Chapter 14, part 3

Kain watched the serpent fall as still as only a serpent could. But this stillness… It held notes of the dark ice of night, an element no serpent of spark and fire should be able to touch.

His lips twisted in a grimace. It was perverse what the Dai twisted their people into. Taking what the Gods had formed and blaspheming it to their own purpose, or worse, simply playing to see what they could get away with before Nature called their broken forms home. A cobra of fire with a heart of ice – even if Dev hadn’t said a word, he would have known the Dai’s influence.

Naj let himself fall automatically into the motions of his memories. He would not let himself rise from this place, lest the terror and passion of the now taint his thoughts. Li’Daea’s light had no place here, and the hawk burned with it. She had rekindled fire long forgotten in himself, but he did trust their use now. Later, he would walk in the light. Later, he would dance and laugh and sing with this hawk who swayed like a serpent. It was not lost on him that he, a serpent twice marked by Li’Daea’s fire, was asking the cold god of the griffics to help him free a raptor, so that she might dance again with Li’Daea’s light. Naj had no power here, no right to ask this, but it seemed the Dark God was willing to hear his plea in exchange for the many years this fire-blessed cobra had served in the name of night.

Naj opened his eyes and turned a gaze unseeing on the outside world. His vision swam with silver, lines of power tracing this way and that. He could see the echo of Nica’s performance earlier, the storm and the vines still hanging like ghosts in the air. Fainter lines traced other powers that had been used on this stage again and again.

They were almost invisible in the glare of the active spell that enveloped Nica.

Spidery threads crisscrossed her here and there, tainted with shadows of smoke. He let his eyes slide over them, not focusing on any one thing in particular, just letting the sight of it wash over him to see if any patterns presented themselves. One thread shone in particular, weaving itself in and out of the cocoon, only to exit it and shoot off into the ether. Farther from the cocoon, it dimmed and faded, lost in the darkness outside the glare of the body of the spell. Naj stepped toward it, letting it run just above his hands, examining it, but not touching it himself.

Echoes of the reality within Nica’s mind pushed at him, danced at the edges of his vision, called to him with screams and sobs and pleading, but he paid it no mind. If he’d focused on it, he could have shifted his vision to see into the prison her mind had become, possibly directly from her point of view, though most likely as a spectator, but it would have done no good. There was no precious clue to be learned from witnessing that, only distraction. Nica was fire to his soul, he needed ice. He needed cold, calculated distance, and he needed to hurry. The power the dark god had lent him would only last so long without a power source, and even as bountiful as his overfilled energy was, he was running out of time.

He turned his attention more directly on the single thread that disappeared into the nothingness. He could trace it back, but he had the feeling of enormous distance as he stared in the direction it had left, and he knew he had not the strength of soul to make that journey. Nor the time. Clearly, he was become more the child of Li’Daea if his thoughts kept returning to the passage of time in the outside world. The il’m was quiet, nothingness, eternity. Il’Dao was ageless and a thousand years was but a moment to the Dark God. But Naj didn’t have the strength of a thousand years to draw on. He was fading fast, whispers of his true serpent self showing through. In emotionless determination, Naj did what he knew needed to be done without giving his more passionate self a chance to object.

Naj reached outside him, seizing whatever power he found there. Most of the souls he touched were too young to be of any consequence, some almost weak enough to not even been felt. He reached out and brushed a mind cool and distant, and left a hook there to draw on if needed. It was not exactly what he was seeking, but if he needed still more power, he would need it with a quickness, so he made his plans now and laid them to wait.

Nat had barely closed the door to the downstairs when a mind brushed hers. She fell back against the door, eyes closing at the intrusion. Before she could protest, there was a small tug and it was gone again.

Her breath came quick and shallow, her amber eyes opening to stare at the stage curtains. Marie had said Naj and Kain had been fighting – was that what she was feeling? Surely not, she couldn’t fathom anyone being able to stand up to Kain. He might downplay himself, but she knew he was a force to be reckoned with.

And whatever she’d just felt had not been the big cat.

Which meant it must be Naj, but that… That alien brush had hardly felt like the serpent.

She pushed off the door, determined to find out what was happening. When she pushed aside the curtain though, she stopped cold, a gasp on her lips.

Naj brushed another power that wavered and flux, strong, but too inconstant to be of any use to him. This soul did not sit still, it would take more energy than it was worth to try and pin them down. He passed it by.

Most of his awareness, however, was drawn in by one shining soul.

There was heat, there was passion there, but it lay like a shimmering heatwave over layer upon layer of unyielding stone. The core of this power was immense, unmoving, and dark. Most importantly there was weight. This was a soul that understood the press of ages, and a soul whose song sang of power and untold strength. This was the power he needed, and he claimed it without a thought.

Diving back beneath the surface into the depths of his mind, he drug the powers he’d claimed with him. Later, his serpent’s soul would mourn for what he’d done to his friends. Later, he would apologize and face the shame of it, accepting if they chose to exile him from their nest. Even in raptor society, where much was excused in the name of power, what he was doing was done only in the most dire of circumstances, but the quiet part of him agreed that these were indeed those circumstances. But the serpent in him was too passionate to ever excuse the crimes he was committing against his fellow dancers. To invade another’s soul, to violate them in a way that mere physical rape never could – well, he’d deal with that after they’d saved Nica.

He returned to the place where he could see the demon’s magic, and reached out again until he found the singular thread. Armed with real power backing him up, he examined the thread to see what it would tell him. He reached out with a tendril of power, taking special care not to actually touch it himself, and sent a probing thought into it.

It dissolved like a wisp of smoke.

He stood, confused for a moment that such a thing would occur. He had felt the immeasurable power as he’d examine the line before, this should not have been a thing so easily broken. The demon that spun this was far beyond Naj’s skill and power level, and yet this single thread had dissolved at the slightest touch.

As his thoughts moved from line to cocoon, the power chased the dissolving spell through the many layers of illusions heaped upon it. It would have taken lifetimes to unravel if he’d had to have started from the main weaving. They had all been unspeakably lucky that Naj, with his years of study in demon magic, had been the first to make the attempt. Like spider silk, the web would have simply ensnared any attempts to probe it directly. Those desperate to assist Nica would have strengthened the demon’s hold, adding mortal power to the demonic aura that held her. Each hand would have made the spell more solid, more real, until an actual web of lies had bound her so thoroughly it would never be broken.

But to a demon, or those versed in them, the signature had been clear. The thread to unwind the spell had shone bright and clear against the chaos, but Naj had expected it to take much more effort to untwist. This…

This almost called to mind the practice of his earliest days, when demons who worked willingly along side the Dai had made weavings so simple that even the children they taught could unwind them. It was… well, almost insulting to be offered such a spell now. It was negligible, like an after thought. What had the demon meant by it?

But there was no time to consider it. Like the thread that had tied it to its master, the strings of the cocoon were unraveling and dissolving. Satisfied that the work he had been called to do was complete, the borrowed power of Il’Dao abandoned him, and Naj found himself sucked back to the here and now with frightening speed.

