The chill of the Orclands settled around Delilah as she and her companions set up camp, set watches, and drifted off to sleep in the small copse of trees which Elanway found. It provided a passable job as a windbreak, and Thorwulf’s fire kept the worst of the chill at bay. As Delilah’s head hit what passes for a pillow in the wild, she felt the weight of sleep drag her down and under. She became aware of the motion first. A slight swaying from side to side which drew her along. As her mind began to comprehend the motion, her ears registered the music. The steady rhythm of the table, the throaty chords of the sarangi, and the sharp tang of the manjira were all sounds of home, of Arania. The music resolved into something familiar. It was one of the old songs, bastardized by Middenrealm influence, which took the tale of Rahja and the Shepard and formalized the lively music into something fit for court. This influence also took the accompanying kathak dance and made it into something which allowed two partners to share the movements on the floor, while stripping the movements of their story.
The motion pulled Delilah out of the darkness and onto the marble floor of a ballroom. Not, a ballroom, the ballroom. The patterns in the floor left no doubt, she was in her old familial estate. She had run through this room many times as a child. At least, it had the floor and roof of the room she knew. They extended out into the distance and disappeared into shadows, as if all the world were now part of this courtly dance floor. Her partner moved in time with her, creating the opposite of her movements with the precision of someone raised in the court. Delilah could see her face reflected in the gold of his mask, and strangely, could also see other couples dancing the kathak, or at least this version of it, reflected there as well. All of them were moving through the stolen room, in the stolen estate.
Her partner was not the same as in the last dream. This figure was tall and broad shouldered, and dressed in the finest of court fashion. Raven curls framed the mask, oiled to a fine sheen. His hands snapping above his head, his hands forming the mudras of the next phase of the dance.
“Welcome, Deliah Neridasunni. It is a pleasure to see you here in the flesh. The Emperor has spoken quite highly of you.”
Delilah had known this dance for nearly as long as she could remember--even in her dreams she moved with grace and precision. She had never danced in this room before, or in any ballroom. She had been too young then, and afterwords there had been no ballrooms. But nevertheless, the court dances had been some of the earliest dances she had been taught. Her mother had drilled her endlessly, promising that when things were set right Delilah would be prepared for her role in every respect.
Delilah's arms were in front of her, bent at the elbow and level with the floor as the music paused. It was like the taking of a breath, and then her hands turned gracefully in her own mudras--the opening of the lotus. She inclined her head to the side, looking where her partner's eyes should have been and then, distracted, at his mask. "Thank you. But I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
“Khorim ben Nareb, of the Beni Erkin.” The figure moved back, the dance carrying him away to the utmost reach of arm’s length, before he drew close once again. The scents of the earth blossomed as he drew near, smells of spice and sage. His ritual movements were precise and graceful, although just short of being a match for Delilah’s.
“I am, as I have heard it told, a kindred spirit. A man whose blood conspired to betray him, did betray him.” The music slowed as the story of the dance entered The Shepard’s Lost Way. “I too have been cast from home onto Fortune’s fickle breast. But, my story,” as he moved, Delilah could hear the clinking of metal. Not the jingling noise of coins falling, but a rattling of iron chains. One moment they are dancing, the next Delilah was whisked away from her partner, almost to the limit of her sight of him. A slight pressure, first on her eyes, then between them, caused her vision to swirl momentarily.
The dancer crossed the distance in the same manner as Delilah, that is to say one, one moment he was distant and the next he fell back into the rhythm of the dance.
“My story has a much greater fall. But, the Emperor, he is raising me back up, and I believe he could do the same for you.”
"He said he could reverse the actions of my aunt." Delilah covered her unease with a turn in time with the music. She could feel the silken skirt swirling around her ankles and the rich colors were made still more vivid in the gold reflection of the mask. "How is it that you wear his mask as well?"
Again, Delilah felt the strange dislocation, which dragged her away from her partner in-between the steps of the dance. Khorim’s masked guarded against any surprise he may have felt, and he always caught up with her by the next beat of the drums.
“He could. The Emperor is many things to many people. But he harbors in his heart those who have been cast down by fortune’s vagaries.” The music slowed, shifting in the fashion of dreams, and Khorim own steps moved seamlessly with the transitions.
“My story is long and painful.” The voice behind the mask faltered at the memories. There was a brief choking noise, followed by the rhythmic bob of the apple of Khorim’s throat, but he recovered quickly. When he spoke, his voice was thicker than it had been.
‘It led me down paths I could never have guessed. I was witness not only to the loss of my status and station, but my family as well. I accepted the mask while in chains in a Horasian slaver’s market. He promised me a chance at the life I once had, and vengeance against those who slaughtered my family.”
Delilah caught her breath as Khorim was jerked away yet again, then back to her between the beats of her heart. Something was different about this dream. It was more disjointed than the meeting she'd had with the Emperor.
Her expression softened at his words. "I'm so sorry." Somehow, in the way of dreams, Delilah kept time to the changing music without realizing it had ever been different. "Is... that what he has given you? What did he ask in return?"
The mask tilted down, the eyes wreathed in the smooth gold downcast as Khorim was lost in memory for the moment. Still the dance and the music carried on. When he spoke again, his voice was a tinny whisper coming from behind the mask.
“It is the path he has raised me to. Already, my situation is better. Soon I will be free from the slavers who keep me from my home, and then I will begin to reclaim what is mine.”
The ambient light in the room began to slowly increase. The light seemed to be coming from above the ceiling, slowly shining through the tiles of the roof. “In return? At first, with the knife, nothing. The Emperor is generous, helping those to whom he is linked, though the knife’s link it tenuous. The amulet’s power is stronger, and the mask strongest of all. With the mask, he aids me in powerful ways towards my goals. He says that when I have regained my place in the Lands of the Tulamydes, I will be in a position to repay his kindness. And for his aid in avenging my family and my reinstatement, I will gladly aid him. But, what of you? The Emperor sent me to ask you to consider this. Your Aunt’s time is growing short. She has set her sights against the Emperor, and seeks to supplant him. This will not be. But, it puts you in a position to both benefit from and aid in her fall from grace. He has need of capable people in the world, and he thinks you are one such person. Does his path, and what he offers, hold any interest for you?”
"I... " Delilah hesitated, her foot moving a fraction of a second later it should have in the dance. She quickly recovered, turning once more as the light around them grew brighter. "Perhaps. Let me consider his offer for one week. At the end of that time, I will answer."
The light continued to grow brighter, an orb of radiance, like the sun, shone through the ceiling. The tiles shifted from enameled white, to red, to orange. They distorted from the heat, then dripped, then poured down to the floor in molten streams.
“Very well. One week, Neridasunni.” Khorim’s voice was rich with mirth as he bowed, seemingly ignorant of the heated rain which fell around him. He raised Delilah’s hand to where the golden mask dipped in suggestion of lips, and pressed the cool mask to her skin. The roar of the liquefication of the ceiling drowned out the music. “I look forward to seeing you again. If not in a week, and if you find yourself in Vinsalt, I would be pleased if you would seek me out.”
The ceiling collapsed in a wave, consuming Khorim. The bright sun above the ballroom spoke with a deep, inhuman voice.
“Awake daughter. Let the light banish the shadows of dream.”
The light swelled to encompass all of Delilah’s sight, resolving into the crisp blue sky of the Orklands. The chill of the air bit deeper into Delilah than it had when she laid down to sleep, and the ground was blanketed with snow. Looking down at her, a concerned look on its aquiline face, was a griffon.
“Are you well, daughter,” the creature asked.