Steps of the Dance

Chapter 4

By

Lily of Trust

Caldina sat in the creeping shadows of her father's room and stared unseeingly at a point on the opposite wall. An orderly had been through earlier, scrubbing all traces of the plague from the floors and walls, preparing the room for its next ill occupant. The bedclothes had been changed, removing even the lingering warmth and scent of Feshahd from the sheets.

She was huddled at the head of the bed, her back to the wall and her knees pulled up to her chest. She hugged them to herself, rocking slightly in the dim room. The faint, rhythmic creaking such actions produced from the bedsprings was eerily loud in the dead quiet. There were no more tears to cry; her eyes were red and sore, and felt gritty when she blinked. Her chest ached from the prolonged sobbing, tightening painfully if she even dared to think of her father.

Memories sprang forward unbidden. Little things, like the way his eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled; how he'd gesture expansively when talking, his hands doing half of the oration.

A great deal of her memories involved those hands. Scratches and scrapes being soothed, tears wiped gently away. A chiding finger shaken during an admonishment. Warm hands pulling the covers over her shoulders after a disturbing dream, or a childish fear of monsters under the bed. But foremost were images of long fingers working tirelessly, with endless patience, at the gears of the clockwork creations.

Caldina's throat tightened to the point of choking her in her own grief. She made several abortive attempts to swallow and found that she was making sobbing, hiccuping noises again. Her eyes burned with another hot rush of saline.

Perhaps she'd been wrong about having nothing more to cry.

But she hadn't even gotten to see the body, to say the final good-bye. All plague victims were returned to ash, to prevent the spreading of the epidemic. The crematoriums in the city were probably running day and night just to keep up with the demand.

Just as the next wave was threatening to crash down and drown her in a salt water deluge, the door to the tiny room cracked open. The warmth of the ray of light from the hallway outside mocked the open hopelessness of the room. It was really nothing more than a sham glimmer, a broken promise of happy endings.

Siratan entered, shutting the door behind him as though recognizing the promise as a lie. Accustomed as Caldina's eyes were to the wan light, she had no trouble picking out the swollen and puffy eyes, the reddened nose, or the twin tracks of smudged tears. She felt no need to ask how his family was.

Silently, the little boy crossed the room and climbed up beside her. He buried his face against her side, his tiny fists balling up into the fabric of her tunic as he gave into his grief once more. Caldina hugged him as close as she could manage, desperate for human contact that understood and shared the knife of loss twisting deep inside. She tried to hum something, anything really, to relieve some of Siratan's anguish. Something to lift his spirits and sooth the raw, grating feeling just a little. But nothing emerged from her constricted throat. Not so much as a whimper.

~

The Doctor stepped back from the door. Through the small square of tinted glass set into the wood, he had a distorted view of the events within. But even he, who had seen the affects of death and grief so many times during the course of his career, could no longer bear to watch the two children attempt to comfort one another. He feared that his own fragile self control would shatter, and the horrendous weight of so many lives lost to the plague would come crashing down around him. His heart cracked and wept as the sound of strangled sobbing emerged from beyond the closed door.

Fortunately, or perhaps not, he was shaken from his sympathy by the arrival of woman in nurse's garb. She tugged at his sleeve to gain his attention, not at all surprised by the sorrowful expression upon his face.

"Doctor...there's a man to see you about a relative brought here yesterday." She informed him in the soft, quiet voice that everyone on the staff used these days. He nodded and followed as she turned in a soft swishing of skirts. They passed other doctors and nurses, all of whom seemed pale and drawn. The constant influx of patient after patient wore away at their reserves. Everyone was running on dregs of energy, or just plain empty. There was simply no time to rest and recharge. Several doctors had already collapsed from the sheer strain of seeing more patients in a month's time than they normally would in an entire year. Some of those unfortunates had contracted the disease themselves, thanks to their weakened state.

They eventually broke out into a large reception area, that used to hold anxious relatives back before the entire hospital had become a quarantine zone. The doctor gulped as he recognized a tall, muscular figure, whose relationship to Feshahd was unmistakable. Having attended lessons with the clockmaker, he had naturally met the man's older brother.

Ashul turned and smiled coldly at the stout little medic before him. "Doctor," Somehow, he managed to transform a nod of respect into a gesture of insolence. "I received notification this morning that my brother passed away this past night, a victim of that disease."

The physician growled inwardly at the utterly dispassionate tone the man used. His hands curled unconsciously into fists.