He gasped as his soul slammed back into his body, physically reeling at the force with which he hit. Instantly, his mind processed that he had been sitting still and cross legged at Nica’s side, breathless and unmoving. The power of the dark god had sustained him, as it did any raptor drawing on magics for extended periods of time. But as soon as that power had abandoned him, his soul rushed back to his body to nourish it. Naj felt gray at the edges of his vision, and more drained than he had the first time he’d been with Nica this morning, but as long as he held perfectly still he would not crumble. His heart beat frantically to pump oxygen back into his starved chest and limbs, the beginnings of dizziness and nausea curling around his brain. Before slipping into unconsciousness a thousand thoughts reeled through his mind as his soul caught up with him. What have I done. How long was I gone. I’m sorry, I’m sorry oh Nine Gods forgive me my friends forgive me but most importantly Is Nica ok?


As you may have noticed, today is not Asylum’s normal update day. That’s because, as of today, Asylum is on hiatus.

I’ve spent the past month trying to figure out how I want to do this, and I feel this is the best way. I’m about 10 chapters in to a revision of a Asylum that’s more streamlined, better paced, more in character, and much more coherent. Publishing Asylum to in an online format was always meant to be something that kept me interested in the project, and it has done just that. So much so, that my interest in continuing Asylum as moved beyond the scope of a web novel.

I want to get Asylum properly polished, trimmed, and in its best format. After working with this blog, I really believe this (new, streamlined version) is something I can query with, and I’m going to do just that.

I’ll keep this blog updated with progress reports, one liners, further tidbits of interests, and calls for beta readers. If you love Asylum and want to see where it’s going, hit me up. I am always looking for a fresh pair of eyes to go over my work.

It’s been fun. I can’t believe it’s been a whole year. Asylum has come so far, and has farther still to go. Thank you all for your support. I can’t wait to meet you all at future book signings!

Happy Reading!

-R

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Chapter 14, part 2

Once past the ward, Kain’s thoughts flared wide, seeking Naj out. He followed the serpent onto the stage, slowing as he moved the curtain aside. There had been a tickle, something other than Naj for just a moment…

His eyes widened, taking in the sight of Nica motionless on the floor. Her eyes were open and unseeing. Her fingers were curled on themselves, limbs askew as if she’d simply fallen where she’d stood.

Over her stood Naj, a small smile flickering on his face as he knelt to touch the blood seeping from her mouth.

He’d need a tie back to this world, something to help him break back through the illusion. There wasn’t much strong enough here to help Naj keep his sense of self, but he’d rather take that risk than a misaligned spell with no name.

A familiar aura had appeared at his back as he’d been lost in studying the illusion. He’d ignored it until now, but as he pulled himself back into the space beyond the empty, he spoke to Kain without looking up.

I’m going to need a tether.”

Kain closed his eyes against the sight, willing his heart to slow. Something wasn’t right here. Other than the obvious, what he was seeing wasn’t right. This was too obvious, too…

Too unbelievable.

The moment he thought it, he felt the shift. He heard Naj’s voice and opened his eyes to find the serpent standing at the edge of an empty stage. His expression was hard and he was staring at the stage as if there were something there that he would see if he only stared hard enough.

Kain could feel it too, something was pushing an illusion at them.

A tether – where’s Nica?”

He had a feeling he already knew the answer, but he didn’t understand how or what was happening within the empty stage.

Naj snapped in frustration. “Questions later. Just hold this.” He lashed a strand of power in Kain’s direction and dove beneath the icy waters of power swirling in his mind.

Azriel watched the pair of men talking at the edge of the stage, pulling his glove through his bare hand over and over as he thought.

He’d hoped that the larger of the two would have bought into that simple illusion, a fight between them would have given him a little more time with his lovely little hawk.

His green gaze fell to the woman at his feet and he smiled affectionately. Not that he wasn’t enjoying every moment they were currently getting to spend together. Something about the way his shadows crawled through her skin… Her eyes were wide, and his shadows gathered there to make them completely black. He liked that better than the golden hazel her eyes had held before. This made her look… Well, like something of his.

He knelt, running a bare hand over her heart, tracing a symbol there with the shadows that flowed freely between his skin and hers. Oh, but she was a fierce one. Even trapped in her own mind, playing with a mere shadow of himself… She was delicious. Her fear tremulous and hard won, trickling down the tether that currently bound them together.

Some people wept fear so freely it was almost cloying. This one… She didn’t fear for herself – or at least, she hadn’t at first. No, her fear was something unto a delicacy.

He hummed softly as his shadow found a particularly good sore spot to press. He could hear her mental shriek as she finally gave in… His eyes closed, savoring it.

A push against his barrier interrupted and he stood with a sigh. All good things must come to an end, but she’d served her purpose… And there was no telling how long it would take them to break his hold with how many layers of shadow he’d cocooned her mind in.

And Devin would know he’d been here, which had been his intent all along.

With a last smile at the hawk whose pale skin now writhed with his darkness, he vanished, leaving only his calling card behind.

Air! Need air! Can’t breathe! Can’t move! Fear! TerrorterrorterrrorpanicAIR!!!

Naj staggered until the assault when the barrier abruptly fell. He hadn’t broken it, it has simply vanished. The false emptiness of the stage was immediately surging with feeling, a suffocating wash of sensation.

But, even so, it was… muted. Naj could still think past it, which meant it was only an echo, the lingering ghost of a moment past. Not too long passed, but as Naj sucked in careful breaths of air to chase the panic away, he realized the feeling was already shifting.

The emotion felt oily, slick, and it left an ugly film across his aura. Mentally, he tried to slough it off, but it only coagulated into a thicker sludge. Naj pushed against it, and it thickened still, so he let it go, and went serpent still, listening.

Nica’s screams rang out, but with that same echoey quality as the panic from before. There were too many of them, layered back on themselves again and again, and laced with grim, stony silence, a determination not to scream, not to give in—it was maddening. Naj willed himself not to hear, closed his eyes even as spectral images began to form around him, and dove deeper.

A growl trickled from Kain as the power hit him, but he held it, rooting it to only a part of his aura. They were going to have a talk after this though.

Thin white bands appeared on his wrists and Kain took a deep breath, forming a fist with one hand.

There was a soft pop as the illusion broke, Nica and Naj coming visible. It mirrored what he’d seen before, but this Naj was more concerned, and Nica…

It caught his breath in his throat. Her tanned skin was pale and black lines flowed along it. Her eyes were wide and dark, for a moment he’d thought the sockets empty.

What bothered him most though, was the faint echo of her mind, buried somewhere within her. She was in pain and afraid.

Nica’s eyes blinked open slowly, wincing as she registered tight pain in her arms. When her vision came back into focus, she realized she was in the main room of the club. She stood on stage… Except stood wasn’t the right word. Her feet barely touched the floor enough for her toes to taker her weight. Her arms were bound above her head, the rope vanishing up to where the rafters should be. Here there was nothing but darkness and she suddenly remembered Az.

Her gaze flickered around the room, her body twisting on the rope where her feet barely met the ground. Her senses strained, trying to figure out what had happened after he touched her, all she remembered was the cool chill of his touch, an ice that burned, and a strange slithering sensation on her skin… Into her skin.

