The Offering could be made only once, and what he might have been had been severed by his own fear and refusal to accept it.
He couldn’t reclaim the power that was lost forever, but maybe, with the fire dance, he could finally meet and embrace the man he should be.
Gray opened the door to his room and found Ranon leaning against the hallway wall, waiting for him.
“You ready?” Ranon asked.
He looked at the other Warlord Prince, a man who had become a closer, stronger friend than any he’d ever had. Tonight there was heat in Ranon’s dark eyes. Heat and a glitter that wasn’t temper but wasn’t far removed.
“I’m ready.” May the Darkness have mercy on him if he wasn’t ready. If he failed this time, too many of his dreams would fail with him.
They walked out of the Queen’s Residence together, then stopped when they reached the street. Currents of feminine power drifted through the village, along the streets, stropping against Gray’s inner barriers.
Ranon closed his eyes and breathed deep. Gray had the sense that his friend was breathing in more than air.
“Do you hear it?” Ranon whispered.
He didn’t hear anything, but he felt it in his blood.
The drums were calling the men to the dance.
Ranon took in another breath, then let it out in a sigh as he opened his eyes. “Come on, Gray. It’s time to dance.”
Cassie was there tonight among the drummers, was there among the women who had come to watch the fire contained in a vessel of male flesh.
“Yes,” Gray said as he began walking toward the sound of the drums. “It’s time.”
Cassidy looked around as she set up her drum and stool between Shira’s and Reyhana’s. This park, named The Dance, had been a tangle of weeds and overgrown bushes with a pile of stones in the center of the almost impenetrable mess. Gray had been frustrated that the elders wouldn’t let him clean up this park when they let him work on the others in Eyota. He’d grumbled and fussed about it so much the elders finally told him politely but firmly to keep his hands off the place.
Now there was a large circle of fine sand that had been carefully raked. The tumble of stones in the center was a large fire pit piled with wood that was ready for a flame’s kiss. Freshly mown grass filled the rest of the space, and bushes defined the boundaries and provided some privacy. Eight archways created entranceways to The Dance.
“This wasn’t cleaned up in the past couple of days,” Cassidy said quietly. Or as quietly as she could over the sound of the two women who had begun drumming.
Shira smiled and looked a little embarrassed. “We’ve had to be careful for so long . . .” She shrugged. “Illusion spells. Lots of them, woven in and around one another. The Dance is always tended, even though most years it wasn’t safe to use such a place.”
“So you didn’t do these special dances?” Cassidy asked.
“We did. But not like this.” Shira smiled fiercely, but her eyes were tear bright. “It was too risky to do the whole celebration together, so it would be spread out over the weeks between the Autumn Moon and the next full moon. This is the first time in a very long time my people will come together on one night for these dances.”
It hurt that they hadn’t trusted her enough to release the illusion spells and reveal The Dance for what it was, but it also told her how deep the fear ran in the Shalador people. She didn’t ask Shira what the penalty had been for those who had been caught doing these dances. She didn’t want to know.
And yet, despite that fear, they had invited her to participate in this celebration, to be “part of its heart.”
“Drummers and the other musicians will be going in and out as the dances change, so if you lose the rhythm, just drop out until you can pick it up again,” Shira said.
“Janos is dancing tonight,” Reyhana said.
Cassidy looked at Shira, who looked at Reyhana and smiled, but then said, “Remember, you go nowhere tonight without a chaperon.”
“But . . .”
“Is there a problem?” Cassidy asked.
Reyhana looked away. Shira sighed and said, “Heated blood can eliminate good sense, and sometimes young people do things they regret the next day—or make mistakes they can’t live with.”
Reyhana’s face blazed with color, but she held her head up. “I know my duty to my people.”
“And to yourself,” Cassidy added softly.
Reyhana met her eyes and nodded. “And to myself. That’s why Janos asked Darkmist to act as our chaperon tonight.”
“Oh.” Shira pressed a hand against her mouth to stifle a laugh. “In that case, I apologize for treading where I had no reason to tread.”
“As the court’s Healer, you had a right to express concern,” Cassidy said.
*In that case,* Shira said, *I’ll ask if you’ve been drinking the contraceptive brew since your last moontime.*
Cassidy felt the heat rising in her face. *Yes, I have.*
*Good.* Shira sat on her stool and placed her smaller drum between her knees. “Ah, the Priestess is giving the signal. The rest of us will join the drumming in a minute.”
Cassidy took her place and got her own drum in position. They had practiced for these dances over the past few weeks. Yairen had declared her ready to join the drumming for all but the Fire Dance.
The Shalador women were gathering. Many stopped at a small stone altar and opened a vein over a large silver chalice—the blood the Priestess would use to cast the circle for the dance.
Two more drums joined the first two drummers. Then two more, and two more. A simple rhythm that would split into something more demanding. Cassidy had been assigned the simpler beat, and Shira and Reyhana had chosen to stay with her instead of doing the more complex beat. She appreciated that when her turn came to join the drummers. There was plenty to think about, and when the drums were suddenly enhanced with Craft and the sound flowed out of The Dance, she felt the seduction and the power of this tradition.
As the last drummer took up the beat, the Priestess’s voice rose in wordless song, calling the men to the dance. Another voice joined hers. Then another. And another.
The first men arrived. Some were fathers with sons who were old enough for the Boys’ Dance. Most were older men, including Ranon’s grandfather Yairen, who would begin the celebration with the Wisdom Dance.
The Priestess cast the circle with blood and Craft as the women’s voices quieted until it was only her voice and the drums calling, calling, calling.