark voice in his head was strangely kind, building him up with gentle encouragement, instead of its usual biting remarks. Once the beat begins, you will sway to it again as naturally as breathing. Never mind that when he slept in il’m, the peaceful realm of The Whispering Dark, he would forget to breathe, as it became unnecessary. He would dance with Li’Daea now, with the goddess of Light, as a serpent was meant to. He would feel the fire again.

Her gray eyes narrowed when he spoke, his greeting not foreign to her ears, but long unheard. Her nose twitched slightly. It was faint over the scent of the crowd, but the tell-tale musk was apparent. Serpent.

That alone piqued her interest.

Most serpents tended to stay with their own kind, preserving culture and traditions in doing so. They made for skilled dancers, their grace and passion on the stage being legendary. They’d housed serpents in Asylum before, but the occasions were few and far between.

She wondered what had drawn him here. His movements and choice of words revealed he’d had dancer training, but almost all serpents did. Whether they pursued that life was another matter entirely. Was he here to join Asylum’s nest?

The club could use the excitement. As could the nest of dancers. Marie, especially, would be pleased if he chose to stay. The fox had a thing for reptiles for some reason.

Dev relaxed further as she took him in. His skin was pale, but looked as if with a bit of sun he would darken beautifully. His dark hair was only slightly messy, mostly slicked back from his face. He was clearly naturally slim of build, but even so he was currently painfully thin. His clothes hung loose on his frame as he moved. The lines of his face were strong, if a little too angular. When he filled out, his jaw and nose would be handsomely defined, rather than overwhelming his face as they did now. With work, his full lips would steal all the attention. The right make-up would make them irresistible on stage.

The eyes were worrisome, though. They were overly dark, their true color hidden in the dim light. While being deep set might give him a mysterious aura on the stage, with his current weight, they were positively sunken. They looked dull, lacking the serpent spark that was so sought after. A little rest and proper feeding though… He had great potential.

Hell knew she’d certainly seen worse. Asylum seemed to collect cases like his.

He didn’t seem like he was here to cause trouble, so she was willing to let Az’s demonstration go for now. If he were a dancer here on business, she wouldn’t let her personal matters affect their meeting.

First impressions and all that.

Greetings to you as well. What brings you to my club?”

Li’Daea’s will, I hope. And the call of the ki’n.”

The beating of the ki’n, the Fire Drums, was the dancer’s heartbeat. Though the modern forms of dance in this nest were unfamiliar to him, the heartbeat was the same, and the undercurrent of scales sang to him while he’d hidden in the rafters. He’d thought he’d imagined it, that his longing for his own kind was playing tricks on his heart, but after seeing the club owner’s own scales moments ago— It was now or never. He’d watched and waited long enough.

Naj held up a hand between them, presenting the back of it to her. The skin rippled, rusty red scales seeming to rise up from his flesh. The scales flashed and vanished almost as soon as he called them, chasing themselves up his arm to disappear under the sleeves of his dress shirt. He let a coating of them settle over his torso, more comfortable in the natural armor. It was a compromise. He couldn’t let himself hide in serpent form any longer, but this human body no longer felt quite like his. He was extremely pleased to see he could still call scales with such dexterity though, and hoped that his dance forms would return to him just as quickly.

She pursed her lips, unhappy with his display, brief as it was. Another glance told her that no one had seen, but there was only so much luck she was willing to trust. She repressed a sigh. He may look withdrawn, but that smile told her that he was pleased with his little demonstration. Definitely a serpent.

She had to admit though, her curiosity had been awoken. Crimson scales… She knew some vipers could bear red scales, almost always stained with fire magic… Hm. It was a rare enough sight, and beautiful enough, to certainly be a draw if he chose to dance here. And by his cryptic words, she suspected that was what he was angling for.

Let’s move our conversation somewhere more private then.” She turned, giving him a glance to ensure that he was following. When he took a step after her, she continued, leading him towards the back, to the side of the stage past the bar. There was a small resting room for the dancers, a place with couches, cushions, snacks and refreshments. There was a good chance it would be empty right now, with everyone bustling backstage in dressing rooms and watching for cues. Dev didn’t have a personal office at the club, something that hadn’t been a pressing issue until Nica had abandoned her post. If Dev was going to be expected to interview more prospective dancers, perhaps she would finally renovate the space into something more appropriate for an office.

When they reached the room, she unlocked the door and gestured for him to make himself comfortable. She closed the door behind her, cutting them off abruptly from the club, sound, energy and all. Maybe she’d redo the ward while she was at it – the sound proofing was well and good, but the aura block? No need to waste the energy if the hawk wasn’t insisting on it.