This wasn’t really the club, there were minor differences, like the lack of ceiling and walls. The bar was there, but there was only one table with a single chair before the stage.

The biggest difference was that here, the room was deafeningly silent. There was nothing to listen for, no matter how hard she strained – no thrum of electricity, no whisper of insect activity, even her own breathing, which should be fast and harsh from fighting back the panic, was lacking.

When Az suddenly stepped into her line of vision, she jerked back, crying out silently as the rope pulled her back into position before him.

He smiled. In other circumstances, he would be considered a beautiful man. Black, stylish cut hair and green eyes that glittered with mirth, full lips… He was still dressed to the nines as when she had last seen him. As she watched, he crossed the room to the table and chair, setting down a small briefcase she had somehow missed.

When he turned to regard her, she was glad for the silence, at least she would be spared something in all of this. Then he parted his lips and spoke. His voice drifted across the room and slid against her skin with its softness. “I trust you understand what’s happening.”

She shivered and pulled back involuntarily. The quiet nature of his voice gave it an intimacy that caused her more pain than a slap would have. It was melodic, pleasant… And so contrary to what she knew was going to happen.

As Az continued to speak in that haunting tone, he began to undress. First his gloves, then his coat and tie, before beginning to unbutton his shirt. “This isn’t personal, little bird. For what it’s worth, I actually do hope you survive this. It will make it… That much more satisfying to me if you do. I hate it when my pets give in too easily.” He gave her body a thorough glance over and she realized that she was completely bare to his view. “Of course, I recognize that you’re already weakened, which curbs what I can do… But I promise we’ll still have some fun.” As he reached the last of his buttons, he removed the shirt, but nothing else.

Any relief she might have felt at him not continuing to undress faded rapidly as he unclicked the latch on his briefcase and brought his first tool to the light.

Naj slammed back into his skull, panting from the memory. Illusion? It had to be. Nica hadn’t been separated from them for that long… But demonkin weren’t bound by the mundane laws of the mortal plane. Though he shuddered to think it, Nica could have lived a thousand lifetimes by now, locked in the prison of her mind.

He knew none of this was real, but it was a fine point to mince. Bodies healed much faster than the mind, and the mental damage being inflicted was very, very real. In his experience, it was actually harder to heal memories that your body told you never happened, to the point that the mind would inflict phantom pains to realign the boy with its perceptions. No, physically real or not, Nica was being tortured, and Naj had to break it. Without the protection of frail flesh, the mind could be tormented for far, far longer.

He closed his eyes and took a deep, centering breath, drawing in on himself, shutting out illusory distractions. Sharing Nica’s mental landscape wouldn’t help him free her of it. There would be no convenient clue, no shining weak point to attack—her prison would soundly secure, and any hope offered therein would be false, only meant to tease.

In the inky stillness of his soul, there was ice, and he would use it. He touched the pure power within him, and realized it was a dull echo of what had been with his master provided the true connection to Il’Dao. Naj was a serpent, a cobra even, and the heart of his soul was fire. But in this place that he went to for strength, there was still the channel that housed the power as it passed through him. Ghosts of it remained, like a song hangs in the air long after the dancers have fallen into repose.

It was enough. He could use it.

Chapter 14, part 1

In which a message is sent.

Kain’s eyes followed the serpent’s movements as he kept his low conversation going with Nica. It was nothing important, mostly her trying to fill the air between them with trivial things such as needing to call the tailor. He knew there was something she wanted to talk to him about, but didn’t want to speak of with an audience. Her slowing footsteps gave her away.

Kain, however, was more interested in the serpent in front of him. He wanted to do a little more poking around before his worry got the better of him. It wouldn’t be prudent to start a conversation and give away too much of his own hand.

A twinge against his aura made him frown slightly and he glanced back at the warded door to the upstairs. He turned his gaze back towards Naj, thoughts spinning on themselves.

Feeling Nica’s confusion begin at his side, he glanced at Nica’s bare arms, forcing a small frown. “Didn’t you have an over shirt on when you came upstairs?”

Nica paused, blinking a few times in rapid succession as her thoughts suddenly changed direction. “I did… Probably left it by the stage.”

“Ah, well, I can run back and get that for you if you like.” Kain kept his voice bland, but he watched her eyes narrow. She wasn’t buying it for a moment.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll grab it.” With a small, thoughtful frown, she turned and headed back up the stairs.

Naj stiffened at the snagging of the ward, hoping his overflowing aura wasn’t the cause. He’d honestly never thought anything wrong with the practice of carrying elemental power in his aura, but after today…

No, it wasn’t him. Something… bigger that he was was at work here. He glanced behind, eyes finding Kain’s in the dark. Only Kain’s. Nica was gone. Naj stretched out his awareness as much as he dared. Nica’s energy was muted again—or had it never actually recovered? He’d felt the ki’n of the nest swarm around her during the show, but had it been unable to stick to her for some reason?

Could that reason have anything to do with her eijye?

Her eijye, who was conveniently blocking the path back upstairs. Who was not so subtly herding them all downstairs. Who had given him and Nica who-knew-what concoctions not once but twice in the past few hours, and Naj was only now beginning to question that? Stupid stupid stupid.

Marie pulled at his arm, stopping when he had. Naj didn’t even spare her look, eye fixed on Kain.

Kain stopped in the middle of the stairwell, turning from Nica’s vanishing back to Marie and Naj. The pair were looking up at him with curiosity and he smiled warmly with a shrug. “She forgot her shirt, she’ll be down in just a moment.”

Nica was preoccupied with Kain’s abrupt dismissal. She couldn’t tell why he’d wanted to be rid of her, but on the heels of this morning… Her pride would hardly let her stay. He hadn’t been listening to her anyway. Which was probably just as well, it hadn’t been terribly important. She should have just mentally nudged him for a private conversation about Naj, she just hadn’t wanted to risk Naj overhearing her.

Her shirt lay on the far side of the stage where she’d tossed it and her stride carried her most of the way across it before she was suddenly aware she wasn’t alone.

For a split second, she thought that a customer had been lurking after close, or that perhaps the door hadn’t been locked and someone had mistaken the time. All of it impossible, but what she found waiting for her seemed so much more impossible.

Dev had never described Azriel. Not in looks anyway, but the fear that underscored her voice when she mentioned him… There was no one else this could be.

He was dressed in a well-tailored suit and tie, the cut of which framed his lean body perfectly. Darkness was the perfect description for him, from his hair to every aspect of his clothing, including the gloves he tugged on with a smile. Only his pale skin gave any relief to it, and his eyes glittered like ice beneath heavy lashes.

Her mouth ran dry as he took a step forward, smoothing one hand down the front of his jacket. His footsteps were silent as he approached the stage.

Even as Naj realized the danger, it was too late. Nica’s suddenly diminished aura just as suddenly vanished, and he reacted without a thought. With a blast of heavy darkness, Naj rushed the much larger man, shoving his way past to take the stairs back to the main floor.

Kain’s attention was on the ward behind him and he was unprepared for the wall of power that hit him. Stupid to be caught off guard, but for all the Dai were known for, obvious and blatant attacks weren’t among them. There was a gasp from Marie behind him and Kain took the stairs three at a time to catch up to the serpent.

