Steps of the Dance

Chapter 1

By

Lily of Trust

Lafarga turned over onto his side, shifting in his sleep as he dreamt peacefully. One arm reached to the other side of the bed, searching for someone who no longer lay there...

Alerted by the absence of the warm body which usually nestled closely in against his side, the swordsman's cold blue eyes snapped open. He propped himself up on his elbow and looked around the room he shared with the love of his every waking moment, but Caldina was nowhere to be seen.

There couldn't have been anything seriously wrong, he told himself firmly. His instincts would surely have warned him if someone had abducted his lady, or if there was another threat to be dealt with. But in this land of New Cephiro, there were no monsters; they had all been pacified by the purity and peace of the hearts of three young women from another world. Besides, Caldina's robe and slippers were missing from their usual spots.

Unable to discern why Caldina, who was usually such a sound sleeper (especially after their...activities), was up and about at such an ungodly hour, Lafarga sat and pushed back the sheets. Something was amiss. His every nerve told him so, and his instincts were never, ever wrong. So he reached for his trousers and pulled them on as silently as only a trained warrior could. A few moments later, he was padding soundlessly down the marble hallways of the new Palace, in search of a certain pink haired Charmer.

There was no visible sign of her passing anywhere, but then, the Palace was quite a large structure. It could take him days to search it top to bottom, which would be more or less pointless. Though if he thought his love was in any actual danger, he would have done so without a second thought. But the longer he searched, the surer he became that something was wrong. An anxious feeling began to roil around in the pit of his stomach as he fought with an overactive imagination few suspected he possessed.

Lafarga's feet led him towards the kitchens on the lower levels. There was always someone awake in there, either hunting out a midnight snack, dropping by for a meal between the changing of the guard shifts, or up early cooking breakfast for the countless inhabitants of the Palace. At the moment, a lone light threw a faint glow out the doorway, and a shadow moved beyond. It occurred to him that perhaps whoever was at work in there might have seen Caldina.

The Dal came around the doorframe and was suddenly overwhelmed with conflicting emotions of relief and annoyance. Hovering over the stove, heating a kettle of water and measuring out tealeaves from a pottery container was the object of his search. Caldina didn't even turn to acknowledge his presence, which wasn't actually her fault, since he'd been walking so silently she obviously hadn't heard him approach.

Lafarga studied her for a moment. Her rose-colored tresses swept midway down her back; she always slept with her hair down, and he never tired of running his hands through it. He noticed suddenly that she seemed oddly pale beneath her tan, and her hands were shaking so badly that some of the powdered leaves spilt over the spoon onto the counter.

"Caldina?" He asked, his voice tinged with concern. The Charmer yelped in surprise, jumping a foot into the air and sending both spoon and tealeaves flying. The kettle of steaming water was upset, and splashed down the front of her nightshirt. Cursing himself as ten kinds of an idiot for frightening her, Lafarga stepped forward and hastily pulled her back from the scalding water. She went stiff in his arms, before turning her face into his neck and going practically limp. Her shoulders shook almost uncontrollably, and he realized with a jolt that she was hyperventilating.

"Caldina, is something wrong?" Lafarga asked anxiously, holding her out at arm's length to study her face. He hadn't noticed before, but shining twin tracks marked the path tears had taken down her cheeks. She dashed them away with the sleeve of her nightgown, and smiled bravely up at him, though her lower lip quivered slightly.

"Of course not, sugah." She cleared her throat when her voice shook and tried again. "You just startled the livin' b'jezus outta me, that's all."

He didn't believe her for a second, and that must have shown in his face. He gave her a severe look and pulled her over to one of the many tables that were usually used to set out food for the servants to carry into the dining area. Lafarga pushed her gently down into a seat and silently turned to mop up the mess and set another kettle on, somehow sensing that she needed the tea to calm herself.

"Are you going to tell me what has disturbed you, or are you going to be difficult, as always?" He asked in usual direct manner. Though his back was turned, he heard Caldina stiffen up in the chair. As he turned back to face her, he fully expected to see the firey attitude he was so familiar with glaring at him from those sapphire eyes, but instead, she was slumped over in her seat, her hair shielding her face from his gaze.

Lafarga instantly suspected he had pushed the wrong button. He stepped forward and brushed the errant strands away from her cheek, tucking them behind the shell of her ear. "Caldina...what troubles you so?" He inquired quietly.

The Charmer kept her eyes on her lap, her hands clenching and unclenching into white knuckled fists. She loved Lafarga with everything she was, but there were some things she couldn't bear to bring herself to speak of with him. If only because she knew he'd never look at her the same if he was aware of the things she had done in her past. Things even worse than the acts she had committed under Zagato's command.

"You can tell me anything." He assured her, unconsciously echoing her thoughts. Caldina flinched as though someone had struck her. At the same time, she wanted to smack herself for behaving so out of character. The brash, talkative persona she displayed for the world to see was her true self, but there were times when her weaker side pushed past that barrier. She hated that.

"I just had a bad dream, tha's all." She told him, smiling genuinely as his hands closed over her smaller ones. "I felt like a cuppa tea might help me get back ta sleep."

"You're lying." Lafarga snorted. "Or at least, that's not the entire truth."

