Sacrifice Ch. 06bypandarus©
As the night drew on the air in the hall grew thick and hazy from the hundreds of brightly burning oil lamps, and was almost choked with the scents of cedar and juniper. A thin, fragrant smoke slipped slowly from the censers that hung from the ceiling, adding to the heady vapor and obscuring the painted designs and figures dancing overhead.
The drums had begun again, and their soft patter was joined quickly by the rhythmic tinkling of bells.
Three dancers had taken the floor this time, having emerged from one of the island-like congregations. They were similarly attired; all three wore broad belts of thin, layered gold just below their bared breasts, which in turn secured the translucent skirts that fell to their slender ankles. The silvery din of bells came from the strings wrapped around those same ankles.
Time is a strange creature, Calliope reflected to herself as she glanced between the dancers and watched Penelope signal to her from across the room. The truth was the evening had begun to drag on the more she had anticipated that signal, and yet, now that it was given, it seemed as though it had gone far too quickly.
The signal indicated that Penelope would be ready to dance in another song or two, and that Calliope needed to extricate herself as soon as possible if she wished to uphold her agreement to help the young woman.
She glanced at Thelios who was leaning back, talking to Lady Nagi, who was herself lounging on the couch next to theirs. His hand was still circled around the ankle resting between his knees, his thumb rubbing absently over the back of her calf.
She sighed and glanced back to the floor. She couldn't say the evening had been uninteresting, it wasn't, but the entertainment thus far had been surprisingly tame with the usual assortment of acrobats and dancers, music, and food. It was more elaborate and exotic than anything she had witnessed herself, but she had expected something a little more...well she couldn't say what she expected, but considering the audience, she was less shocked or stunned than she thought she'd be.
Though of course she'd already had several days to acclimatize herself to the general ambiance of excess which permeated the place...so that might account for something as well.
There were such gathering at home as well, though women like herself would never have been allowed to attend. Only whores, slaves, and courtesans. She could understand why, as a number of the dances could be considered down right lewd...not what a man wanted his wife or daughters to see if he wanted to maintain their respectability.
For her part, Calliope had rather enjoyed it. The performers were all skilled, and many easily rivaled or surpassed her sisters, who until now had been the yardstick against which all were measured.
Perhaps it might have been because, as Thelios had suggested, they were competing...either for their master's sake or for attention, and in a way that her sisters and friends never would have. Certainly not with such energy and intensity at least. Most of the time they would only play and dance for each other.
As entertaining as it was, however, the proverbial hourglass had run its course and she had things other than her amusement to consider now.
She took a deep breath and leaned in, touching Thelios's knee. He glanced at her and paused his conversation.
"Would you mind if I walked around a bit? I need to stretch my legs and get a little air."
"Did you want to leave?" He rumbled.
She smiled and shook her head. "Not just yet, it you don't mind, I'd just like to move about for a bit."
He simply nodded. "Be careful." He added as she rose.
She smiled again. "I will."
She sewed her way through the crowds, losing herself easily so that no one in her group could have seen where she was going and slipped out of the hall. Penelope was waiting for her down one of the side corridors, wrapped in a sheer bit of nothing which left precious little to the imagination. It seemed to be standard enough fair for dancers, and was more than some wore. It was rather flattering on her...especially the way it pressed up and displayed the rise of her chest, not always an easy feat with a slender dancer's body.
"There you are! Here." She handed Calliope a veil and pulled a pin from her hair, gesturing for Calliope turn around.
As Penelope pinned the veil to her hair to keep it from slipping off, Calliope removed her blue tunic so that she was only wearing a plain white dress, one which would blend in easily with the other slaves and be more or less unrecognizable. She folded the tunic and hid it behind one of the statues in the hall.
"So, what is the plan?" Calliope asked, taking the instrument from Penelope which had appeared from behind another statue, obviously placed there by the dancer earlier in the evening.
"Well, honestly, this is going to be a good deal more difficult than I thought it might. I've insinuated that I won't be dancing, but they've been watchful all night."