Azriel glanced down at her shirt as he passed it, then carefully ascended each of the three steps. Her chin lifted as he made an obvious show of looking her up and down.

You must be… Nica.” His voice was soft and sultry, but there was something within it that made her heartbeat quicken. Nothing so obvious she could put her finger on, but she suddenly understood Dev’s fear. This was a man that logic and reasoning could not sway. Dev had once said he was insane and with just that innocent sentence, Nica believed her.

He continued as if she’d answered him, tilting his head slightly as his eyes drifted down again. “A hawk… With feathers like blood and a heart that falls as quickly as your animal form does.” His lips quirked. “Oh, perhaps that’s a falcon. Forgive me, feathers are all the same to me sometimes.”

Swallowing back the knot of fear, she ignored him. Ignored the twisting of her stomach and urge to run. There would be no outrunning him. And screaming would only bring the other dancers. There was nothing she could do but hope to distract him enough to spare them. Dev had described him as easily distracted, flighty even.

What do you want, Azriel?” Her voice was breathier than she liked, but her voice carried across the stage.

The demon’s eyes were suddenly on hers and Nica found herself wishing he’d go back to studying her body. His smile changed, the wicked edge to it turning her stomach.

I suppose it’s only fair that you know my name if I know yours.” Her eyes widened when he vanished. “I’ve always found names fascinating,” His voice purred into her ear and she fought not to move, “such intimate things when you think about it. A string of letters, syllables, to define and shape a person, so that I can hold all you are on just my tongue alone.”

The sound that followed forced her eyes closed. She would not run, she would not scream. It took all her willpower simply to stay still. She hoped she was strong enough to do the same if he actually touched her.

Empty.

The stage was empty.

It hadn’t been a moment ago. Naj knew he’d seen Nica standing and talking with… well, with something. His mind had slid around the shape, knowing something was there but unable to gather any details about it. It was almost as if the presence hadn’t made a decision one way or another about how present it actually wanted to be.

Then Nica had named it, and disappeared as well.

Azriel.

Naj knew the stage wasn’t empty. There was too much emptiness for it to be anything but an illusion. He’d felt the lingering ki’n that had seeped into the boards, smelled the combined perfume of so many different bodies, tasted the many hours of practice and performance that hung heavy in the space. All of that had vanished with Nica.

Which told Naj both she and the demon were still there.

What it didn’t tell him was if “Azriel” was a strong enough name to bind any spellwork to the creature. Naj had a lifetime of options at his fingertips, but nearly all of them were too strong to risk without knowing for a fact that they would effect his intended target and only his target. Likely as not, his familiarity with Nica would override the tenuous connection “Azriel” would make with the demon, and he’d blast his eija to oblivion—or worse. No, he couldn’t risk most of his options in this current situation.

But that didn’t mean he was helpless, either.

I came to deliver a message to Devin.” Nica’s eyes opened a touch too wide to find Az standing across the stage again, amusement clear in his eyes.

A message.” It wasn’t a question. She was going to be sick.

He twirled a gloved hand in the air, turning on a heel to gaze out at the rest of the club. Her heart was pounding hard enough that it skipped a beat and she watched his head twitch as if he’d heard it.

I prefer hawks to parrots.” His hands slowly crossed behind his back, clasping to show pale skin between cuff and glove. A strange shadow drew her attention there, but it flickered away before she could make sense of it.

He was teasing her and her pride couldn’t even find the strength to be angry. Her thoughts kept turning back to the nest below her, where her dancers would be laughing and jostling to find places in the Great Room for movie time. She prayed that Fate would be kind and spare them, let her be the only sacrifice needed tonight.

A hand wrapped around her throat, stealing all her air between one breath and the next. The leather pinched her skin and her eyes widened…

To find Azriel standing several feet away, watching her with a frown. One hand was fisted at his side, but relaxed the moment she glanced at it. Her own hand twitched with the urge to touch her neck, sore from a coming bruise. There was a faint scent of dust and a strange musk on the air. If it weren’t for that, she’d wonder if she’d imagined it.

I think you’ll be a suitable messenger, don’t you?” His tone was oddly somber, undertones she couldn’t begin to understand threading beneath it.

It took her two tries to say it, but she finally rasped, “Yes.”

His expression immediately brightened, then a nasty smile began to grow. “I was hoping you would say that.”

Her world went dark, his words fading into the background, but she thought she heard him add, “We’re going to have so much fun together.”

Chapter 13, part 3

In which things get a bit out of hand.

As the last act ended, they stayed where they were sitting, letting the crowd empty out. She’d always enjoyed watching the crowd as they began to come down off the high of the performances. Some of the staggering was from alcohol, but the excitement was always genuine.

Whispering behind her grabbed her attention and she turned in time to hear someone say her name. There was a pair of gentlemen standing a few feet back, staring,t hen grinning when they saw her face them.

“I told you it was her!” The taller man said, elbowing his companion in excitement.

A smile automatically fit her lips and she raised expectant eyebrows. She was actually surprised no one had said anything prior to this, but then, she had been gone quite a while.

“It is Nica, isn’t it?” He asked when she didn’t say anything.

She nodded and his grin grew. “Knew it! I might not have recognized you, but I knew anyone dressed like that,” He gestured towards Naj, “Probably worked here and the only girl I knew that worked here with hair like yours was you.”

His friend’s amusement at his babbling was fading as he glanced at his watch. It was late for most people, the show having run into the late evening/early morning hours.

He knew his time was running out and the speed of his talking quickened. “You’re going to be on stage for Blue Moon, right?”

Nica barely had a chance to nod before he continued. “Alright! I’ve got some friends who’re real fans of yours, I’ll be sure to let them know!”

His friend drew him away and she heard something low about wings and drums. She frowned only a bit after them, not recognizing the gentleman. It would be silly to expect to recognize every customer, but Blue Moon nights required a special pass to get into the club. She’d thought she’d known everyone with one. At least she should have been able to pin down what sort of supe he was.

She shook her head, disoriented by the encounter. When she caught Naj’s eye, she smiled. “It was bound to happen sometime tonight.”

Naj wondered if his face was that obviously lost, or it she was just being polite. The conversation had gone so quickly, with so many comments going over his head—what was wrong with Nica’s hair? The feathers were long gone… He knew his clothes were more of a costume in this day and age, but he’d been so comfortable he’d forgotten he’d stand out, until someone commented on it. And while he remembered Blue Moon being mentioned, he’d forgotten exactly what that meant.

He didn’t know what to make of the whole exchange, so he stuck to familiar ground.

Are you feeling better?”

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly as she felt the extent of her aura. Nica did feel better, fuller, warmer… She could lose the overshirt, but she’d wait until she was at least on the main floor.

I am feeling better.” She smiled, pleased to realize it.

Good!”

He’d stored up more than he himself needed, in case Nica hadn’t been able to draw enough on her own. He needn’t have worried. She was the heart of this nest, and it had gladly returned itself to her. He’d find a use for his back-up stores, or they’d dissipate naturally if no need presented itself. Part of it was surely powering his radiating joyful aura.