"Yes, that's true," He nodded back. "It's our duty to inform the next-of-kin."

"I suppose his body was disposed of in the manner befitting plague victims?" Ashul's brown eyes swept the room with a scornful gaze. The doctor's growl became audible.

"Now see here! The man was your brother! Shouldn't you have some compassion for-"

"I'm here to collect my niece," The taller man went on, as though he had never been interrupted in the first place. There was a note of some actual emotion in his voice, which the doctor took as a good sign. Perhaps there had been some outstanding argument between the two brothers, which would explain for the coldness with which Ashul spoke of Feshahd. At least it seemed he cared for the girl. He nodded slowly and turned back the way he had come.

"Very well. If you'll follow me," The two men struck out into the hospital. The exchange that passed between them along the way could hardly have been called a conversation.

"Do you know why she did not fall ill?" Ashul asked, the question setting his escort's teeth back on edge. Such a callous man!

"No," The doctor replied shortly. "It seems she is one of the few fortunate enough to be immune to the disease," He paused for a moment, as if considering something, before continuing. "Feshahd confided to me, in his last hours, that the girl displayed a sort of Mage talent. He never specified, but I suspect that her magical aptitude may be the source of her immunity."

"...Mage talent..." Ashul mused to himself, and the conversation, such as it was, died for the rest of the walk.

Eventually, they pulled up a door completely indistinguishable for the others. The Doctor set his hand on the knob and pushed it open, praying the children had cried themselves out.

Caldina looked up as the door creaked open. Her blue eyes acquired a golden sheen from the pale lamplight, transforming her gaze into something inhumanly direct. Siratan had fallen asleep, his head pillowed in the older girl's lap.

For a brief moment, hope fluttered in her chest like a caged bird, leaping into her throat and shining through into her eyes. In the wan lighting, she became convinced that everything had been a mistake, and that the man in the doorway was her father, alive! She slipped away from Siratan, who came awake with a faint mumble, and jumped off the bed to run over to the two men. She came to a halt before Ashul and looked up at him, her face wreathed in a bright smile that lit up every feature. Her arms started to rise, as though pleading with him to pick her up, but she stopped midway through the gesture and dropped them back down to her sides. Blinking in confusion, Caldina tipped her head to one side and took a second look at the tall man.

Her face fairly crumpled in disappointment. She hugged herself tightly, twisting back and forth in place as though she was trying to keep from flying apart at the seams. This man wasn't her father. She was still alone.

"Caldina?" The doctor went to his knees beside the girl, setting one thick-fingered hand upon her frail shoulder. "This man is your uncle, Ashul. He's come to take you to live with him. He's your family now."

Uncle? The girl dragged the back of her sleeve across her eyes and took a second look.

Siratan came up behind her, peeking over her shoulder at the imposing figure. She heard him gulp and felt him cower down a little. She couldn't blame him. The man's stern face and cold eyes rang distant, discordant bells in her memory.

"Caldina?" The doctor shook her gently, concerned at her silence. The child looked up at him, eyes wide and brow furrowed in confusion.

"Do I have t'go with him?" She asked plaintively.

"I'm afraid so," The doctor replied. He could understand her obvious reluctance; Ashul didn't seem to be overflowing with sympathy or affection towards her.

"What about Atan?" Caldina reached back and took the smaller boy's hand. "Where's he gonna go?"

"I...don't know," Came the awkward answer. "He has no known relatives. So many children have been left homeless recently, the orphanages are filled to overflowing."

"I'm not leavin' him here!" Caldina wailed defiantly, clutching him to her side. Siratan, not quite comprehending the situation, but realizing that something was amiss, clung to her desperately.

"Enough of this fuss," Ashul spoke for the first time in the childrens' presence. His booming voice effectively silenced his niece's protests. "The boy may come with me. I can always use another set of hands around my estate." He turned back to Caldina, who gawked at him in surprise. "I have already sent someone to your father's shop to gather your things. Transportation awaits us outside. Come now." With that, he turned and strode back down the hall. The two children stared after him for a moment before scurrying to keep up.

The doctor stood and watched them go. He had a rather unpleasant feeling in the pit of his rather ample stomach, but the matter had been taken out of his hands. All he could do now was pray for their happiness.

