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Ring of Lightning
Dance of the Ring's: Book One

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Nikki's Night in the Brothel

" '. . . and from the wind-swirled ashes, my love's spirit climbs---' " The voice from beyond the door paused, then: "I think, maybe, that should be 'soars,' don't you?"

"Nikki, Nikki, Nikki, . . ." Deymorin sighed and leaned his brow against the closed door, finding in its rough surface unexpected relief from an irritating itch. "What am I to do with you?"

"Don't worry, Dey-m'love." Long-nailed fingers brushed his temple, securing wayward hairs behind his ear. "Mayhap they're takin' a wee rest---been up here a longish while, they have."

"I wish I could believe that," he told the door sourly. "How long did it take him to work up the nerve to come upstairs?"

Tirise laughed softly. "Oh, less than you, as I recall."

"I was a year younger."

"Two. And among a crowd of friends."

That surprised him. "Nikki's here on his own?"

"His birthday present to himself, as he was quick to point out when he arrived."

"Wanted to make clear right off his was legal, did he?"

Her nod brushed his shoulder. "Seemed right determined, just a smidge confused, if you take m' meanin'." Another soft laugh, a quick squeeze at his waist. "Bring th' laddie back, Deymio-luv. Mayhap I can straighten 'im out. I did think Beauvina---what with her innocent ways and all . . ." Her cheek pressed lightly against his back, and he felt her sigh. "If only they hadn't looked so sweet together."

Sweet? Tirise was a closet romantic. He'd have had a different word for it, he'd wager. Still . . . Tirise and Nikki?

He tipped his head, looking past his shoulder to the proprietress' full-bodied figure. Tempting. Sincerely tempting. Once---a very long once ago, so it seemed these days---Tirise had introduced him to the finer things in life. Fifteen years later, she was still an extremely handsome woman, particularly in the soft backlighting of the hallway's silver leylights, but somehow . . . legal age or not . . . Deymorin shook his head reluctantly as he pulled her ample form to the fore . . . "I don't think he's quite up to your weight yet, m'dear." . . . and bending his head to hers, proceeded to erase any possible sting in his words.

Tirise was humming when she surfaced, and with a sultry smile, a sway of hip against hip, and a tug at his waist, she murmured, "Whaddaya say, lovie? Empty room, next. No charge for an old friend. Been far, far too long since you visited us."

With even greater reluctance, he resisted the pull and nodded toward the door. "Better rescue the fry before Beauvina guts him from sheer boredom."

Tirise chuckled, a low, warm sound, deep in her throat. "Little worry for that. 'Vina looked right impressed with his little verses down below. That's when I first reckoned they'd match."

"Ringfire," he exclaimed, in only partially feigned alarm, "she encouraged the brat? He'll be expecting me to read the damned things next. Now I must get in there. ---Hold this for me, will you?" He handed her his cane, then reached for the latch. "Have you the key---"

The well-greased bolt moved easily. And silently. As did heavy hinges.

"Never mind," he finished, disgusted.

Through the slightest crack in the doorway, he took the whole pitiful scene in at a glance:

Deep red draperies, gilt gold furnishings awash in the warm glow of candlelight, the soft, inviting texture of velvet, safe (and legal) this far removed from the Hill. Perched on the edge of her chair, clothing and hair still depressingly intact, was a girl---about Nikki's age, or a bit older---her kohl-darkened eyes wide, her reddened lips pursed in anticipation. On the bed, feet spread for balance, one hand to his breast (undoubtedly for dramatic emphasis), the other hanging at his side holding a thick sheaf of curling pages, was his scatter-brained brother.

Deymorin muttered a curse, then, with a, Pardon me--- to Tirise, he took a deep breath, and threw the door back.

It struck the wall with a gratifying crash.

For a single startled heartbeat, Nikki stared at the shadowed opening, mouth hanging open on a forgotten line.

In the second, Deymorin bellowed, "Down!"

In the third, his idiot brother dropped flat on the mattress, bounced once, and led to the floor on the far side of the bed, disappearing amidst a pouf of loose pages.

Deymorin waited a fourth and a fifth heartbeat, allowing the dolt time to do something incredibly stupid, realized pleasant surprise when he didn't. Better, of course, if the fry had dropped without the cue, but overall . . . one took what one could get. Especially when one recalled one's own youth when impressing the lady in question would have been infinitely more important than common sense.

Or perhaps not so common. Normal men didn't worry about assassination and abduction. Such concerns were limited to men whose family tended to irritate those with murderous tendencies.