He sat in a happy bubble, watching the people around him, nearly drunk on the good feelings they exuded. There was a general flow towards the doors, and Naj found he couldn’t remember what came next. He looked to Nica, smile still spread over his face.

Now what?” he asked cheerfully.

Now we wait for the last few to trickle out so we can start shutting the club down.” She glanced towards the stairs, frowning slightly when she realized the third floor had been cordoned off. Were they that slow tonight?

Pulling her gaze away from the stairs, she looked around the now empty second floor. “We’ll head down and grab some rags, but the floor’s mostly clean up here – wipe tables and chairs, stack them, and a good sweep and mop should be all that’s needed.”

He settled back with a happy sigh, basking in the warmth that still radiated up from the ground floor. It was more intense this much closer than he was used to, but the familiarity helped soothe a knot between his shoulders he hadn’t noticed was there. He’d been on edge since they’d woken up, maybe even before then, but he was finally relaxing.

The time to answer Nica had passed. He’d forgotten that little social nuance, but she didn’t seem to mind. Nica seemed the sort of woman not to waste words, and if she had something to say, Naj was confident she would. So they watched the crowd dissipate in silence, Naj waiting for her cue that it was time to clean.

Nica watched Kain help a man who was especially unstable on his feet. She didn’t recognize him and the familiarity with which Kain treated him didn’t help. A regular? She barely remembered most of their regulars anymore. It was an unsettling feeling, but perhaps she just needed to get back into the swing of things for it all to come back.

The pair of them moved towards the door and she knew Kain would have a cab already waiting outside for him. They were down to the stragglers, the few who were settling up tabs and the friends who were so busy talking they didn’t realize they were last to go. She didn’t see anyone that was lingering unnecessarily though, and she was a little relieved to see that no one was skulking about in the hopes of seeing a dancer after the show. Those were typically the most unpleasant encounters.

She stood, stretching her back and letting her feathers mingle in her hair again. She glanced down to Naj. “Ready?”

Naj hopped up brightly with a nod, still buzzing with pent-up energy, though the high of audience had faded with their departure. He shivered when Nica pulled feathers, having spent enough time bathed in their mingling auras to feel the shift. It was prickly, but then soothing, like an itch finally scratched. It reminded Naj a bit of shedding, and his skin rippled in sympathetic goose flesh. He rubbed his arms to chase away the phantom chill then followed Nica down the stairs.

Dancers emerged from backstage as they came downstairs, most in casual clothes, some in various pieces of costume, all still bearing their smiles and bits of make-up.

Kain appeared at their side with some rags and spray bottles. Just as Nica was about to ask Naj if he wanted to work on the upstairs or downstairs, Ro jogged by calling out, “Got the stairs!”

She chuckled, glancing over at Naj. “You want to help up there or down here?”

Does it matter?” he asked, bewildered. He didn’t do well with choices, and he felt the first stirrings of panicked indecision.

Before either she or Kain could answer, there was a high pitched keening that instinctively made Nica brace herself. As it came closer, the sound resolved into a drawn out syllable of her name. A small tanned bundle bowled into her and her arms automatically wrapped to catch it.

With a breathless laugh, she shook her head. “Hi, Chris.”

His face buried itself in her cleavage and she sighed, jostling his weight so he’d know she was about to drop him. Catching himself lightly on his feet, he grinned up at her, arms wrapping around her again to squeeze hard enough that she nearly lost her breath again.

You can’t ever leave me again, Ni.” His voice was muffled against her skin and she ruffled his hair affectionately.

I missed you to-” “Missed your breasts too much.” Their words collided and with a snort she pushed the smaller man back a step.

He grinned up at her, green eyes twinkling with mischief.

A rag caught Chris by the face and his impossibly wide grin grew as Kain pointed to the bar. “Go clean something, jackal.”

With a cackle that echoed to the rafters, the small man was off, darting rather than moving. Nica couldn’t help but laugh. She knew that Chris was more mirth than serious, always looking for an easy laugh to keep moods around him high. He could be alarmingly somber though, if he thought no one was looking. She was glad he’d made the joke and shaking her head, she glanced back to Naj.

That was Chris, you’ll get used to him.”

He’d been half-frozen with panicky indecision. The shriek of a wail drove him completely into serpent stillness, he stood and watched the scene unfold from the shadows he’d drawn about himself. Nica’s comment brought him back to life, and he flushed guiltily at his flagrant show of power. How had he come so dependent on power? And how had he not noticed it? To draw the dark earthiness around him without a thought–

Earthiness? His brow furrowed, but it was true. He hadn’t drawn on the dark shadows of his usual habit—he’d hidden himself with the deep secretive powers of the earth. Which meant that somewhere, something had an abundance of it to spare. The gardens maybe? Nica had said the door was warded, but that didn’t mean it was completely cut off…

Naj visibly shook himself, bringing his attention back to Nica’s questioning look.

“I’m sorry?”

Kain was glad that Nica was so caught up in Chris and then Naj that he had time to school his features. He knew his expression had blanked when Naj had pulled against his aura. That was a new one.

He’d had nestmates that could feel his magic, but to have one usurp it without any warning… A little pocket of ice was forming in his chest. He was Dai. Tool or not, the training was obvious. And the disregard with which he’d used that training so far…

Nica was completely oblivious to it. Born a century after the Dai fell, there was no reason for her to recognize it. Perhaps he should have a word with Naj in private, before this became a resurgence of the Dai empire…

Surely he was simply being paranoid. The Dai had fallen, he’d watched them fall, had made sure they would not rise again to their previous heights.

Fate had a sense of humor to have brought a practicing Dai into his nest after all this time.

Kain smiled as Nica’s attention turned his way and he realized they’d been talking of cleaning chores. He handed off the rags and cleaner he was still holding and the pair of them began wiping down tables.

He watched them for a moment more, then turned away. Nat caught his eye, raising an elegant eyebrow. He shook his head. Her shrug was barely existent and Marie tugged at her arm, excitedly chattering about something.

Kain went to finish closing down the bar, keeping his thoughts to himself.

Naj threw himself into the business of cleaning, focusing on the circular motion of wiping. He scowled as he realized he’d been building a banishment with his pattern, and he wiped a harsh zig zag over the table’s surface. But even that was a traditional motion of negating, drawing on the character for zt, the sign for “no”. Working himself into a fine temper, he set to work on the next table, cleaning in it long, steady lines from top to bottom, focusing intently on not focusing at all.

Nica settled into a familiar rhythm. Two years hadn’t erased it and she fell into the task with a smile. It was meditative enough that she didn’t realize someone had started up some music. Nor did she realize she was singing along, voice rising and falling with her motion.

This was home. Life and warmth in the air around her, in her ears, heart, vibrating along her skin.

The song changed and she followed along, pleased when she realized she knew the songs. She grew more mindful of her voice, letting it fill her chest.

She moved from table to table, song to song, only looking up when she realized that several dancers were clustered near her, grinning like fools.

Nica raised an eyebrow, but couldn’t hide her own smile. As the music faded back down, she waved her rag at them. “Don’t you guys have work to do?”

It was Chris who laughed. Gesturing around, he drew her attention to all the clean tables and empty bar. “Done and done!”