"Remind me who 'they' are again."
"A handful of spiteful little bitches who are conspiring to keep me out of the running."
"That's not a helpful description. I've been lead to believe that could describe half the room."
Penelope laughed at that. "Far more than that no doubt. I might even include myself if I could be bothered with tiresome things like self reflection."
Calliope chuckled as well, tugging the veil into place. "Perhaps if I could recognize them I might be of more help."
"In that crowd I doubt I could give you a description which would allow you to recognize them."
"That's true enough, I suppose. Will they try to keep you from the floor, or hamper you in any way?"
"I don't doubt it."
She considered it a moment. "Perhaps if I act as if I'm the only performer, rather than accompaniment, they will let down their guard long enough for you to jump in and take over without interference."
"It's as good a thought as any I've had. What do you plan on doing?"
"I haven't the slightest. I'm hoping my muse will strike me with sudden inspiration." She gave Penelope a wry smile then realized her expression was obscured by the veil. "But I'm sure I'll think of something." She added as assurance.
She wasn't completely sure about it herself, but she was as confident as she could be given the circumstances. She'd lost count of how many times she'd played for her sisters, and more than once been party to some clever ploy to sway eyes in their direction. If she couldn't come up with anything between the corridor and the feast hall on her own, then she'd just fall back on some trick her sister Xanthippe, or even Helena, had used to use to pull the attention of the room.
They agreed to enter separately, and for Calliope to make a move as soon as she saw an opening. The signal to start in earnest would be the tossing of a bracelet Penelope had lent her into the center. It would be an unmistakable, and hopefully distracting, gesture and would allow the dancer to get into position as she slipped in to retrieve it.
Calliope waited a moment in the hall, allowing Penelope to lose herself in the crowd. She was going over the song she intended to play but was distracted by harsh voices at the end of the corridor. They were coming from the other end of the hallway...that is, away from the entrance of the feast hall.
Curious, she moved slowly closer to the voices. As she neared she could make out three distinct voices. They sounded insistent and upset. She considered letting it alone but amidst the half intelligible garble she heard a few recognizable words, and one of them was "Thelios." It wasn't something she could ignore.
She moved that much closer, dangerously so, straining to hear what was being said.
"--scaped by ship? Ship!? He could be anywhere. Once he gets to water he'll have such an advantage...even you could not work magic to counter his." The words were spoken in an anxious rush.
"Anywhere but at sea I could...it's most vexing. Curse him and his dam both. Bloody Nereid." A female voice this time.
"But I thought you said they'd cornered him in Priene? I thought this was taken care of?" It was the first, anxious voice again.
Priene she recognized...it was a city very near hers, and one which had participated in the sacrifice she herself had been part of. Who was it they'd found there? What did Thelios have to do with it...and who were these people to be speaking his name like that...what if someone overheard who shouldn't? After all if she heard it, who else might?
Most vexing indeed.
"Cornered is not caught. They tracked him there, but he's apparently eluded them. If we do not get to him first..." the speaker, the woman again, trailed off, but the threat was clear in her voice. The outcome would not be good, whatever it was.
"There is one who could find him. In truth I wouldn't mind finding a reason to get rid of him. I'm sick of him breathing down our necks."
"Absolutely not...that would be the worst thing we could do. Why do you think he's here?" Muttered the woman again.
"I don't see why."
"And what was he doing that far north, do you think?" She hissed in reply
"Calm yourself sister. It may not be as it appears."
"I fear it is exactly as it appears." A third voice interrupted. It sounded strangely familiar, though she couldn't quite place it as they had begun to speak in softer, more normalized tones.
"Both of you now? You're paranoid. Besides, what would happen if the little brat said something before we could stop him. It's his word against ours after all."
"And who do you think he'll be inclined to believe? Us? He has no love for us." The woman again, and sounding as insistent as before.