The room was primarily filled with sofas and cushions, but there was a long desk with a vanity mirror along one wall, and a small refrigerator tucked near a corner. It was decorated in rich, restful colors, a motif that carried in a massive portrait that hung above a long couch. It was full of dancers of various races and in all stages of dress, lounging, stretching, with a few even practicing the beginning steps of their dances.

Dev settled on a love seat, sweeping an arm over the back as she reclined.

It’s been a while since we’ve been graced with a serpent in our presence.”

He followed her without a word, falling easily back into the habit of taking orders. He stood at a casual attention when she draped herself on the couch. And then at her words, confusion set in.

Are you not serpent-kin? Forgive me, I saw your scales and in a dancers’ nest, I just assumed…” His eyes dropped, and only his formal posture kept him from fidgeting uncomfortably. He wasn’t off to a good start.

Pardon my rudeness, please. Apparently, I am so eager to be among my own kind…” He trailed off, floundering. He shook his head and gave a small bow, then settled cross-legged onto a cushion on the floor opposite his hostess. If he had nothing constructive to say, he would simply listen.

Her eyebrows rose and she offered the confused serpent a smile. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d been mistaken for his kind. She did hope that disappointment wouldn’t change his mind about joining the nest. Surely he didn’t think all her dancers were serpents… They were good, but they weren’t that good.

I’m sorry if my slip confused you, that was a mistake on my part.” It annoyed her that her gaffe had been noticed, but if there was anything a serpent would spot before anyone else, it would be scales. She gave him a careful look, trying to gauge his reaction to what she said next. On the floor he’d been downright reckless, but here he seemed more uncertain of himself. She didn’t want to be indelicate as a result of her annoyance. And what she was about to do could definitely tip the scales out of her favor.

The more she studied him, the more she saw the dull look in his eyes in a new light. He was flustered, yes, but there was an underlying calmness—almost listlessness–about him that made her bolder than she might have otherwise been. The lack of that typical serpent spark meant that he might think before he reacted. Besides, if he was there for a job… Well, this was something all her dancers had to become accustomed to eventually. And it wasn’t as if her nature was some sort of secret to the community.

A slight nod of warning and she let her true form slip to the surface. Her skin became almost translucent as the pearlescent scales slid out, showing blue and rose reflections of her blood pumping beneath. Her lips thinned slightly as two fangs dented them and she knew her eyes looked more like tempered steel around the snakelike slits of her pupils. Her ears pointed and two horns slid from her temples to curve back over the tips. She kept her tail tucked away for now, to save herself the annoyance of having to shift from her comfortable position to allow it room to grow.

Seth bristled as the demon revealed her true form. A demon’s nest, really? Of all the places for Aezir to have dropped Naj off – Never mind that. They were here now, and if Seth hadn’t felt any significant demonic activity before now, then she couldn’t be that much of a threat. Still, he’d tread carefully. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d misjudged things and had to relocate.

But maybe, just maybe, this time they’d be able to stay. A nest run by a demon… who were they to throw stones?

I’m demonkin.”

A blink and her form vanished beneath her human mask again. Dev didn’t usually indulge in such displays, but sometimes showing was the only way to be sure she got her point across. When he didn’t try to run screaming from the room, she continued.

But there’s no need to stand on ceremony with me. I try to keep things very informal here. Asylum is meant to give my dancers a safe place to live and perform.”

Naj’s eyes widened at her shift in appearance, but he willed himself to stay still. She was far from the first demon he’d ever seen. Or the worst. Yes, the viens were a little off-putting, but aside from that, and the horns, she looked serpent enough. Mostly.

As a serpent, however, what spoke to him more was her aura, the color of her emotions. She kept her aura clean and bright. Not leaning towards any feelings in particular, just a general, welcoming glow. As she spoke, he found himself smiling.

A safe place… Asylum, indeed.”

She tilted her head, eyeing the serpent before her. She’d been correct, aside from the slight widening of his eyes, he’d been unreactive. If a serpent had held a protest with what she was, the response would have been immediate and dramatic. A serpent never did anything quietly, if they did anything at all. She let the tension along her spine relax and sank further into the cushions. On to business then. He’d mentioned terms familiar to more traditional dancers, but had not made a formal declaration yet. “Speaking of which… Was it your intent to join our nest?”