She realized that the table she’d been working on was one of the last. With a shake of her head, she finished. “Alright, alright. Show’s over.”

There was a chorus of exaggerated groans and she rolled her eyes, catching Nat’s grin. Someone called out, “Jukebox time!”

Nat stepped in before Nica could protest. “Nica deserves more than one day to rest, come on guys, how about a movie instead?”

Chris jumped in, talking up some movie he’d picked up on the way home. The crowd dispersed with much laughter and debate. From what she understood, someone else had a different movie they wanted to watch.

She was glad for the distraction. While she enjoyed Jukebox time, a tradition of dancing and singing after a show to blow off some of the leftover energy… She didn’t quite feel up to it tonight.

Nica looked around at the thought, finding Naj to give him a smile. It widened when she saw Marie as well.

Naj gave Nica a little wave, with the arm Marie had left him. She was thoroughly wrapped around the other. She’d found him too far in thought, softly teasing him that he was taking the finish off the table he was working on. After Nica’s quiet intensity, Marie’s open simplicity was most welcome. She was surprisingly subdued from what he’d come to expect of her, but that was welcome too. Maybe, getting up early with him had taken its toll. He almost hoped so—he hated to have worn her out, but he would love to curl up with her and Nat again.

The dancers were moving with a purpose towards the downstairs, and Naj swept his free arm gracefully in their direction, turning to Marie with a smile. “Shall we?”

Marie snuggled against Naj’s arm, smiling when Nica looked their way. She looked relaxed, an easiness to it that reminded Marie everything was alright. It was that smile that had always told her as a child that everything would work out. No matter what happened, Nica would smile and everything would be alright, even if it took a little time.

Marie squeezed Naj’s arm, glad to feel him against her. The sensation combined with the safe feeling of having Nica back and she fought back a yawn. If she curled up with him for the movie, she was going to fall asleep.

Which sounded perfect right now.

She nodded at his invitation and they followed everyone else going downstairs. Nica and Kain trailed after them, talking softly among themselves.

Naj strained to hear the low voices behind him. But the pair was clearly used to having hushed conversations, because he couldn’t make out a thing. Not even a vague emotional impression.

He realized he’d been slowing when he felt Marie pulling away from him. She turned to him with the beginnings of a questioning look, which he dodged with a polite comment about enjoying her dance that evening. She beamed up at him, babbling happily about dancing with him again sometime, but Naj’s attention was as fixed on the pair behind him as he could manage without giving himself away.

Chapter 13 part 2

In which waters are tested.

Though the beats were foreign and the moves a little strange, having seen the show this afternoon gave them a sense of familiarity that settled him. And there was the comfortable feeling of “Nest”, and belonging, and it felt good. Naj could practically feel sustenance he was drawing in with every breath. He was still low, but his spirit was more intact, and the good feelings did much to shore up his weakened aura. He wasn’t sure of the connection between heart and aura, but one seemed to express itself in the other, and both were as much a serpent’s lifeblood as ki’n.

The truly wonderful thing about the Dai’s modified hand gestures was how discreet they could be.

During a lull between acts, he turned to Nica and showed her how to clasp her hands together in a more casual form, indicating that as long as the Li’nar finger and thumb were touching, it didn’t matter what the other fingers were doing. Yes, it was easier if the other power circuits weren’t touching anything, but since they weren’t doing any complicated weavings, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Just–” He hesitated, knowing that sometimes, it was the effort to prevent disaster that caused it. But Nica had found enough trouble on her own this afternoon, so Naj forged ahead. “Don’t attempt to do anything else with your energy until it’s had time to heal a bit. I’ll teach you anything you care to know, so please come to me if you want to experiment?”

Nica stiffened slightly at his words. Despite numerous arguments with Kain, she didn’t seek out trouble. It just usually came calling her name.

“I doubt I’ll want to experiment. I was only trying to practice a dance I thought I already knew earlier.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “But thank you.” She had to remind herself that Naj wasn’t trying to hold it against her, he was merely offering.

He nodded meekly and sunk back into his seat, thoroughly rebuffed. He knew better than to question his eija, he just… He couldn’t bear the thought of bringing her any trouble.

She sighed inwardly as his aura withdrew, his unhappiness clear. She wasn’t used to a serpent that shrank back from a sharp word. But that didn’t give her an excuse.

Nica reached for his arm, squeezing it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t snap at you because of arguments between myself and Kain.”

“Is everything alright?”

He sat back up, leaning over the table to keep his head lower than hers. Would he ever lose the habit of making himself small? Did it matter, if it helped her feel comfortable? He knew first hand how hard it was for raptors to admit to any weakness. He didn’t know if her being raised serpent changed that.

But that did give him other tools to help soothe her. He reached up and patted her hand on his arm reassuringly, sending a wave of warmth with it. It was weaker than he’d have liked, since neither of them had been meditating for long, but it was enough to be noticed.

His question caught her off guard, though she should have expected it. A new dancer would want to know if there were instability in the nest. Hardly a day back in her nest and she was already failing. Ariella’s voice percolated at the back of her head and she batted the useless words away. She was a strong leader. There was nothing wrong with the way she ran her nest.

Everything just seemed to be going wrong lately.

A surge of warmth grabbed her attention, her eyes falling to his hand. At every turn, Naj surprised her. It just put into perspective how badly she and Kain needed to have a serious talk. There was something more going on here than she knew.

It’s fine.” Her voice was quiet and she smiled in an attempt to reassure. But she couldn’t very well pretend she hadn’t said what she’d said. “This morning… Just gave an old argument the perfect excuse to surface, that’s all.”

He doesn’t like that you travel for your studies, does he?”

Naj was finally piecing it all together. The power dynamic had been puzzling to him, but no one had tried to hide anything. Which was part of what had puzzled him. But the way Kain skirted his title without shirking its duties, the Nica stood apart but was clearly a part of this nest…. And listening to Marie, the things she said and the things she didn’t say—Kain was in charge here, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.

Maybe that was why Fate had brought him here. With Naj in the nest, there was a wealth of knowledge at Nica’s fingertips. She had said she wouldn’t want to experiment, but her actions so far said otherwise. Naj was pleased with himself, content in finally having found a sense of usefulness, even under the push of distress from Nica at his words. She’d work herself out, and he’d make himself useful. All would be well.

Her eyebrows shot up at Naj’s conclusion, but thinking about it… He was right, in his own way. Kain was still mad at her for leaving, no matter what the reason was.

Something like that.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair as she watched the bustle of people going to the bar and returning with drinks. Her eyes were distant, not really seeing the people, but the flow itself. “And he is right, in his own obnoxious way. I should be with my nest.”

He nodded and continued his patting, content to let her tell herself what she needed to hear. “He knew what he was getting into, yes?”

Nica made a small sound that was just shy of a snort. “He was the one that talked me into it in the first place…”

Her thoughts drifted back and she hummed softly as she amended, “To be fair, he simply made it more official. I was already taking in a few of my fellow dancers when he came up with the idea.”

She shook herself lightly, off balance when there wasn’t the sensation of feathers rising in her hair to go with it. Had she hid them once while in Ariella’s nest the past two years?