"Pfft. He has no love for anyone...but we can at least take consolation that Phineas is not one of us, one of our kind, as much as he plays at it. Why would any of us listen to him?"
"Enough you two. She's correct...that pig headed bastard will side against us if given the option...and for precisely the reason you believe he won't. Neither of them is quite one of us. They are both outsiders, if for different reasons...but that gives them shared ground, and makes them both dangerous. Not to mention their mothers. There is only one thing to be done."
"But not yet, surely...it's too early to..."
the voices hushed, and she only caught snippets once more.
"..and if he believed it was..."
"It's just a matter of finding it."
"I suppose if there is nothing else to be done..."
Their voices dropped once more, and though she strained again to hear, she couldn't make anything out. Instead she opted to back away, seeing as how nothing was gained by staying so close but being caught in the act of eavesdropping.
It was lucky she did as only a moment later a women appeared from around the corner and swept past her in the hall. Calliope recognized her instantly as the sister of Thelios with the burning red hair...the daughter of Hecate supposedly. At a glance, and through the obscuring veil, her hair did look suspiciously flame like.
The woman didn't seem to notice the veiled slave, thankfully, but Calliope bowed low as she moved by her, as any god fearing slave might. Literally in this case perhaps. She didn't seem to notice that either. So much the better.
She was half tempted to walk back down the hall to see if the others remained and slip casually through the hall to get a better look at them...but she had left Penelope alone long enough. Besides, she hardly knew what they were talking about...only that her Master was involved somehow...maybe...and that the overheard snippet had left her with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
But then it was all so vague...it might be nothing at all...
She sighed and took a deep, settling breath before pulling herself to her full height. First things first. It was no use fretting about what she had no control over...not when there were more imminent things to be fretting about.
She settled the instrument in her arms as best she could, and adjusted her veil one last time.
Here went nothing.
She briefly considered her options and decided to play it by ear, opting for flexibility rather than any set plans. There were too many variables for set plans.
She paused at the door and noticed that a few eyes glanced in her direction. She realized instantly that the veil was making her conspicuous. No one else went veiled...not when most of the women were trying their hardest to have their beauty appreciated. Every inch of it in some cases...
She decided to feed the curiosity it a little and remained where she was, standing dead center in the door way, like some ghostly statue...a ghostly statue with an instrument in her arms. It seemed to be having something of an effect. Eyes began drifting toward her, and flickered curiously. She was half tempted to allow herself an internal moment of triumph...but she knew she hadn't gotten to the hard part yet. A flicker of interest was a start...but that's all it was. The real trick was keeping that interest.
So she stood...until she felt the interest begin to wane. It was then she moved. As slowly and smoothly as she could manage...imagining she was balancing slates on her head as she had as a child...her elder sister snapping a switch at her back every time she began to stoop. Strange how such lessons could eventually become useful, despised as they were.
She found herself at the bottom stair of the sunken stage a moment later, watching a young male dancer bend himself so far backward his head nearly grazed the ground, and his stomach undulating in an unending wave as he rose back up, seemingly effortlessly to his feet. It was an impressive display of flexibility and control. Especially considering the undulations were keeping perfect time with a pair of enthusiastic drummers. She could see Thelios off to her left, out of the corner of her vision...but dare not look in any direction but ahead. She prayed the veil hid her adequately.
Patiently she waited at the foot of the stair, still attempting her impression of a statue. Even the dancer cast a furtive look at her, his eyes filled with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance. So far so good.
Eventually he finished, made his bows and his leisurely way off to the surrounding steps. Calliope was about to compose herself and continue to the center when she caught sight of two women moving forward...clearly intent on taking the stage. Well, that would be the day.
Instead of making her way to the center as planned she stopped where she was, whirled around, and struck the strings in the most god awful way. They screeched in a high pitch whine which made her wince.
She stepped backward toward the center...and struck the cords again again. The second time, however, she added a hint of an actual melodic cord. The third time, it almost sounded like music. She could see the women who had been vying for her position. They were frozen on the top step looking confused and unsure...as were the rest of the eyes on her. At least, those she could see.