Families like the Rhomandi. A fact of life Nikki had yet to realize.

Deymorin stepped into the candle-glow, and feigning nonchalance, leaned his shoulders against the doorframe and drawled: "Not bad, fry. You'd only have been dead twice over, this time."

Blue eyes blinked above the disrupted bedclothes. "D--Deymio?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You need to ask? ---You can come out now."

Smooth skin flushed bright red, then disappeared, and a muffled curse rose from beneath the rippling mass of golden, bane-of-his-young-life curls.

Deymorin waited patiently until, embarrassment evidently conquered, Nikki flung the golden mane back with a flourish, taming it with a practiced (undoubtedly before a mirror) two-handed sweep, and stood up with exaggerated dignity, ignoring the shirt hanging open at the throat, exposing him nearly to his cummerbund.

"Picturesque," Deymorin said, restraining a wicked urge to point out the childish roundness thus revealed, "but not highly efficient---for much of anything. Mind telling me what you're doing here?"

The slightly cleft chin raised another notch, hinting boyish stubbornness and little else. "I should think that obvious."

"Obvious." Deymorin swept a calculated and calculating gaze over the fully clothed young woman cowering behind her chair, past the boy's artistically loosened clothes, ending with a long look at Tirise's carefully neutral face---a look that ended in the merest hint of an off-side wink . . . "Just arrived, did he?" And Tirise, with the wisdom gleaned of several dozen young Nikkis, replied without missing a beat: "In the salon . . . oh, not half-an-hour ago, they were."

Deymorin schooled his face into determined sincerity and turned back to his brother. "Obviously, then, I've interrupted you at an awkward moment."

"Damn right, you did." Nikki's lower lip pouted ever-so-slightly.

"Not in front of the ladies, child," Deymorin chastised gently, and when Nikki looked daggers at him, perversely courted even greater youthful resentment with a firm: "Put on your clothes, we're going home."

"But---"

"Now, Nikaenor," he said, all tendency toward humor leaving him, and for a moment, he thought the silly boy was about to argue, but then Nikki's eyes widened, and:

"Damn. I forgot."

"Forgot." Coming from anyone else, he'd have said that was impossible. Coming from Nikki, who had just been standing on a bed, reading his poetry to an enraptured audience of one . . . he could believe it.

"Deymio, I'm sorry." The pout faded into heartfelt chagrin, a look the boy's angelic face did so well that in his less charitable moments, such as now, Deymorin suspected him of practicing it, too, in-between those swipes at his hair.

"I know you are, brat. Just get dressed, will you?"

Nikki nodded, setting his curls to bouncing. "Miss Beavillia, ---"

"B--Beauvina, Ni---m'lor'," the girl corrected in a charmingly lispy whisper.

"Oh. Ah. Yes, of course." Nikki ducked his head again, tucking his shirttail one-handed, shrugging awkwardly into his tailored coat with the other. "I--I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we'll have to---continue another time."

'Miss Beavillia' expressed her regret---quite vocally---and amusement threatened anew, but Deymorin swallowed the chuckle and lent Nikki a hand with his coat. He brushed a cursory hand over the lightly padded shoulders and tugged the skirt-pleats straight with a snap of brocade, (the boy was becoming quite the dasher), then pulled the blond mass back into a quick, barely respectable queue, securing it with a ribbon the redoubtable Tirise slipped him. Following a final evaluation of his brother's person to assure himself the truant wouldn't destroy whatever gentlemanly credibility he had remaining, he shoved Nikki unceremoniously into the hallway.

'Miss Beavillia' darted past him and fluttered after Nikki like an oversized butterfly. Pretty little thing; one couldn't fault Tirise in that, but not to his taste.

Not even when he was seventeen.

Deymorin retrieved his cane and offered Tirise his arm; she accepted with a grace no simpering so-called lady of his acquaintance could claim, and they sauntered after the youngsters, down the silver-lit hallway toward the broad, sweeping staircase. "I can't thank you enough, Tess. I'd have been all over the City looking for him, and this---" He tapped his left leg with the cane. "---was already giving me fits."

She squeezed his arm sympathetically. "Wondered why you was favorin' it so. Sure you don't want to give it a rest?"

"No time. We're late as it is."

"Celebration tonight?"

He nodded. "If you hadn't sent that message . . ." He cast his eyes heavenward. "I owe you."

She laughed and patted his elbow. "I'll remember that, lovie---" Her wink held nothing of girlish coquettishness; he laughed and finished for her: "---and remind me in your own good time, eh?"

