This week’s story is a lush, beautiful yet bittersweet fantasy tale set in a royal court. It reminded me of the early part of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, which is quite a compliment as that’s one of my favourite books. And I’m sure I’m not the only one willing Quicksilver and Jorin to their escape.
Don’t forget you can find all Kaje’s books and writings at her website – it’s well worth checking them out.
Jorin strokes gilded paint across my chest, and my skin wrinkles—an inch of loose flesh folding, then smoothing out. I swear I don’t flinch, but as always, he knows my thoughts.
“You’re still beautiful.” A breath across my ear.
“I’m already five years older than the last King’s Dancer.” No one can overhear, in the brief privacy of the antechamber.
“You work harder; you’re in great condition.”
“He worked.” The threat of death will do that to you.
Jorin hums quietly, calmly, as he runs a comb through my hair, coaxing it to curl.
I glance in the mirror. Is my hair thinning? It went silver in my twenties, and I’d turned that to a virtue. Quicksilver, the nobles call me. I stretch out a leg, flexing and curling my toes. The lamplight catches the honed shape of my muscles. Are my toes knobbier than a year ago? Surely more than five years ago…
Jorin touches my shoulder. “I hear your music.”
“Yes.” I stand, straightening the loincloth that hides just enough for decency and support. The door’s still shut, so I dare whisper, “A kiss for luck?”
“You don’t need luck. You’ll stun them.” Still, his lips brush mine, a soft glide, gone too fast.
The dance floor’s ringed with torches, their uneven light flickering off my skin. I wait for my cue, then glide across the smooth marble and kneel gracefully before the throne. The king lounges at his ease, eating a pastry. Flecks of cream dot his fleshy chin, but none would dare point them out to him. His personal slave-boy, a dead-eyed child, waves a long-handled fan in a rhythm he’ll maintain till he’s told to stop, or collapses.
The musicians play through my introductory measures, around and around, until finally the king glances my way and raises his hand. Into the silence, he says, “Oh, yes. The dancer. Entertain Us, Quicksilver. We’re bored.”
Bored is dangerous. Bored may need to be washed away with blood. I lower my forehead to the ground, without smearing my paint. “As Your Majesty commands.”
Control breath. Control movement. Control thought. I rise, smooth as water flowing, pose as the music begins. And dance.
I don’t remember the dance. I never do anymore. I go to a place outside myself and only return as the song dies, my arm reaching for the heavens, my foot an arrow’s point, breath wanting to heave my chest but held, disciplined, so the shine of light off my painted ribs is still and doesn’t betray the effort it takes. Hold. Hold.
This time, the silence at the end of the dance feels dangerous. There’s a hum of anticipation in the crowd, a rustle of people shifting, turning my way, that sends shivers across my skin. I play statue, and wait for the next words of my bored king.
I’m black-visioned from holding my breath, when he finally says, “How many years have you danced for Us, Quicksilver?”
I dare a breath, but stay silent. That was not an invitation to speak.
He chuckles. “We recall more than five. More than ten?”
Fourteen. I hold the pose. The room echoes with a gasp of drawn breaths, and I flinch. Has his hand has gone to his sword? He likes to kill things himself, when it’s safe. Can I attack him if he comes for me? Hurt him, at least, before I die? Or must I stay still and let the blow land, for fear that someone will tell him his anger should fall on Jorin after I’m gone? Ah, Jorin, love, I’m sorry. I pray to the fates he’s not watching. I know in my soul he is.
My heart’s racing, pulse thudding loud in my ears. Can the king hear it? Acid burns the back of my throat. My thigh muscles quiver and bunch against a lifetime of control.
I hold my pose.
“Amazing, to still please Us after all this time.” I manage not to sway in relief. The dark satisfaction in the king’s voice tells me he enjoyed the suspense and the taste of my fear. The sigh of released breaths in the crowd is no doubt music to him. “We’ll look forward to your next dance.”
A metallic rattle on the floor around me marks the nobles tossing me small coins. The floor slave will gather them, minus his cut. Perhaps it’ll be a good haul, making escape safer—bribes for guards, money for food and shelter and clothes, to hide us on our journey. Perhaps today’s bounty will tip failure into success.
Or perhaps we’ll die on some guard’s sword. No bribe can guarantee against betrayal. But I’ve stayed too long, cut it too close. I was set to go four years ago, and then Jorin appeared and I knew it had to be both of us, or neither. Four more years of dancing on the edge of a blade, seeming to spend tips on dainties and mead and trinkets, while hoarding every copper. I never told Jorin the risk I took was for him. He knew, though. He told me to go alone, once. I shut the words in his mouth with a kiss.
When I finally stand, the king’s gone. I was the last of the evening’s entertainment, and now he’s off to his women and his bed. A few nobles still wander out, heading to their own debauchery. The floor slave presses a small bag in my hand. It’s not very heavy. Perhaps they weren’t wasting much coin on an aging favorite fated to die soon. It’ll have to do.
As I reach the hallway, Jorin’s there, standing just inside the arch. The slave can see us, so I don’t look at him, don’t touch. But as I pass, on my way to the baths to transform Quicksilver into a common, frightened man, I whisper, “Tonight.”