In which Nica and Naj play well together.
Nica left the showers to redress in her room, picking a deep red sarong to tie about her waist and a rich golden halter to go with it. By now everyone should be upstairs finishing the last minute details for opening the club.
She sighed as she tied the halter around her neck, glancing at the mirror only briefly as she did so. Part of her knew she should be upstairs to double check everything, as was her usual habit. But a larger part of her kept reminding her that they’d opened the club without her for two years. They knew what they were doing – and her compulsion didn’t doubt that.
Without her usual busywork to keep her thoughts from stumbling over themselves though, she was at a bit of a loss.
The bickering with Kain had taken much of the weight out of her chest, but the massage and heat had left her languid. Combined with the accumulated nights without sleep… She was beginning to feel the weariness in her bones.
She ran her hands through her hair – it was almost dry, at least as much as toweling it ever got. Her feathers reappeared and she raised and lowered them as her fingers brushed the hair away from her face. Good enough. She wasn’t planning on making a public appearance tonight anyway. Kain was right about that much, she should take the night for herself.
Just the notion felt strange to her – in Ariella’s nest, sure, what else was she to do when not actively working, but here? Here her habit was to be in constant motion, to be preemptive about whatever might need her attention. It was odd to be home, but not busying herself. To most, being home meant relaxing, resting, but she’d always done the opposite, only resting when away from the nest and not responsible for everyone around her.
The faint strains of music caught her attention.
She turned her head, listening. The sound was coming from downstairs, it had to be. The wards that separated the two floors was warded to keep the sound of the show from penetrating the lower level.
Who was still downstairs?
Her bare feet padded along the tiled floor in the hallway as she sought out the source of the music. The closer she came to the Great Room, the clearer it became. A man’s voice, soft and low, the sound of a foot dully hitting a rug. The words sounded wrong, refusing to resolve themselves to meaning in her ears, until understanding turned the key. They were in the old language.
If he was singing and dancing, then he must be feeling well. Music was as necessary to a serpent as breathing.
Nica paused at the edge of the Great Room, simply watching. Naj was beautiful in motion. The gauntness of his frame seemed lost behind the pulse of his aura. It swirled thick around him, emphasized in his hands as he formed each symbol carefully. It mingled with his voice on the air, body swaying to the beat his soles struck out. The song was almost familiar, something that hung on the tip of her tongue, but eluded her.
She moved into the space quietly, letting his aura flow against hers. It was peaceful, warm and inviting.
A small drum sitting at the end of one of the couches caught her eye and she smiled. Her heart ached to join him, but she was not certain which dance he was performing and the weariness was still drawing on her muscles.
She could, however, give him a beat. Nica settled near Naj on the floor, tucking the drum between her knees. After watching his feet a moment to catch the rhythm, she began to softly tap out the beat. As he continued to dance, her movements became more sure and stronger. She swayed as she played, letting the melody fill her. Without thinking, it began to spill out of her throat in wordless notes, letting her harmony twine with his song.
His mind wanted to stumble when the soft drumbeats began, but his feet would not let him. The song fell from his lips with the weight of years, the simple child’s melody too easy to forget. A soft thump of his heart chased his head from the dance, and with a smile, Naj turned on the next step that brought him up on his toes to face his eija’ramn.
What an odd mix she was. From the waist down, she was all serpent, red sarong falling open on one side to show a long line of tawny skin. Her legs’ grip on the drum showed the dancers’ habit of being ready to rise at any moment and join the dance. But her golden top brought out the raptor intensity in her eyes, and the cut left her shoulders free and clear for wings. Her voice was strong with the powerful lungs she’d need to survive long flights at high altitudes, but bent gently to simple nursery tune.
Seth simply didn’t know what to make of her.
Naj was ecstatic to dance to Nica’s drum. There was a rightness to singing with his eija’ramn, to shifting his feet to move where her beats led—even as she adjusted to play to his footfalls. It shouldn’t work, this seamless joining of disparate parts, but somehow among serpents it was always this way, and Naj’s heart soared with the pure joy of it. More than just the basic synergy of two artists musing and merging into a cohesive unit, this was something transcendent. It would be much the same when others joined the dance, unified under the strong heart of their eija’ramn.
A part of him wanted to go upstairs, to see his nestmates’ show in its completeness, now that the audiences’ aura could mingle with the dancers’ joy. But Naj was unwilling to break the magic of this moment just yet. The simple harmony of it was so beautiful and so peaceful, he wanted to stretch it and make it last.