She plucked a few nearly random notes, clearing her throat as softly as she could, and bowed her head like a penitent. She picked a song, a strange little country tune she'd always been fond of, and began to sing.
It was a melancholy song, and the rural dialect made it difficult to understand for many, so it was not something a gathering like this would be expecting—but it had an interesting variance to it which made her rather like it. It seemed to do the trick and the room became subdued and for the most part attentive to the strange scene.
She continued to walk slowly backward as she sang until she found herself nearly at the other end of the rectangular space. At the same time she spotted Penelope making her way to the stairs.
At the end of the short song, she pulled the bracelet from her wrist and tossed it into the center of the room, not waiting for any sort of response from the audience.
Penelope was there in a flash, and as per their plan was now kneeling over the bracelet. Calliope settled herself quickly on the floor, and was grateful to have the awkward instrument in her lap instead of having to hold it and play it at the same time.
On the first few notes of the new, sweeter song Penelope rose up slowly, slipping the bracelet over her wrist in a long and luxurious movement, extending her arms before her, like an offering, her whole body leaning into the movement. Her gestures were light and airy as she rose to her feet, buoyant even, and Calliope attempted to play to that, and make her notes crisper and more playful.
Calliope was no expert, but it seemed to be the correct choice. Once on her feet Penelope kicked high, held it in an obvious display of her strength and agility, and as a promise of more to come, then fell into a series of dainty skipping steps that carried her across the floor in the blink of an eye.
As the song progressed the notes came more quickly and Penelope responded in turn, quick stepping and swaying in time with notes. It was in this, Calliope could see, the dancer excelled. Her slower movements, while graceful enough, were filled with tension...a desire to be moving. And as the song quickened it became clear that it was speed which best suited her.
So faster she played, and faster the dancer moved, responding wonderfully to the tempo. She had agile feet and she was able to spin and trip with remarkable ease, keeping her lines and her control even when she seemed so close to losing it. Or rather, when she gave the illusion of losing it. Calliope didn't doubt for a moment that Penelope was in complete control, and like any good dancer, she made it look far easier than it was.
When the girl literally lept into the air in a high split, one which gathered a murmur of appreciation from the crowd, it was obvious why the other women would want her out of the running. She was good...very good.
But at that point, Calliope could give little attention to anything more than her playing. For the most part she ignored the flamboyant performance, except to keep an eye on Penelope's responses. She did her best to remain focused, and on keeping her fingers moving and doing what they were supposed to do.
Calliope pushed, picking up the pace, and letting the whole room and performance fade into nothing, allowing her fingers to fall automatically where they should, praying to her favorite Gods that they continue to do so.
To her relief they did, and the end of the song came upon her almost as a surprise. She exhaled with a relived sigh as she struck the final cord definitively, and slid her hand over the stings to still them. Her heart was pounding a little harder, and her breathing a little strained, but it was nothing compared to the sight of Penelope. When Calliope glanced up, she could see the woman on her knees, her arms held before her in a reflection of that first offering pose, her chest heaving. Even through the veil it was clear her skin glistened with a fine layer of moisture from her exertion.
For a beat..or two, or even three..silence hung heavily in the air around them. She held her breath again, then let out a second exhalation as applause erupted around them. Thank God for that. She'd been so caught up in what she was doing, she'd lost track of whether or not it was any good. The enthusiasm of the applause was a sure sign Penelope had made the impression she had wanted and was back in the running. Calliope beamed.
Instinctively her eyes darted to Thelios. It was a terrible mistake as he was looking in her direction. Directly at her in fact. Her heart jumped up into her throat and she froze...then realized what she'd done, and looked away to the other side of the room, desperately hoping her glance had seemed random. Unfortunately her eyes landed on the 'firey' haired sister she'd seen in the hall—and overheard—and the uneasy feeling she'd pushed away before returned with a vengeance. Especially since she too was also watching her.