One thing the desert lacked was the sheer amount of activity from it’s people. Sure the bigger cities were busy places, but even in this small costal town, the normal, every day hustle and bustle felt like a festival to Kailea. She thought the closer the sun drew to the horizon that people might begin to tire, but if anything, the streets felt even more packed than they had during her earlier foray through the streets.
The closer she drew to the Arena, the denser the people became. It seemed that everyone was trying their best to get their first glimpse of the souls daring to set foot on the blood-stained grit of the Arena, and the start of the fights was cause enough for the drink to flow freely. She could hear the sounds of instruments, some familiar, some foreign rising above the general din of the crowd as she let the push of bodies carry her along. Kailea couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer number of people clamoring around her, some crowding around rickety carts loaded down with hot, steaming food that tickled her nose with their delicate aromas, others around the performers that managed to find enough cleared space in the crush of bodies to put on their act for those gathered around.
One shouted poetry at such volume, Kailea wondered if he’d still be able to speak by the time the sun made its next appearance in the sky. Another looked to be some manner of acting troupe, though she was too far back in the press of bodies to make out what it was they were doing. Whatever it was had the crowd rolling with laughter, and Kailea found she was more than a little disappointed to not be in on the joke. No matter where she looked though, she saw the telltale signs of the betting rings where they’d set up shop and were already starting to put odds on fighters no one had so much as laid eyes on yet. She wrinkled her nose distastefully at the sight and wished she could put a little more distance between the gamblers and herself.
Not that she wasn’t a little curious. The men that ran those parlors and stands lived and died off the rumors and whispers of who would be gracing the Arena with their presence for the spectacle of all. She couldn’t help if word of their own little team had reached the flowing stream of rumors yet, and if so, what they thought the odds of their victory might be. She very nearly turned to join one of their group, before Aleksandar’s gruff voice in her mind dissuaded her. No. It wouldn’t do any good for her to know, and there was no use fretting over who their opponents could and couldn’t be. They’d take them or lose to them, and all the better if Lord Ignis’ ragtag group could ruin a few bets.
The thought of a noble or two out some of their coin on what should have been a sure bet put a smile to Kailea’s face as she followed the crowd closer to the Arena’s gates. Her own coin purse was nearly empty, but she paid out a few coppers for a pasty with chunks of tough meat she couldn’t identify, but was wonderfully spiced. Another went into the bowl of a maiden who looked as if she’d planted wildflowers into her very scalp she had so many woven into her locks. Her voice was sweet and high, and though she sang in a tongue Kailea had never heard, the sound was far too pleasant to listen to without showing her appreciation.
It wasn’t until she was nearly to the gladiator’s own gates that she spotted something that made her head swivel sharply on her neck. The great orange plume that rose above the heads of the gathered people would have been difficult to miss in a crowd twice the size. The rhythmic sound of the drums traveled through the ground and into her very bones from the soles of her feet, while the high trill of pipes rose as high as the jet of flame.
These were songs of the desert.
Kailea edged her way through the crowd vying for a place to watch the troupe perform, until she managed to squeeze her way to the front. If it was possible, the women of the group wore even less clothing than Kailea did, though their outfits were decorated with polished discs of metal that tinkled musically with every sway of their hips. Their bronzed skin was decorated in dizzying patterns of ink that seemed to move of their own accord as their bearers swayed in perfect time to the music. But their movements could no more be called a dance than a sand devil could be called a light breeze. If the performers were not busy with the instruments, they swirled a length of rope in each hand while a dense ball on the ends burned brightly.
Kailea’s eyes filled will joy at the sight of the fire spinners. She’d had no notion that she’d find a taste of home so far from the shifting sands of the desert. If it wasn’t a sign from the gods sent to ease her nervous heart, then she didn’t know what was. It took only a few heartbeats before she found herself swaying along with the familiar sounds of home and transfixed by the whirling patterns of fire the troupe wove in the air about them. It was a dance they knew well, as they wove between one another, the ropes twisting like snakes and sliding past just as easily. Her own magic sang out for the flames passing so tantalizingly close, even while her heart ached for the piece of her homelands. She didn’t want to watch
Kailea cried out to the dancer nearest her when she could stand it no longer, holding out an open palm with a grin stretched from one ear to another, “Must you be so greedy to keep the fun all to yourself?!”
“What’s this!” The darker skinned woman cocked an eyebrow while a white smile stood in stark contrast against her lips, “Another fleck of sand blown off the dunes?!”
Never once did the woman break that hypnotic rhythm, as her eyes darted to Kailea, looking her over head to foot in a wordless appraisal, before the young mage found the rope dart sailing through the air toward her. The crowd around Kailea visibly flinched, but she knew these steps, done so often that the dunes would forever bear the marks her feet left in the sands. The only difference was the ropes had been braided with bright ribbons to trail in the air, and were certainly not on fire.
Kaileas caught the rope and stepped free from the people around her as she brought it around to finish the sweeping motion the dance called for, finishing with a rolling flourish that brought the burning ball an inch from her face and blew. A jet of fire leapt from her lips and into the air over the heads of the people watching. Only a little magic
, she promised herself. Nothing grand, just enough to have a bit of fun with.
She caught the raised eyebrow of the dancer who’d tossed the rope, but rather than backing away, her feet carried her in closer in the pattern meant for a dance of two, not one. If she wasn’t going to complain, Kailea wasn’t going to pass up the chance to join in. She tossed the woman the long end of the rope, connecting the two of them by the length of strong hempen cord, before twisting herself enough to bring the burning ball swinging around her body and toward her new dance partner.
The other dancers around them shifted to make room for the two as they passed around one another, all the while spinning the flames faster and faster about them. Kailea could hear her heart drumming in time with the musicians somewhere behind her, but if she thought too long about it she would misstep and break the spell spinning between them. It was easy to think she was home, or in Ashar, celebrating the Sultan or the eve of an eclipse, and for all the drumming of her heart, she was more relaxed than she’d been in moons.
Kailea almost missed the final few beats of the music, lost in herself and the weaving fire, before skidding to a clumsy stop, unlike the cat-like grace of her partner and her companions. The crowd had certainly enjoyed it, if the cheers and coins tossed to the dirt were any indication.
“It’s been a while since anyone’s played out the Meteor’s Game with me, sand-sister. Had it not been for the ash on your clothes already, I would have thought you touched in the head.” The dancer quenched the flame at the end of the rope dart. “I ought to say thanks since we’ll eat well after that performance.”“I should be the one to thank you,”
Kailea bowed slightly, trying to breathe as hard as her lungs wanted her to, “I wanted a bit of fun tonight, and that was more than I’d hoped for.”
“Well share your mood with that one there!” The dancer laughed, pointing toward the gate where a man stood away from the crowd on his own, “He’s the only one nearabouts not enjoying himself, and it’s all I can do to keep my own girls from trying to fix that! A sour mood makes it hard to follow the drums!”
Kailea followed the woman’s finger to the man in question, and had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing outright. Yes, the gods were certainly meddling tonight. Fading light or no, there was no mistaking that man with him still so fresh in her memory. It took a little work to slide back through the crowd, and make her way to where he was standing.”Even the mongrels in the trash look to be having more fun than you, my lord.”
Kailea smirked, glancing around to confirm her employer was truly alone, before following his gaze to where the mediators of the Arena waited. She shook her head to hide the roll of her eyes, and tugged at the sleeve of his tunic, to try and pull him toward the dancers again, “You’ll worry yourself grey waiting for the rest and what will come, and you’re much to handsome to do that just yet. Come on! I don’t see your nursemaid about, so why not have some fun before the others arrive? You look as if it would do you some good!”