He grew more confident as the song looped back to the chorus and he fell into the matching steps. Power began to flow with the words and gestures, whispers of the primal forces they named. LightDark. FireIce. AirWater. SpiritEarth. The names of the gods, hDaeos, were subtly different from the mundane elements of the same name, and the sound shifted the nature of all the surrounding lyrics. He could hear Nica adjusting along with him, and he dropped to more simple notes when he could hear her building something more complex. The give and take of the music was magical, and they worked well together, both functionally and emotionally. By the time the “song” came to its natural conclusion, they were both smiling and relaxed, but keyed into each other. If they so willed it, they could call up mountains, summon rainstorms, lighten the darkest night. In this simple melody, his ki’n had bowed to hers, had stepped into the circle of the nest she led. He was ready to dance for her.
Nica rolled her shoulders when they finished, feeling the elation that comes from a good impromptu merging of energies through music. It filled her head and heart like a warm syrup, heavy, thick and sweet. It was something she thought she had left behind at Ariella’s nest.
The first spark of hope lightened her heart. To be home, but still feel this heady connection with a fellow dancer? It was a high that she often mused was why serpents stayed banded together in nests.
A hand caressed the soft skin of the drum, watching him as she did so. His easy posture and eager light to his eye… He had only begun to dance. Her smile widened and she inclined her head slightly, shifting the drum. It was a subtle invitation to offer to drum for him if he wanted to dance again, a motion understood by all serpents.
He rose to the balls of his feet, letting himself stretch to his full height, arms overhead, a long long line as stretched as he could be. He released like a cut marionette, and rolled back up til his chin was up and his shoulders relaxed and back. He turned his body on a slight angle but kept his eyes locked on Nica. He gave a nod for her to begin and closed his eyes, ready to let her music seep into his limbs.
Her smile warmed as she watched him stretch, growing eager to see how he moved to a proper song. When he nodded, she began to pound out a simple enough beat, her voice taking a more lilting note to imitate the flute that was missing. It was a basic serpent style, but she’d build on it to add some speed and complexity, then give it a cool down to watch how he interpreted it into movement.
Naj had enjoyed the simple steps of the prim’narix, but the now the sound of challenge filled the drums, and the fire within him was eager to rise to it. He started slowly enough, hips sliding in elegant circles, back and forth in sultry movements. As he became more sure of which rhythms she was building, he rose up off his heels, letting his body sway with the rocking steps. He moved as if the air became thick around him, music flowing like water and pulling his body with the ebb and flow of the beats. As the beat began to pick up, he dropped down off his toes, the motion traveling up his legs into percussive drops of his hips. He moved in circles, letting his arms become the visual focus as he used the circling to get the feel of the shift in the music. As he came around front, he brought his arms together and separated them again in a new frame work, needing more time to suss out what Nica intended to do musically.
As he found an opening in the rhythm, he brought himself out of the circles and into a more complex step, focusing more on the feet than visually arresting arm work. This was the time to show off his dexterity and skill, to impress the audience with the talent of both dancer and musician. As he threw himself into the music, he forgot he was performing for the discerning eyes of only his eija. He could be in front of one or one thousand- when he was dancing, it didn’t matter. There was the drum, there was his feet, and there was anyone else he shared the music with. That was all. The audience would be drawn in or they would not, he could not move them anymore than he himself was moved, and he was expressing that joy in the purest way he knew how.
As the music exhausted itself and began to draw to its natural close, Naj drew his arms back into the performance. He began to step into the classic rei’ramn poses of story telling. He wasn’t dancing any tale in particular, simply choosing those that fit the moment, holding positions long enough for the eye to drink in the shape, then stepping through into through into the next pose. He slowed himself with the music, until his core simply swayed in the directions his arms were taking him. At this point, all experiencing the dance would be drained, and waiting to be released from its spell. He shaped the air now as it had shaped him earlier, cutting swathes and shapes as if directing spirits no one could see. He moved in the shapes of thanks and praise, giving the energy he had raised back into the earth, the dancers, the musicians and the audience, and ending with his face upraised and hands uplifted in an offering to the gods. He held that pose, heart racing to the last beat of the drum, where he then let himself sink to his knees, forehead pressing into the floor, palms stretched out before him. It was the dancers’ respite, eipratei, giving and accepting thanks for the dance. And recovering from it. The higher magics could leave the dancer laid out for days, connected to the earth and spirits around them, drawing in the energy spent, seeking balance. Naj would not need to rest for that long, after such a simple dance, but he did need a moment to compose himself before rising to face Nica.