So it was his idea, and he pushed for a more formal arrangement?”

And yet he shuns the title eijye? Naj was beginning to wonder if he needed to have a similar sit down talk with Kain. It was amazing the way people could run from the realities of their own minds.

Nica frowned slightly at his choice of question. Put that way, it made it sound as if Kain had created the nest. Which he had, in a round about way, if she was honest, but all the work had been herself and Dev…

She shook her head. He had merely made a suggestion that had made sense. It had been practical and safer to open a real nest. Banding together as they had had saved a lot of people, given them a refuge, a home. It had given her a purpose, to keep them all safe. It was why she’d carved a small territory out from the surrounding area, why she’d stepped on so many toes to do so.

Something like that.” She left her reply deliberately vague, unsure where this conversation was going.

“It sounds to me like he’s just throwing his weight around. I wouldn’t let him get to you.”

He subtly shifted beneath her touch to turn them both back to the stage. There was a note in her tone that told him she was still thinking, and needed time to simmer. But he’d established himself as someone she could talk to, and as far as he could tell, it was something she’d been missing.

He was wondering more and more about Kain, however. Had he deliberately isolated his eija to control her? Or was this merely an unfortunate side effect of their odd arrangement? This nest was clearly very young, for such unstable power structure to exist, but the best nests took generations to establish. He was happier than ever to be a part of it, to help relieve some of the strain. It would give him purpose that would help him escape his own troubles.

He snorted in spite of himself at the humor of that thought, and at Nica’s questioning look he knew he had to share or risk making more out of it than it was.

“Maybe he wants his own vacation.”

Naj continued to talk and she relaxed again, musing over his words. She did let Kain get to her, but he was the only one who ever gave her something new to think about. All of her ideas were bounced off Kain and he always let his opinion be known. Throwing his weight around…

Naj drew her attention again and smiling, he mentioned a vacation for Kain. Surprised, she glanced at the serpent at her side. “You think so?”

But then she remembered what Kain had been saying in the shower. He had hated having to be here without her. Perhaps he could use a chance to get away.

He shrugged slightly, trying not to dislodge her arm. He was beginning to feel like he was overstepping his bounds, but his already deep in it, and back peddling might only entrench him.

It would either give him the rest he’s looking for, or make him long for home. Either way, I can’t see the harm in a small sojourn.”

Nica tried to imagine how that conversation would go. Get out… He rarely left the nest, she’d probably have to push him out the door. Maybe she could get Dev to open a portal and trip him out of it. The idea made her smile.

True.”

Her attention turned back to the stage as the lights dimmed, the short break over and the show about to begin anew.

As the anticipatory hush fell over the crowd, Naj resettled his hands into the drawing posture. He set them on the table, a subtle reminder to Nica to do the same. He didn’t to push any more than he just had.

But whether or not Nica drew more power, Naj’s mind was made up. There was too much at work here that he didn’t know about, and so, he would arm himself in every way. He very carefully didn’t think about how aggressive that sounded, or about the possibilities he was preparing for. Power meant action, and action meant change. Who was he to enact a change here?

But action could always simple be a reaction, and Naj wanted to have options. Should the need arise.

The remaining acts were a mix of familiar pieces from this afternoon, and ones that seemed familiar to his serpent mind, clearly from nights previous, spent in the rafters. All created a swirl of vibrant energy that Naj’s aura pulled at greedily, gorging until it was more full than he could remember feeling in a long, long time. Was it because this nest was becoming his own? Or was it because he’d not seen Dev walking among the tables even once?

Chapter 13, part 1

In which someone is clearly feeling better.

As they moved through up the stairs, Nica smoothed her feathers out of her hair. She ran a free hand through it, disconcerted with the sensation as she always was. It was as if she’d suddenly donned a mask, an uncomfortable feeling as if she were hiding something.

Of course, she was, but she hated to be reminded of it. She spent so much of her time secluded among shifters that it felt wrong sometimes to have to remember that humans still didn’t know about the supernatural world.

The warmth of the backstage area distracted her thoughts. It wasn’t just the temperature, but the bustle and noise as well. A general feeling of excitement, chaotic and happy, slid over her skin and she smiled. Her hand squeezed Naj’s, glancing his way.

Just beyond him, Nat gave her a smile, nodding as she waited by the backstage curtains. She was dressed in a short skirted nurse’s uniform. Nica knew that somewhere around here would be Lena in a similar outfit if the skit hadn’t changed too much.

Naj stuck close to Nica, unsure of himself in the chaos and the noise. It pressed in around him, but the bubble of good feelings he and Nica still shared kept the worst of the buffeting at bay. At least, it helped to shield his raw aura. His other senses were on their own. The colors and cacophony, myriad of smells and the heat mixed overwhelmingly at first, but as his senses adjusted to the onslaught, he found the mad mix gelling much as their emotions had downstairs. This was a nest. This was Life. And this felt good.

Nica quickly led Naj out of the backstage, taking the hallway door to move from the back to the main floor. Here she paused, glancing around to gauge how quickly she’d be recognized – but to her relief, aside from a few glances, Matthew and Carrie held their attention to the stage.

A pang reminded her how long she’d been gone. Of course no one expected to see her on the floor. It was a strange sensation, to miss an old bother like not being able to walk onto the main floor without having to make small talk with the customers.

Kain’s raising a white rag behind the bar drew her attention and she moved in towards it. He and Dexter were both behind the bar, though she wondered at that. They hardly seemed busy enough to warrant two bartenders.

Nica found space on the short end of the bar for herself and Naj, tucking an arm around the cobra’s waist.

“I see you’re making Dexter’s job harder.” Her voice was mild and earned her a grin from the wolf at the far end of the bar. Dex touched the brim of his bowler with a free hand, nodding as he did so. That was about all the acknowledgment she was going to get while he was working.

Sure enough, he returned to the shaker in his hand, saying something to get the pair of girls before him giggling like mad.

Nica was shaking her head when Kain set two glasses of his herbal tincture in front of them. The warm smile fell right off her face. “Hell no.”

If it wouldn’t have garnered unnecessary attention, she would have thrown hers back in his face. He raised an eyebrow at her, probably knowing exactly what she was thinking. She leaned into Naj’s warmth and Kain’s eyes flicked to the black silk wrapping around her.

She knew it was a subtle reminder that she still wasn’t feeling up to her usual self. She sighed and reached for it, muttering something about the vile taste.

Kain gave her a look as he leaned close so his deep voice could be heard. “You know it’ll make you feel better.”

She gave him a dark look. “Swallow a live toad and nothing could be worse? You need a better endorsement if you actually want someone to drink these.”

Kain chuckled. “I like to think my drinks speak for themselves.” He glanced to Naj. “He doesn’t seem to have a problem with them.”

Naj dutifully drank his, wincing at the burn of the liquor. It sat better with the stew in his belly than their first dose had, but it was still less than pleasant. But it was better than the alternative.

Thank you for all your efforts,” he said, carefully to keep the thickness from his voice. “Dirt” was about the kindest endorsement he could offer the flavor.

Nica snorted, lifting her drink to sniff it. “He’s just being polite.”