~

The Chizetan capitol had been constructed in such a way that the light of the rising sun first fell upon the Palace, then the homes of the Nobility, and so on down the social scale. The rich and powerful often boasted large manors, complete with exquisitely landscaped lawns and gardens. Such concessions to vanity existed in even small, crowded worlds like Chizeta, where the space for such yards could have easily held several tenement buildings.

The morning sunlight swept over the tiled roof of one such estate. Large trees, specially imported from distant Fahren, spread their limbs over most of the lawn. A few branches scraped up against the windows of the manor, awaiting pruning. Small, brightly colored birds flitted between the leaves, calling out greetings to their kin.

The thin wooden shutters of one such room banged open, startling the chattering birds into flight. A middle aged, brown-skinned woman, her hands worn with much work and toil, secured the curtains to ensure a decent breeze reached the room. She sighed and paused for a moment to enjoy the sunlight before turning back to face the interior of the chamber. Another woman, perhaps ten years younger, fussed busily over a teenaged girl perched upon a stepstool. A bolt of cloth, perhaps six yards long and beautifully embroidered in gold along the length of the borders, was draped over the servant's left arm.

"I really don't understand why my ability to dress myself seems t'fly out the window every time company comes a callin'," The girl muttered, tugging at the choli she wore. The snug-fitting black top bared her midriff and back, tying at the back of the neck and serving as support for her bust.

"Honestly mistress, must we go through this every time your uncle entertains?" The woman at the window chided, stepping forward to assist the other servant in wrapping the sari about their young charge. With a deft, expert touch, she gathered most of the fabric at the girl's waist, winding it into a skirt. She then draped the pallu, or end-piece, over her shoulder and stepped back to admire her work. The sari itself was long enough to indicate an elevated social status. The cloth had been dyed a deep crimson at one end, and faded through every shade of red to a pale rose at the other end.

The girl turned to examine her reflection in a standing mirror. She set her hands on her hips and tossed her long pink hair over one brown shoulder. Her image gazed back, blue eyes flashing angrily from a delicately pretty face.

"I don't like it," She complained.

"It suits you," The elder servant said calmly, attempting to head off a long-standing argument.

"It's gaudy," The teen scowled. "I'm tired of bein' dressed up like a doll an' trotted out fer people t'coo over."

"Mistress..." The younger maid began, her hands rising in a placating gesture.

"Don't 'Mistress' me, Ahna," The girl fumbled with the professional wrapping, unwinding the sari from about her body. She flung it across the room, where it landed upon a padded divan. She hopped down off the stool and snatched up a pair of salwar, long, full trousers slitted to the knees and bound at the ankle.

"Dina!" The door to the bedchamber burst open. A sandy haired boy, in his early-teens, judging by the gangly length of his limbs, screeched to a halt just inside the doorway. Unruly bangs flopped into his eyes, adding to the coltish impression he made.

All three women looked up in surprise, the two servants pausing in the middle of gathering up discarded clothing, the girl with one leg through the trousers and the other out.

"Honestly boy, how many times must you be told to knock before entering a room?!" rebuked Ahna.

"Oh shush," The girl rolled her eyes and secured the salwar about her waist with a sash of red silk. "No harm done. An' anyways, Siratan's allowed in." She turned back to the boy, her commanding tone vanishing, replaced by a much friendlier, casual one. "What's th'mattah, Atan?"

The boy grinned, shoving his hair out of his eyes as he replied. "I just heard who your uncle's hosting tonight."

"You will refer to him as 'Lord Ashul," The older maid corrected, "And for Heaven's sake, Siratan, stop beating 'round the bush and get to the point!"

Siratan grinned nervously and bobbed his head to acknowledge his error. "It seems His Majesty caught word of our Lord's recent business ventures in Fahren. I guess it brought a fortune in trade contracts or something...at any rate, the Royal Family will be gracing our household with their presence this evening."

A combined gasp went up from the two servant women. They chattered anxiously between themselves, suddenly becoming aware of a million little things in need of repair or tidying up by supper. Siratan rolled his eyes and focused back on the girl.

"And your dance instructor told me to get you. You're late for lessons, Caldina."

She groaned in response, quickly pulling on a soft pair of slippers. "Figures, don't it? The one lesson I enjoy, I miss 'cuza some stupid dress fitting." She waved a hand towards the intricate sari on the bed and hurried towards the door.

"So you're not excited about the King and his family being here tonight?" Siratan asked as he shut the door behind them.

Caldina shrugged and headed down the hall. Her childhood friend fell into step at her side, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trousers.