Nica found herself drawn into his dance, altering some of the melody to better accommodate his movements and style. He was a wonderful dancer, precise and flowing. His movements hailed from a similar traditional style to the one she used. Though his body was still thin, it was clear that his heart had not forgotten the beat of a drum.
She recognized some of the movements his fingers made from rei’ramn that she’d performed with her family as a child, though time had blurred their meanings. When he finally sank into a resting pose, she bowed her head over her drum, offering her own silent thanks for the beauty of his dance.
It also gave her time to compose herself, to quell the prick of tears in her eyes. Perhaps it was merely her deep weariness, or perhaps it was the reminder of her lost family, but there was a gentle, pulsing ache in her chest.
When her eyes were clear, she raised her head, finding Naj still stretched out in rest.
She set the small drum to the side and smoothed her sarong across her thighs.
When he finally tilted his head to regard her, she gave him a warm smile. “That was beautiful, thank you.”
Naj lifted his head enough to acknowledge he was ready to be addressed. He was still deeply tired, more tired than he should have been from such easy dancing. Had he raised more energy than he’d thought? He hadn’t danced with his soul like that for quite some time. But he was keeping both of them from true rest the longer he lingered so he made the effort to lift himself from the floor. He swayed where he sat, and giving up, his shoulders sagged, and he smiled.
“e’ramn, ei’ariyei.” When one dances, it blesses us all.
She bowed her head slightly at the old phrase. Her mother had been fond of it.
Nica leaned forward, one hand outstretched in offering. After such a connection, it seemed wrong not to be touching, to offer her energy, as little as it was to his obvious weariness.
“I look forward to the chance to dance with you.” Her smile softened, feeling her own tiredness and making a decision. “But first, we should rest.”
“I agree on both counts.”
He reached for her hand, arm feeling like lead. He’d definitely overdone it. But he didn’t regret it. Not one bit.
As his hand closed around hers, an electric jolt raced up his arm. It was nothing like the heat or the visions from before, but it rocked him all the same. He knew it now as the call of an eija, the dancemaster’s call to all that were her own. He drew a ragged breath, struggling to find balance in the power that surged through him. It felt good, once he overcame the shock of it, but swallowing it down had been difficult. And now that he had it, he didn’t want to let it go.
“It will be several hours before anyone else comes down to sleep, yes?”
Nica nodded as she hummed her agreement. With a steadying breath, she took to her feet, using her hold on Naj to draw him up as well.
“The last show ends around one, then cleaning the front of house takes almost another hour.” She paused only briefly to wonder if that was still the same, then dismissed the distraction.
“And many will stay up, even when they come downstairs afterwards.”
He leaned into her, unable to remain upright without her. She likely knew this, just as she likely new he wouldn’t have the energy to keep himself warm either, but it was impolite to assume.
“If I may, then, perhaps we might bed down together? A nest of two is always warmer than a nest of one.”
Nica chuckled softly, wrapping an arm around him as he swayed into her. “I would welcome the company.”
She moved them to her room, sweeping the tapestry aside with an easy movement. Now that sleep was so close at hand, her own tiredness was weighing heavily on her. She paused just inside the doorway to bank the lights, then sank into her bed with relief, beckoning Naj with a languid arm to join her.
“If I warm you too much, don’t hesitate to wake me. I’m a light sleeper, but fall back asleep just as easily.” Her hand smoothed along his shoulder, movements automatic as sleep clouded her mind.
The most he could manage was a low murmur of sound as he leaned into her touch. He was nearly dead on his feet– the day hadn’t been that full, had it?
Let’s see. Spending the night spinning il’li-ramn, the morning drowning in visions, the afternoon as a serpent and the evening in communion with h’Daeos and your eija’ramn. No, I can’t fathom why you’d be this tired.
But Naj was too tired to care, half asleep on his feet already. If the room hadn’t been so familiarly serpent, he might have stumbled or hesitated. But the big nest of blankets was soft and inviting, holding close the scents and comfort of the many arms that had slept there. It had a cold, slightly empty smell, but it was the kind of empty of a sky barely brushed with dawn, the pause between a long night and budding day. Somehow, Naj found this promise of life more comfortable than if the nest had been overflowing with it, and he sank into sleep almost as quickly as he’d sank into the blankets.
As she felt the warmth of his body touch hers, she curled into it without thinking, wrapping one arm around his waist. When she felt skin on skin, she could feel her muscles give up what little tension they still held.
She inhaled the comforting scents of serpent, warmth, spice, and sweat and was asleep almost instantly.