Naj bowed his head in polite beseeching, not as formal as he could have been, but feeling soothed by falling back on familiar rote. “My lady demon, I am indeed in search of asylum, and I would very much like to make this place my home, if you’ll have someone like me.” He paused, wondering how much he should say. So much of his past was a mystery to him, but he did know for certain he was safe. Any survivors of the Ahn’Ki Dai would not come after a lowly serpent, any more than one would bother reclaiming the reeds of a basket that had come unwoven. He would bring no trouble down upon this house. That he could say with confidence.

Then say it, fool.

He leaned forward, so he could press one wrist to the ground in a solemn oath. Red scales coated his hand again, a little flare of magic passing between him and the earth. He didn’t know if it was a gesture still commonly recognized, but he treasured each tie that would bind him to the here and now, and a promise spoken to the earth he danced upon was very binding indeed.

I swear to you, you’ll have no trouble from me. I am not a danger to you and yours.”

He paused, and in a rare moment of humanity, laughed at himself.

The fact that I have to say that makes its validity seem all the more dubious, does it not?”

He smiled, and the light caught the mirthful glint in his dark eyes.

Her smile grew as she eyed him, watching his reactions carefully. He was entirely too formal, but some of the older generations tended to be that way. He seemed genuine in his relaxation, which surprised her, but pleased at the same time. He was older, no one under a century would give an oath like that, but he was grossly out of touch – either with himself or with the world around him, perhaps both.

It wasn’t unheard of for shifters to lose themselves during times of stress, whether in their animal form or in their innate magics. She took a mental note to let Kain know that he may need a period of acclimation before being introduced to some of the rowdier of the dancers. She didn’t want to delay his ascension to the stage longer than she had to, the club needed a boost of excitement if the size of tonight’s crowd was any indication.

I think we can handle any trouble you might or might not bring to the table…” It was true, no dancer thus far had brought more trouble than could be dealt with. It was her trouble that worried her. She wasn’t going to think about Az right now. If he threatened Asylum, she didn’t know what she would do. Or could do.

So she’d focus on what she could take care of now – introductions. Which reminded her…

I’m sorry, I seem to have skipped a step, while I introduced what I am, I neglected the who, didn’t I? I’m Devin. Though everyone here refers to me as Dev. You’re welcome to as well.” She paused, silently weighing her decision before adding, “And you’re welcome to dance here. A serpent will be quite the addition to the nest.”

I am ei’naja-s’Aezir –“ He cut off, realizing none of that was true anymore. “Just Naj now, I suppose. Naja Pallida. Red Cobra, as I’m sure you’d guessed.” He realized he’d left his scales out and let them slide back beneath his skin. He stared at his hand a moment, hardly recognizing the long, thin fingers as his own. How many hours had he spent staring at those hands, memorizing sigils and signs for this or that incantation? Knowing that the slightest mistake would allow the demons he summoned to wreak havoc upon the world. And now here he sat, asking sanctuary from one, pressing those same hands into the earth to swear he would not harm her. He fell silent, knowing he should speak, but what could he say? What words were there for the long centuries of dark deeds, of running and hiding, and the many missing years between then and now?

Cobra. A red cobra.

The surprise almost masked the familiarity of his introduction, something pinging her memory as important… The way he had phrased his name… And Aezir. Why did that sound familiar?

Dev pushed it aside to think on later. It was likely an old serpent custom that she was picking up on, but she knew it would bother her until she put her finger on it.

He’d gone quiet, clearly lost in thought. She’d have let him go on thinking as long as he cared to, except he hadn’t answered her invitation. Her mind was already flying down the paths of possibility, but it was all a moot point if he was here for some other reason.

Alright then. Naj. Would you like to dance here?”

When he finally spoke, his voice was distant, and his eyes unfocused as he gazed somewhere far away. “I’m not really sure why I came here, Dev. Or how I came to be here. I… I don’t want to be a burden, but I don’t really have anything in this world. I don’t really even have this world.”

He looked up at her, attention snapping back. His face became very solemn, the lost quality replaced by a hungry urgency.

If you’ve had serpents here, then you understand Li’Daea, and the ki’n and how important that heat is to their vitality, to their very selves.” His eyes began to shine, and the first hint of life starting to show through their dark red depths. “I feel that spark here, when your dancers take the stage. I feel that heat and it draws me out of the nothingness that has been my world for too many years…”

His gaze dropped, and his voice softened as he continued. “I’m a shadow of my former self, and I’m prone to drifting off from time to time, and much of my past is great swathes of nothingness. But I promise you,”

He unfolded himself and stood in one sinuous movement, pulling himself into the ready pose of cross wrists stretched high overhead and weight balanced lightly on the balls of the feet. He flashed her a dazzling grin, fire flashing in his eyes.

