Leandro was so pent up with energy that he had hardly slept that night. The Gilded Bead was in his grasp, or was close to being in his grasp. All he had to do was deliver the girl and her bead to the emperor and he and Felipe would be free of the wretched man's service. He would be a free man.
Of course, that would mean seeing less of Adora. Leandro wasn't sure how he felt about that. He was sure that both he and Adora would remain close. Their childhood affection had lasted through his family's fall from power and Adora's rise. It had lasted through Adora first, failed marriage to a man far too old for her. Leandro had even been the one to sit with her after the death of her toddler son fourteen months ago.
He stopped at a small vender that sold warm rolls of bread. His mouth was already watering from the delicious smell the rolls sent to his nose. Felipe, already stuffing his face with his own roll, came up beside him and patted him on the shoulder.
"Where did you run off to last night? You left me to deal with some upset guards." Felipe finished off his roll.
"I'm sure that wasn't too difficult." Leandro smiled, paying for his roll and turning away. He started down the street, confidence radiating through his veins. He had spent the night lying on his bed, thinking.
"Well? Did she agree or no? You don't seem like you've just lost a bet, so?" Felipe followed Leandro as he walked down the street.
"No." Leandro replied slyly. "But, I have a plan. Last night did not go as I had hoped, but then, we didn't exactly go about it in a non confrontational way. I slept on it, so I'm not ready to call for reinforcements just yet… and she's just a girl."
"She's a bit more than a girl, Le. Girl's don't look like that." Felipe laughed and nudged his smaller friend. Some days, Felipe wasn't focused. Leandro could tell today was going to be one of those days.
"Yes, well, she's not Adora." Leandro muttered sullenly in response. He was still rather put out about missing his time with the Empress. They had precious few days left befor Leandro succeeded.
"No, she's not. This girl… I mean, this young woman has got a little more fire to her." Felipe smirked, mischief written in his green eyes. "I like fire."
"I'm sure you do, old friend." Leandro shook his head at his friend. "I doubt, though, that she'd look your direction. She isn't too pleased with us."
"That wasn't my doing." Felipe pointed out.
"No. Are you ready for the plan yet?" Leandro was loosing his patience with his friend. He just wanted all this searching to be over. He didn't have time for games.
Felipe sighed. "Not in the mood, huh? Alright, what's the plan?"
"The plan is to befriend her. Sounds simple enough, I think. Simple might be the way to go. We have to befriend her without her suspecting what we're doing, which will be hard since we've already sort of messed that up last night. We'll pay her well when we see her dance. We'll become trusted by her guards, her escort and anyone else who cares for her. We'll enchant her and take her to the Great Hall. She'll be wooed. She'll - " He stopped when his friend grabbed his arm roughly and dragged him to a stop.
Felipe pointed to Rayen, standing a few yards away with a few of her fellow guardsmen around her. Her blouse was barely hanging on her shoulders and made from a royal purple, gold threaded silk. At her waist was a black, velvet corset. Her skirts were sheer, layered blue and violet with billowy white breeches. Her arms were across her chest in an annoyed fashion, making her look rather young. Her unsettling gold eyes glared at the two of them, even as the crowds passed around them.
"Befriend her, eh?" Felipe laughed. "She doesn't look like she's in the befriending mood."
"Hm… Perhaps." Leandro remarked thoughtfully. "But she's a girl and she's young. Young girls love to go to parties and dress up. Isn't the Empress's birthday ball coming in a few days, Felipe?"
Felipe shot a glance at him. "Le… You can't invite her to such an occasion. You want to humiliate her? I don't think that's befriending her."
"She'll have to lean on her us for comfort and familiarity. We'll be there. Or, you'll be there. Adora won't like me hanging around with our little Fire Dancer." Leandro watched Rayen as her annoyance with them grew.
Continue to frown, Rayen brushed past her guardsmen and stalked toward them with a look that meant to cook them on the spot. Felipe's good natured stance stiffened, ready for an attack. However slack he may be in the market, Leandro always knew that his friend was his loyal guard.
"What are you doing here?" The red-headed girl demanded as she stopped in front of him.
"It's a market, dear little Fire -" Leandro started.
"Don't call me that." Her voice lowered a notch. "I don't go by that name."