"Not really," she said, "They're not gonna notice me. My job is t'sit, look pretty, and try not t'spill my food. That's 'bout it."

"But the Princesses are about our age, aren't they?" Siratan persisted. "Maybe you'll be allowed to talk to them," He sighed wistfully "I'll bet they're beautiful, too."

Caldina snorted wryly. "They're princesses. Of course they're pretty. That's one'a the qualifications for nobility." She shook her head and scuffed at the ground with her foot. "Nope, I'll be told to keep my mouth shut, and try t'look well-bred. This is about my uncle, not me."

In the eleven years since her father's death, her uncle's business ventures had spread to each of the other three worlds. He traded spices and exotic fabrics in Fahren, worked as a neutral arbitrator in the negotiations between Fahren and Autozam, and even held some small transactions in Cephiro. Having large amount of money invested in so many places meant he did a lot of traveling. Since the day he'd brought her home with him to this estate, Caldina had been turned over to a series of nurses, servants and governesses. She respected her Uncle, but she couldn't say she genuinely liked the man. She didn't think there was anyone who did. He was feared, cursed, and looked up to in many circles, but not liked.

Caldina had never had much contact with the man, which was just as well, really. He hadn't tried to take over as a father figure, which would have only earned him her resentment. They took meals together once or twice a month, and generally avoided each other as much as possible. The impression she got from the man was one of endless ambition. Ashul wanted nothing more than to be granted the status of nobility, but having been born into a merchant family cursed him to being nothing more than a rich businessman at best. One had to be born noble, or marry into an established bloodline.

The dance studio was housed in a separate wing of the manor. The long chamber sported well-worn hardwood floors, several windows to let ample sunlight in, and a ceiling high enough to perform lifts and jumps.

Her instructor, a tall, wiry man in his mid-thirties, stood beside one of the windows, gazing out at the manicured lawns. One hand rested upon the sill, tapping out a rhythm. Caldina paused just inside the door, pulling her hair into a high ponytail. She didn't think she'd made any noise, but he turned away from the window and smiled warmly at her.

"You're late," He said quietly, beckoning her over to the bar that ran along one wall.

"I had a fitting," She explained, trotting over to begin her warm-up exercises. "My uncle's hosting a dinner party t'night, so I-"

"Excuses won't improve your skills, Caldina," He said sternly, "You're a talented dancer, one of the best I've come across, but you are not my only student. I have other appointments to keep."

She flinched away from the disapproval in his hazel eyes, ducking her head as she set one leg atop the bar and leaned out over her knee. There weren't many adults who could get away with putting her in her place, but this man was one of them.

"M'sorry, Sir Tanvir. I won't be late next time," She promised.

"See to it," He nodded to Siratan, who had been standing close at hand the entire time. "We'll be running through the piece of choreography I introduced to you last week." The boy nodded and turned to a curious contraption sitting upon a bench. It was basically a box of thinly beaten black metal. Inside, countless wires and chips relayed impulses back and forth. When the correct button was pressed, music issued forth. Caldina didn't understand how it worked, but her uncle had purchased it on a recent business trip to Autozam, and brought it back for her use in her lessons. Siratan, who was perhaps partly of Autozam by blood, seemed to have an instinctive knack for working with the mechanized gadgets.

He fiddled with a knob for a moment, selecting a piece of music while Caldina stepped away from the bar and took her place near the center of the room. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she exhaled. The music emerged through a set of wire-mesh 'speakers', filling the studio as though it were played live.

Caldina remained still for the first few bars, feeling the music vibrate through the floor. She'd been told it too had come from Autozam, another product of their machines. It started off as a simple rhythm, but a new element or sound was added every time the beat came full circle. The tempo increased, the complexity grew, and her body inevitably moved to follow.

This particular routine opened in a quick series of steps, short and staccato, much like the music. Her arms rose above her head, linked loosely at the wrists. The steps she took evolved into subtle twitches of her hips. The music added several new components to the initial beat, sending the dancer into a whirl. She dipped and spun, arms flung out around her body in a protective shell. Locks of hair clung to her cheeks and the nape of her neck, pasted there by perspiration.

