In which Naj explains a thing or two
Nica pulled him closer, her lips pressing against his shoulder. Her eyes flicked up at the feel of someone on the other side of her door and she opened her wings enough to see a dark hand slipping around the tapestry.
It was Nat, the lanky woman balancing two bowls as she entered the room. “Hey.”
Her voice was soft, pleasant as she she glanced between the pair of them. Nica drew her wings further back, so she and Naj were framed rather than embraced by them.
“Hey, Nat.” Her gaze flicked to the bowls in her hand and Nat smiled. A twinge of something unpleasant came and went in her emotions, but Nica didn’t comment on it and Nat ignored it, as was polite.
“Kain said you guys were waking and asked me to bring you a couple bowls of stew. The show’s about to start though, so I need to get back upstairs. You need anything else?”
She handed off the bowls and tucked some bottles of water at their feet. When Nica shook her head, Nat smiled, a little more genuine this time and left.
“How long have we slept?” Naj asked, puzzling at Nat’s word. The passage of time should mean something to him, but “show time” was too nebulous an idea for him to ground in. But surely Nica would know. He looked to her, trying to smooth out the worried pinch to his eyebrows.
Nica rubbed a hand along his arm at his concern, then untangled enough to reach for one of the bowls of stew. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t each much yesterday either.
“If the show’s about to start, it’s probably near five. So eight hours, little more.”
He made an mmm sound that didn’t say much, but his attention was now completely on the smell of food. The hollow feeling roared to life within him, demanding to be filled. It’s aroma was rich and layered, earthy and spicy and a little wild, and old. Modern food just didn’t smell the same anymore, not since they’d left Europe. It was as if something of the land it grew in was imparted to the finished dish, and this smelled like home.
Naj tucked in with a greedy pace, eating as if he hadn’t eaten in months. It’d been a while since he’d been this magic starved, body desperate to replace a spiritual lack by whatever physical means it could. It would help, much as the sleep and warm bath had, But he wouldn’t be set to rights until he went above and beyond that, and a sudden thought occurred to him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, once he’d choked down the overly large bite he’d just taken. It seemed a shame not to linger over such food, crafted with care and old skill, but there was still so much to be done before they were out of the woods.
“On a deeper level, how are you feeling?”
“Tired,” Nica answered without thought. Weary was probably more accurate, but there was a heaviness to her muscles that told her they had been pushed past their preferred limits. Her core self held the empty feeling that only happened when she’d tried to do too much with too little fuel.
“And a bit stiff,” she added as she took a bite of stew. For a moment, her eyes closed, savoring the flavor. Kain must have had it on the stove all day. If the food made it to tomorrow, the spices would marry even further.
“How are you?”
He stiffened, the precursor to a serpent stillness, but he willed it away. He would need to stay open to her aura shifts as he broached this subject.
“I need to finish the meditation we started this morning, more now than ever. We are empty, but with a little direction we can fix that.” There was the slightest stress on the we as he changed his tactics mid-thought. “I’m beginning to question the wisdom in such exercises, but at the least, we should set to right what meddling I’ve already done.”
The question in his voice hung unspoken in the air, waiting for her response one way or the other. Nica was so damned good at sitting patiently and waiting for the entire story or lesson before absorbing it and thinking on it—an admirable trait in a student, but maddening when Naj hung on her every nuance for guidance as to how to proceed.
She raised an eyebrow, chewing slowly as she mulled that over. The meditation from this morning? He never had really answered her one its purpose… And now he blamed this morning on that meditation.
Nica nodded thoughtfully. “And how does the meditation help this?”
A slow breath to steady himself was all the hesitation he allowed. “The storm you danced was made real by the energy we fed it—you, unintentionally, mine deliberately—and it had left us lacking. I believe your ramn got the better of you because you are unaccustomed to carrying such extra power, and so didn’t know to hold it back from your weaving. We all instinctively clutch our lifeforce close, but once a vr’era has purchase in this world, it consumes what it can in its quest to become a part of reality-”
He stopped, wondering if he was losing her. He had lifetimes of study behind him, and she was just barely coming into her own, magically speaking. He had no idea how much training or years she had under her belt, but it wasn’t enough.
“The important part is that such imbalances are dangerous, and I should not have been so careless. It has been many years since I’ve danced with anyone of skill, and I have forgotten how grave a responsibility it can be.”
His thoughts flicked along faces and people half-remembered–to the d’Ahnkkhna, to his mother, the nests in the Dai—all forces to shape the world, for good or for ill. But to what purpose?