Giving Naj a cheeky smile, she added, “You don’t have to be, by the way. Kain has a thick skin.” Pulling the drink away again, she grimaced, “And a thicker skull and stomach.”

Manners are just as important to have as to hear.”

It was out of his mouth without a thought, and he flung his hands to his mouth as if to stem the flood of any further rudeness.

Kain’s laughter erupted at Naj’s comment, tapping the bar as he did so. He grinned when he looked up again, dark eyes glittering in the low lighting. A few customers nearby turned to look, their own smiles in place.

He took Naj’s empty glass, still chuckling. He glanced at Nica, who couldn’t help her own smile. She rolled her eyes though when he added, “Perhaps Naj can teach you something after all.”

Naj curled in on himself under the attention. He gave a muttered thanks and dropped his head over the water glass Kain offered.

Nica gave a heavy sigh and picked up her drink, bringing it to her nose. It smelled horrible and she knew was going to regret this. Steeling herself, she downed the double-shot and immediately leaned over to lay her head on the bar. When she could finally raise her head, she took Kain’s offered shot of water and shuddered.

“I swear to the skies that you go out of your way to make that unpalatable. There’s no way anything on this earth meant to be consumed can taste that badly.” She leaned on the bar and glared at Kain, though there was mirth just under the surface. “I stand by the statement that you’re a sadist. It’s the only explanation for those things.”

Nica shook her head and shuddered again as she turned to Naj. “Come on, I’m sure there’s someplace to watch the show that doesn’t include torture or whatever madness Kain might have planned.”

Naj slipped off the stool, giving Kain a nod that he would have made a bow if he could have. He had to learn to relax, but something about the eijye simply disarmed him. Nica didn’t seem to have any such issues, however, giving the cat as good as she got. It was nearly as stunning a show at the one going on on stage.

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert, part 4

Llorinda’s fingers on the laces at his hips tickled. He wanted to bat her away, but he understood her need to make sure everything looked just so. He’d asked her to do it, out of the same fastidious need. And because she was the only female who’s eye he trusted that he actually could ask such things of.

“You’ll be fine, Meron,” she said lightly, eyes still on her work.

He wanted to scowl or give some curt reply, but the annoyance in his aura, and the anxiety underneath, were clear enough. Though he held his aura more closely than his neighbors—especially after visiting the h’somu in the mountains—skin to skin contact would tell her almost his every thought. It didn’t help that she was one of his oldest friends.

Or rather, it did help. Llorinda’s presence, her support by extension, did much to soothe his frazzled nerves. She didn’t say, “I know,” didn’t give the laces a firmer tug than necessary to drive the point home. She just quietly went about her work, sitting back on her heels occasionally to judge their evenness, and let him stew in his own dread.

It’s just a dance, he told himself. Just one stupid little dance you’ve practiced a hundred times. With his nerves this ramped up, he was just as likely to call the fire on accident as with the ceremonial dance. Either way, the central fire would be lit for the year, and his people’s prosperity would be assured.

The only real question was whether or not his dignity would survive the winter.

“Up or down?”

He started from his thoughts at Llorinda’s question, and stared stupidly down at her until she asked again.

“U-up, of course,” he said.

She nodded and began to lace the pants just under his knees. Her lack of comment prompted him to continue. “It’s traditional, isn’t it? Cuffs are worn high for any fire dances.”

Llorinda nodded again, holding one end of the cord in her teeth as she worked. Once free of the burden she answered. “I know how to dress a leh’shcarmn for a ki’ramn. I was asking you how you’d prefer to be dressed.”

He paused and mulled over her words, knowing she’d made the distinction for a reason. Was it belittling his skills, calling his footwork into question? If he wore them down, his calves wouldn’t be painted with the gold markings that would glint in the firelight, showing off the steps.

No, that wasn’t it. Llorinda would tease him about just about anything, but not things of real importance. He was truly nervous about this, and she would know it, and wouldn’t undermine his confidence.

So what was she asking? She hadn’t stopped lacing the cuff up around his knee, like he’d asked, so why even say anything? Would she be willing to take them back down if he changed his mind? He wouldn’t want to make her redo the all over again—

And it wouldn’t be like her to waste the effort, if she thought he really might. So she knew he wanted them up, but wanted him to think about why.

Was he wearing them this way, simply because of tradition? What was he trying to prove? Yes, the night was about proving their reijye was a capable areta, able to call the magic of his birthright and fit to lead them. But most of them had seen him call fire at one time or another before, albeit informally. So what was this evening really about?

How would you prefer to be dressed?

She was asking him to present his real face to the people, he realized. His friend was challenging him to be more than icon and leader to the people he lived and loved with. To stop holding himself back, to truly dance when he called the fire.

But could he do it? Could he let his people in, let them see the pain that hovered just behind his smile, darted in the shadows at the corners of his eyes, sighed out with his every laugh and joke?

“I prefer them laced down.”

“I know.”

Still she laced them above the knee, moving on to fix the next cuff.

“Your cakes taste like dirt.”

Raith made a face as Llorinda passed him a bun, frosted in honey paste. That self-pleased smile touched at the edge of her lips, and he always wondered what she was thinking when she wore that look. It couldn’t be pride in her work. Raith was right. They did taste like dirt.

Marl stumbled forward, helped along by Larai’s knee, and blushed furiously. Llorinda smiled prettily, batting her eyes and turning a little rosy herself. He wondered when the two of them were finally going to get together. Marl had fancied her all growing up, and the feeling only seemed to be deepening.

“G-good morning, Miss Llorinda.”

The other baker apprentices surfaced in a flurry of giggles, trying to look busy setting out the morning’s ware, but they were almost as gossipy as dancers. One stuck her thumb right in the middle of a fruit tart. She’d been too busy watching their group to notice.

He was never sure what drew their attention. The infamous Four Winds, his band of closest friends, or the strangely reserved romance between Marl and Llorinda. Both sights were sure to yield excellent gossip.

Larai mimicked Marl’s greeting in a high falsetto, tossing his head and looking for all the world like the stork he was nicknamed for. He wanted to throw a fish at him and see if he’d catch it with his teeth or his face.

Raith elbowed him, coming to Marl’s defense. “Manners are just as important to have as to hear,” he chided him, pushing him away from Marl and Llorinda. Larai stammered, “But you just said they taste like dirt!”, struggling to get around Raith’s corralling.

“That I did, and they do, but there’s no call to make fun of them. Good morning, Miss Llorinda.” He never looked back as he literally pushed Bird to another stall.

He walked away himself, shaking his head. He heard Marl behind him declaring that he loved Llorinda’s baking, and thought this year’s h’Cheres cakes would be the best year, echoed by another twitting of giggles from the other bakers.

He just smiled and ate his breakfast, chewing on the grit.

A hot wind blew across the desert, but it was a gentle warmth compared to the blaze from before. It carried the smell of sun and spices, a bustling marketplace somewhere far, far away. The heat wrapped around Seth, chasing away the chill that been trying to settle on him after the campfire had gone out.

For the first time since falling asleep, the creases in Seth’s forehead eased. He didn’t quite smile, but he was finally resting easily.