Her brow furrowed in concentration as her feet wove through an increasingly complex pattern. By now, she should have been feeling slightly winded at the least, but the rush of endorphins kept her riding high for the moment. There was something about the combination of music and movement that kindled a warmth in the pit of her stomach. A firey warmth spread through her limbs as she danced on, pushing her on to match the daredevil speed of the song. It was almost tangible, a tingling feeling just beneath her skin. It made her feel as though she could move mountains, control even the social web she found herself caught within. She only touched it when she danced

The music reached a crescendo, cresting a breaking in a wave of sound that completely washed away her mundane concerns. This was why she looked forward to every lesson, for the chance to lose herself completely in the physical exertion.

The song ended abruptly, something she had always found puzzling about it. The original rhythm came back around once more, along with the added elements. It felt as though another component should have been added to the melody, but instead it just stopped. Too caught up in her dance, the sudden loss of music took her by surprise. She tripped over her own two feet and stumbled a few paces before falling to her knees. The adrenaline rush slowly faded from her system, leaving her panting for air.

"I should think you'd know to anticipate that by now," Her instructor said, helping her back to her feet.

Caldina grinned and scraped the sweaty strands of her hair off the back of her neck. "Are y'sure that's the whole song?" She asked as she twisted the pink mass up into a bun.

"There's nothing wrong with the system," Siratan replied, tapping a forefinger against the metal shell of the machine.

"Never mind that," Tanvir said, snapping his fingers to regain their attention. "That was good for a warm up. Now onto the rest of the lesson."

The next hour was anticlimactic as far as Caldina was concerned. She couldn't seem to touch that core of power when going through mapped out steps. Only during compelling songs, ones that left her room to improvise, could she tap into it.

She left the studio sweaty and tired, Siratan in tow. He most likely had other places to be, but the staff knew better than to aggravate their employer's niece. If she commanded his company, then so be it.

"I need'ta wash and change before mah next lesson," She sighed, plucking at the damp fabric of her choli. "

"You should have time, if you hurry," Siratan said, stifling a yawn. Watching Caldina go through the paces of her dance routines always made him tired. The steadily climbing heat outside the manor walls did little to help his drowsiness.

"Lazy," Caldina poked him the ribs, "S'a good thing you don't hafta sit through etiquette courses. You wouldn't last a minute."

"Which is why you're the noble, and I'm the serving boy," Siratan said dryly,

"Ah ah, 'wealthy merchant', not 'noble'," She sighed and took a quick detour towards the bathhouse. "And I'd switch places in a heartbeat if'n it meant gettin' outta lectures on manners. I can just guess how bad it'll be, what with tonight's guests."

"Have fun," Her friend grinned, waving as he continued down the hall. Ahna would see to getting her a clean set of clothing, as he was strictly forbidden from setting foot inside the women's bathhouse.

"I'm sure I will," Caldina muttered as she turned a corner, heartily wishing this day to a close, now that the one bright part of it had come and gone.


Yes, you may all die of shock now. I have finished chapter 4! *insert trumpet fanfare* Actually, the first three pages have been sitting on my computer for...oh....six months now...

Major credit for getting me up off my ass goes to The One Who Calls Out Moose, who e-mailed me with a death threat ^^;; It seems to have worked.

I'd like to make a few notes here, regarding the story and some of the plot. You can ignore it if you'd like:

To begin with, I originally intended to have Ashul be the stereotypical 'evil uncle', but then I realized how effin' cliche that was and kicked myself in the head (Yes, I am that flexible). So I changed my mind. He's not going to be some major villain, as I had planned, but instead he's more interested in gaining money and earning the title of nobility than in his niece's wellbeing. He's a ruthless, ambitious man who will stop at nothing to attain his goals. That's what makes him so dangerous to, well, everybody. Also, for some reason I have yet to disclose (but there is a reason, I promise) he's keeping the knowledge of Caldina's magic skills to himself. She knows nothing of them, and most likely has never used them either. Hmm...what sinister purpose could he have?

Secondly, this story follows the manga storyline, so when I finally get back around to the present time some things will be different. For instance, in the manga there is no Debonair, Presea never died, and neither did Eagle. Etc etc etc. I just thought I'd point that out so I wasn't attacked by rabid fans of the anime who want to rip me to shreds for screwing up some detail.

And lastly, I got all the way to the dressing room scene when I realized something. 'GASP! Oh no! I have no idea what you call those clothes people in India wear!' The Chizetan form of dress seems to be based rather heavily off those of Indians. So I got online and did a search. Credit for my current knowledge of Indian articles of clothing goes to

http://udel.edu/~orzada/india.htm

So if you're curious about the wardrobe, check that out ^_^

Okay, that's enough from me. Ja ne!