Nica hummed idly as she thought that over and ate. Energy. It all came back to energy. Ariella had mentioned it in places, but she’d always dismissed how much energy Nica could bring to it… Perhaps those had been more than idle cut downs. Their meditation raised energy… It explained why she’d felt so energized going into the dance, though she had put it down to nerves and agitation at the time.
“It was a mistake for both of us, I think,” she answered slowly, not liking how much responsibility he was taking for their combined actions. She was the leader and as such, she should have been more aware of what had been happening on his end. A good nest leader guides and directs rather than orders. Ariella ran her nest like it was something militarized most of the time. While it felt good to be out from under her thumb, Nica was still acting as if she were merely another member of the nest and not a leader of her own. Still, it would do neither of them any good to take all the blame herself. Everyone learned by mistakes and taking someone’s from them to spare their feelings only hurt them in the longer dance.
“I should not have danced alone. I knew what I was calling, but it was foolish to do it alone for the first time before being sure of my control.” She gave him a small, wry smile. “And I should have asked for a better understanding of what we were doing this morning. It’s taking me more than the usual day or two to get back into the habits of my own nest it seems.”
She still didn’t understand.
Her words said she did, but the lack of fear told him he hadn’t expressed how deadly this could be. There was a reason the Dai worked in nests—it kept complex spells from falling when any one member was consumed by it. She was treating this like a dance—wait, what did she mean by back into her habits?
“You’ve been gone?” he asked abruptly.
Nicas eyes tightened at the edges. Again, he somehow managed to remind her that he was a stranger to her nest, to her. It was odd, nothing she could put her finger on. The question was a fair one, she’d brought the subject up in a round about way. Perhaps it was his tone or something about his aura, but it was beginning to bother her. She needed to speak to Kain, sooner rather than later. The big cat always had a better sense of a situation than she did and she was beginning to suspect there was something more at play here.
“I’ve been at Ariella’s nest for the last two years.” Her instinct said to be vague, but how long and where she’d been weren’t secrets to her nest. Besides, she didn’t like feeling as if she needed to keep secrets from one of her dancers like this.
Ah. Away to gather new skills to bring back to her nest, no doubt. Perhaps this wasn’t as unsalvageable a mess as it seemed. If she’d been willing to endure the rigors of falcon training… Still, he wanted to make sure she understood exactly what they were dabbling in. He set his stew bowl to the side, giving her his full attention.
“You do understand that vr’era are not simple illusions? Aret’vir’ramn and ramn’tr’vr’era are as alike a feathers and scales.”
Nica could feel her brow furrowing and she tried to smooth her expression as she reached for a bottle of water. Aret’vir’ramn? The words were unfamiliar to her and she wasn’t sure what Naj was referring to. He was clearly following a train of thought though.
Not simple illusions… She didn’t understand. It made her uneasy and a little annoyed, but she tried to let the emotions go rather than dwelling on them. They wouldn’t help her figure this out.
“I’m not sure what aret’vir’ramn references, so I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean.”
Naj stared, confused at her confusion. He hadn’t realized she didn’t speak pri’mn as a native tongue– she certainly seemed fluent enough.
“Forgive my mistake. I didn’t realize. The aret’ramn are magic dances? And virar, to see?”
She was agitated, and he most certainly didn’t want to patronize her, but if she didn’t understand…
She took a long breath and picked her stew back up. At least they were both confused now. “I understand what the pieces mean, simply not what the string is referring to… It isn’t a term I’ve heard used.”
Damn. He had tried so hard not to offend. “ei’meht’a, eija. Forgive me. I’m not sure how else to explain. I had assumed you were familiar with the branch of dances pertaining to spellwork and the calling of power– I was taught they are called the aret’ramn. Is that no longer so?”
Her eyebrows rose as she thought that over. “Yes… And no.”
She frowned, putting down the bite of stew she’d been about to eat. “Many of the dances that might have involved magic are simply referred to by their elemental name now. The word for magic itself is rarely if ever used, so as not to draw too much attention to it when speaking.”
It made a good deal of sense, and it simply underscored to him just how much time had passed. Possessing a magic was almost required to claim most birthrights, but then, most of those kingdoms were gone now anyways. Melancholy settled over him, bowing his shoulders. He was… homesick. He hadn’t been homesick in very, very long time.