I am still a serpent, and a dancer.”

Well. Nothing boring about this one. Dev could do without the emotional rollercoaster bit, but standing there in full serpent flare… Yeah, he could be just this place needed. Her mind flew off down the avenues of possibilities again.

The fact that he’d been feral was hardly news, but the red cobra bit… That much, she definitely had use for. The cobra lines were nearly all extinct, killed off long ago in the various wars waged among the shapeshifters. So little was left of them, Dev hadn’t even realized there was a red line. Something so rare was sure to draw a crowd on Blue Moon night, when all the dancers were free to flaunt their fur and scales. Boosting their VIP crowd would help recoup some of their flagging profits.

Business had been falling off recently – nothing immediately threatening, but she didn’t like the trend. Her other businesses weren’t experiencing similar drops. No amount of trying to liven up the routines had seemed to help.

She suspected it had more to do with the recent gang rivalries edging closer to their district than anything. That was something she was loathe to deal with herself, as it was more a political affair. Perhaps if it were just the vampires, but the wolves were more animal than businessmen.

She certainly couldn’t deal with that and Az at the same time. Too many directions to split her attention. For the first time in many months, Dev allowed herself to admit that perhaps Kain was right.

It was time to call Nica home, reluctant or not. The hawk was tiresome, but she had kept the boundaries and local politics in line effectively. Let her deal with the encroaching hooligans and Dev could focus on her real concern.

Which brought the serpent posing in front of her into a whole new light. Nica wouldn’t be able to resist him, a poor, feral serpent. Not that Dev was prone to using her dancers as bait, but… Desperate times and all that.

A smile curled her lips as she stood to match him, trying to keep the tension of her thoughts out of her body. Even a feral serpent would be sensitive to that sort of thing.

Well, Naj… A dancer is all I’m looking for, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem. And you certainly aren’t he first one to come here to recover from being feral. That said, there are a few things I should share with you before you join the nest.”

The key rule is simple – don’t bring trouble to any of the other dancers. I don’t accept drama or violence in the nest… Not that I think that’ll be a problem on your end. If you have any problems with anyone else, bring them to me. I’d prefer to mediate any potential issues before they escalate.”

She glanced at his hand where his scales had been. “The second rule is that you have to control your shifts onstage or anywhere the public will see you. No upsetting the human population, which means that we do not allow shifting on stage or out in the club. The only exception to that rule will be Blue Moon Nights, when we close the club and allow only VIP members in – they’re supernaturals who pay extra to see dancers that aren’t human. That will be the only time we allow shifting on stage or in front of customers. Backstage, downstairs, or here are fine, these are dancer only areas.”

He dropped gracefully back into the relaxed ready stance, hands sliding behind his back with an elegant flourish as his left foot tucked behind the right. Accepting rules and conditions was nothing new to him, and old habit had him receiving them in the dancers’ attention. When the slightest toe out of line or sneeze could mean the summoner’s circle could come crashing down – well, one learned to pay careful attention. And to always be mindful of one’s posture.

Whispers of memories stirred at the thought, flashes of such instances when a Dai dancing circle could not contain what it had raised. Nothing concrete, just disconnected sounds and faces, waves emotion from nestmates long forgotten. Destroyed…

Why are you wallowing in the darkness of the past, fool boy? Can’t you see this could be your home now, if you’d let it? Naj tried to shake off the internal voice that had been his only companion for so long. It was useless. Still, when it spoke again, it was kinder, softer. The past is a shadow, broken and patchy on your clearest days. Let it go, and dance with Li’Daea.

He shook himself mentally again and replayed the demoness’ words in his mind. He’d have to be more mindful of his shifting, of course. He’d already planned to strictly limit the amount of time he allowed himself to retreat to the serpent, and this would only help that. He nodded in acceptance as she continued, pulling the scales still coating his upper body back beneath his skin.

Dev stepped closer to him and gave a more welcoming smile. It was rare she wasted her public persona on one person, let alone a dancer, but she would rather be sure of his decision. He was still holding himself too stiffly, too formal. She didn’t want to be the reason he changed his mind last minute. Once he was around the other dancers, they would make him feel welcome and wanted. She simply had to introduce him.

Third, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need – whether from me or another dancer. This is your home now, treat it as such.”

She studied him a moment, deciding that the details of his contract to work and live here would be best discussed later. She didn’t want to overwhelm him with such minutiae. Her eagerness to seal the deal would have to wait.

Dev gestured to the door. “Come, I’ll show you around backstage and the living quarters downstairs.”

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