She just smiled the smile of a cat with the key to the milk-barn.

Downstairs, Nikki's rather energetic mouth had worked its way down past Mistress Bee's white neck to her exquisitely displayed bosom, and her red-painted fingers had disappeared under his coat-tails.

Trust Nikki to figure things out at the front door.

Before matters developed further, Deymorin grabbed his brother's elbow and pulled him (protesting every step) through the front door with its stained glass inset, past dripping eaves, and down the stairs into the darkening street.

 
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Bit of Mother's Magic

A wave of yellow glee fluttered through the leythium chandeliers.

Mother liberated the storm, letting it snap, like a released bowstring, right into Anheliaa's lap.

Another blinding flash sent a shivering ripple through the veil to break like an ocean wave upon the crystalline cloud that was Khoratum Node; Mother laughed and thrust a fist in the air, her long sleeve flying up, then drifting in an unexpected draft, a draft that set the veil's crystalline fibers to singing, a quivering musical hum within the cavern.

"Mother," Dancer asked, concerned for the veil's delicate structure, "isn't it enough? Can't we let Rhyys win now?"

"Win?" Her sibilant hiss seemed a part of those same currents. "Rhyys can neither win nor lose. Rhyss hasn't the ability. Anheliaa chose foolishly: Mother must remind Anheliaa of this fact." Her wide grin glittered even from Dancer's oblique vantage. "Constantly."

This was a new wrinkle in Mother's reality. "Foolishly? What do you mean?"

"You need ask? You, who should be ringmaster of Khoratum?"

"I? Never! I don't even wish for it."

"Never? How strange. I thought all humans wished to be ringmaster."

"Not this human."

{Then I've reared/raised/trained a fool.}

Mother's reversion to the internal voice made communication at once clearer and more confusing, stretching concepts beyond simple, singular human words.

Impossible, sometimes, for a mere human to comprehend Mother. Dancer had learned long ago to deflect rather than try. "Mother, much as I love you, you didn't raise me. You endured me."

{I'm crushed/distraught/disgusted/amused that you should think so.}

"You sound crushed."

Ears ringing from a well-deserved mental boxing, Dancer asked far more soberly:

"Mother, you've never expressed an interest in my life above. What's this all about?"

{You should have been ringmaster.}

Stubborn insistence: Mother at her most single-minded. All this time, Dancer had assumed it was the Khoratum rings in general to which Mother objected. This newest twist implied it was Khoratum's master, not the rings.

"But I was only seven when Anheliaa chose."

{Anheliaa should have waited.}

"She didn't know. Couldn't have. I was down here---with you."

{Anheliaa should have known. Anheliaa should have waited.}

Dancer, helpless in this battle of Motherly absolutes, shrugged and reminded her: "But I don't wish to be ringmaster. I want to be the radical dancer. I've always wanted to be the radical."

{Bat's poop.}

"Well, almost always." The Khoratum dance rings had only been constructed twelve years before. "At least, since I wanted to be anything."

And to this day, Dancer could remember lying on a cliff-edge hidey-hole, watching the foreign workmen raise the enormous structure, and the foreign dancers testing the equipment out. Could remember watching the novices practice, preparing for years for the Khoratum Tower inauguration festivities.

Could remember praying to be one of them.

Mother's slim shoulders lifted in a sinuous shrug, as if dismissing that artistic ambition as inconsequential.

"I'm a good dancer, Mother." Somehow, despite one's best efforts, one's insecurities always seemed to surface at the worst times.

{Good? Humanity's hell, human-spawn, you're the best/master/mistress/talent-elite.}

"How would you know?" And those insecurities found voice in unexpected bitterness. Mother was the only real family Dancer had had for years, and Dancer knew Mother didn't truly care, never had cared enough even to ask how practices went.

Now, in one of her quicksilver shifts, Mother swirled about and glided across the pulsating stone. Behind her, the veil fluttered and drifted, settling quietly as the storm began to follow its natural course toward Rhomatum. Stopping in front of Dancer, she stared down from her chosen lofty height.

Her clawed hand lifted, caressing. Face . . . chin . . . hair . . . and her wide, pupil-less eyes grew soft and tender, losing the leythium-fire gleam.

And suddenly, her gown's semi-sentient folds floated around Dancer's shoulders, creating a safe, warm cocoon, unknown for years, but dear and alive in memory, and her sibilant whisper answered from close overhead:

"I named you, didn't I?"

Copyright 1995, Jane S. Fancher
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