Nica didn’t understand him at all. How had he missed the persecution of the magic users? If he remembered a time when magic was freely spoken of…
But she did understand being sad and she couldn’t help but reach out a hand to squeeze his shoulder.
He leaned into her touch, then straightened his shoulders when he realized what he’d done.
“I am alright. My mind is still prone to wandering, it seems. Forgive me.”
She nodded, drawing back to her bowl. “It’s perfectly understandable, you don’t need to apologize.”
“It is not so bad, when I don’t feel so empty–” His words cut off in a fervently whispered swear. “I am a fool. A fool that cannot hold a thought for more than a moment. I was trying to assess what I can safely teach you.”
“I think you were explaining what you were referencing with the two different terms. From what little I understood, an illusion dance is merely a type of magic dance.”
She’d admit, his inability to hold onto what he had been thinking did make her feel better. At least more equal in the conversation. Though Nica was curious what he meant by safely teach her. All he’d taught her so far was that meditation.
He nodded, settling into a cross-legged position. It helped him think. “That is correct. Areta can be translated to mean “calling forth” or “summon” as much as “magic”. It simply references organizing what is already there. In a way, our meditation this morning was an aret. We took the power raised by dancing and channeled it into specific forms.”
“vr’era, shadows, belong to the realm outside of existence. Era is the il’li pair to Are. So to dance with your eye to the void, ramn’tr’vr’era, is to pull from the nothing.
Nica nodded, still not seeing where the misunderstanding was stemming from. “An illusion dance.”
“zt– No, that is not it. Where did creation first come from? Are came from Era, and so do vr’era. And s’era, and chim’era, and so on. Everything that Is comes from Nothing, and with the extra power I helped you harness, you were able to cross the barrier from ideas into being.”
Eyebrows high, she finally set aside her bowl. Her fingers almost reached for her water, rising to rub her temple instead. “Are you trying to say that I literally danced the illusions into existing? That isn’t possible.”
“Yes! That is it exactly.”
A triumphant smile ghosted across his face, eaten almost immediately by a frown at her negation. “You stood with me beneath a rainstorm of your own making, and you tell me it did not happen?”
“I-” She frowned rubbing her head harder. It did nothing to help the headache forming. “I don’t remember a rainstorm. I remember it being my intent, but a real rainstorm would have soaked the stage…”
She closed her eyes, but the harder she reached for the distinction, the more vague the thought became and the more her head throbbed.
This was a mistake. They were fighting, both growing more unhappy by the moment, and getting no where.
“I have told you what happened. I cannot tell you otherwise. If you would find your eijye’s word more trustworthy than mine, by all means, let us go ask him.”
Without her eyes, his hurt was all the more obvious. She sighed, fingers running through her hair as she looked up.
“I don’t – I don’t know what happened.” Her voice softened. “But that sort of power – I’ve never heard of someone able to do that. It’s a legend and if anyone could do it, the ability was lost centuries ago. I just don’t believe I’m capable of it.”
She was quiet at the end, looking away. Her frustration had spoken more than she’d meant to and while she didn’t regret it exactly, she needed to stop speaking before more was said.
He let a ripple of red scales cover his torso, both as a visual aide and for the comfort, “I assure you, that power is very real, and I watched you call it, and kept you from falling to it.” he whispered.
Nica watched him with a sideways glance. Abruptly, her muscles let go of the tension they’d been accruing and she reached for the water. This was absurd.
She was sounding like Ariella, declaring absolutes. He was right, red cobras were also supposed to be little more than legend. And if he understood what had happened… Then he could help her be more careful.
“Thank you for that.” Nica offered him a small smile. “I owe you.”
He stiffened at that, pulling back with wide eyes. “You owe me nothing. You are my eija.”
“I’d also like to be your friend.” Her smile widened, amused slightly by his reaction. That was a term she’d scarce heard, so few used it anymore. “You can relax, Naj, at least a bit – no one’s keeping score.”
She stretched one wing, working a taunt muscle looser. “I just realized I hadn’t thanked you.”
He was saying that so often lately. But this nest he found himself in, so familiar but so vastly different… He couldn’t keep up.
But he understood friendship, and he understood gratitude, so he’d start from there.
“Are’era. All is as it should be.”
He gave her a warm smile and let his scales melt back into his skin.
“As your friend, then, may I teach you how to fill what has been taken?”
“That… Would be welcome.” Nica stretched her wings high, feeling the exhaustion creeping in at the edges. Despite the long sleep, she was still worn out. At least the headache was fading.