Caldina cursed his instincts. She could never manage to pull a fast one on the tall blonde man, no matter how hard she tried. He saw through her every falsehood with that hawk-eyed gaze, though his eyes were always gentle for her.

"Tell me." He implored her, seating himself in one of the other chairs while the water came to a boil.

"I...can't...." Those two words were perhaps the hardest she had ever forced past her lips. She knew she wouldn't be able to live with the...the disgust in those eyes if she explained.

"Yes, you can." Lafarga smiled one of his rare smiles, pushing her bangs from her eyes with a touch that was more of a caress.

"I have...nightmares, sometimes." Caldina said haltingly. "B'fore I came here, ta Cephiro...I was a different person. And sometimes, the things I did then come back ta give me a lil' hell."

"Then you should talk about them." Lafarga stated simply. "It always helps to talk. We have all night, and no one will disturb us here." He noted the hesitation in her eyes, and cried inwardly at the weakness his normally strong Caldina found herself plagued with. "And whatever you should confide in me, I will understand. I love who you are now, and what happened to make you this way does not change that."

Those might have been exactly the words the Charmer needed to hear. Caldina sat up a little straighter, the usual starch back in her spine, and a glimmering of the familiar light in her eyes. Maybe she had been wrong to doubt him. Maybe...maybe if she told him her tale, and got it off her shoulders after all these many years...

"Well I might bore ya, you know." She warned him teasingly. "Jest so ya can't say I didn't warn ya."

Lafarga smiled and made himself comfortable in his chair as words Caldina had been fighting back for year upon year were finally spoken.

~

In the merchant's quarters of the Chizetan Capitol City, business and life were bursting from every seam. The streets were packed with people looking to make a sale, or buy a bargain. Children clad in tattered, but bright, tunics shrieked and giggled as they dodged between the legs of the crowd, playing games known only to themselves. Pickpockets and cutpurses were in evidence as well; they moved along with the flow of traffic, lifting wallets and occasionally stealing jewelry. Business as usual.

But in a small shop which offered hand-carved and crafted clocks, the drama of life and death was playing itself out once again, as a new life was brought into the world, and another hung in the balance.

The birthing was not going well. There was blood everywhere, staining the sheets, tinting the basin of water to a pinkish color, and slicking down the hands of the midwife. That matronly middle aged woman regarded the proceedings with deep concern. The young woman laboring in the bed was ill suited to bearing children. She was a tiny, slender thing, with almost perilously narrow hips. Another contraction wracked the small frame, and the mother-to-be screamed hoarsely and gripped at the sheets with fingers gone white. The midwife murmured encouraging words low under her breath. She could see the infant's head; the agonizing process was nearly complete.

Outside of the chamber, a tall, thin man paced restlessly. His wife's every scream twisted his insides like a barbed knife. They had both longed for a child, and after four years of marriage, they were near to giving up hope. This pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle, but it seemed it might cost his beloved far too high a price.

A long, lingering wail rose on the air. The man, one Feshahd Merchantman stopped in his tracks. His heart froze within his chest as dead silence fell. Then, the thin cry of a baby drawing its first breath reached his ears. Unable to restrain himself any longer, Feshahd pushed past the door into the birthing room.

The midwife hardly bothered to cast him a glance as she was occupied with cleaning the child. She helped the mother sit up and gently deposited the infant into the arms of the exhausted woman.

"Jezedra..." Feshahd said quietly, almost reverently. He took a few hesitant steps forward, perching himself on the edge of the narrow bed. His wife looked up and smiled that smile she had only for him. Her hair, the same dusky pink as the sky after a particularly lovely sunset, was in wild disarray. Her blue eyes seemed somehow washed out, their normally brilliant color leeched away.

"Come and see your daughter, Feshahd." Jezedra beckoned, her voice hoarse and raw from screaming. He reached out a shaking hand to touch the tiny head peeking from the swaddling. A short frizz of pale rose hair, like the fuzz on a peach, capped the little girl's head. Her eyes opened and met her father's brown ones. Feshahd smiled suddenly, utterly entranced by the diminutive creature.

"What shall we call her?" He asked his wife.

Jezedra's lips stretched into a tired smile, as it if took all her strength to do so.

"Caldina. My sister's name, before she was lost to me."

"Caldina..." Feshahd tested the name on his tongue, and found it fitting. He lifted his daughter into his arms and gazed down into those bright blue eyes. "Yes, I think that's a fine name."

Jezedra made a soft sound of agreement before leaning back into her pillows. Her head lolled onto her shoulder as her eyes closed. It looked for all the world that she was simply taking a rest after the exertions of the birth. But there was something unnatural about her stillness, the way her hand lay limply in her husband's lap.

The midwife sighed sadly to herself, and stepped forward. Feshahd stared blankly at his wife's body, completely uncomprehending. Jezedra had lost far too much blood during labor to have had any chance of surviving. A delicate desert rose like herself could not stand such a massive loss and live long enough for her body to compensate. Very carefully, the woman who had first held the infant girl drew the sheet up to cover the dead mother's face.

Caldina's very first discovery in this new world of Chizeta was that her father's tears tasted of salt water.