"It's what you are." Leandro smirked, enjoying getting a rise out of her.
"Careful, Le." Felipe whispered beside him. "Friendly, remember."
Leandro glanced at him and sighed. The bigger man was right, making her angry wasn't doing them any favors. "Listen girl, we've got a proposition for you."
"I'm not a girl," she growled. "And I don't care about your proposition." Rayen narrowed her eyes once more at them and turned on her heel in a swirl of fabric.
Leandro could have tossed the colorful dancer in the mud. She protested that she wasn't a girl and here she was, stalking away in a huff because their answers didn't suit her. Letting out another sigh, he reached out and grabbed her elbow. "Wait. Just here it."
Rayen whipped her arm away from him. "Fine. Speak. I don't have a lot of time."
"We," Leandro gestured to Felipe, "want to invite you to the Empress's birthday ball, as a guest and… perhaps a performer. The Empress enjoys watching dancers and often employs several to perform at her festivities. You would be honored there."
"You think me petty enough to want to be showered with… attention from the Imperial Majesties?" Rayen looked between the two men.
"We thought you might like the opportunity to dance for a respected audience." Felipe interjected.
"And these people," she spread her arms, "are not respected."
"You would be paid well." Felipe replied. "That is all I meant."
Rayen's face turned angry. "I don't want to be paid. A girl doesn't want to be paid. It makes her sound like a whore. I'm not a whore. If you want an escort, I can recommend a few good taverns to find them in." She started away from them, red hair trailing behind her like the fire it resembled.
Leandro growled. The girl was so difficult. Couldn't she just accept an invitation? Any woman around these streets would do anything to get the invitation he had just given Rayen.
"Rayen," he jogged a few steps to get in front of her again and held out his hands before him to stop her. "You don't think the Imperial Majesties deserve the Gi-"
"Say a word further and I swear you will never see me again." Rayen held up a finger to cut him off.
"Fair enough," he nodded in agreement. "You don't know their Majesties as I do. Meet them and see for yourself, that is all we ask. You may change your mind."
"It isn't about whether they are good people or not, Leandro." Rayen replied evenly. "It is about what they do and if we look around us, they aren't doing anything good. Over there, Carl is a beggar just wanting a loaf of bread to eat because that is all he'll get for the week if he's lucky. Martha makes handkerchiefs out of her best dresses in order to pay for her two daughters and give them a good marriage. She has to make good marriages for them, not for love, but for money. There are hundreds of others in worst conditions. Their Imperial Majesties have turned a blind eye."
"Perhaps this is your chance to tell them." Felipe came up beside Leandro with a willing smile.
Rayen's gold eyes danced between the two. 'Oh, we have her now,' Leandro smiled a little. "They wouldn't listen to me."
"We could make them. We could get you an audience. It may take a few attendances to several… um… festivities, but we could get you an audience," Leandro watched her. If he had known it would be that easy, he would have made the deal all the more sooner.
"How many is a few?" Rayen was thoughtful. "I have to make my own money."
"We'll pay you if it helps," Felipe replied. "And it shouldn't be many. I can't stand many myself."
Leandro shot his friend a look. The big man was not helping in the least. If anything, his friend was making things much more difficult. Felipe had a decent heart, but the man needed to just let him speak.
"I'll send Felipe to fetch you in two days time for the ball. We'll go from there, what do you say?" Leandro suggested.
"Not yourself?" Rayen smirked at Felipe, "He sends you to do his dirty work?"
"I have matters to attend to," Leandro replied coldly. "Felipe won't mind."
"No, I won't. Not in the least, Mistress," Felipe gave a polite little bow.
"Fine, but remember who I am, sirs." Rayen narrowed her eyes and finally left them. She waved her guards to follow her and disappeared into the crowded streets of the market.
"Oh, we will little Fire Dancer." Leandro beamed.
Rayen swatted the aging hand of her servant, Septima, away from her for the hundredth time. The older woman had made Rayen wear a proper gown for the occasion and had seen to it that Rayen was wrinkle-free. The dancer was not pleased at all. Her dress was long, white and hindering and had blue ribbons wrapped around her waist and a bit around her arms. A silk shawl wrapped around her shoulders and down her back. The only thing she felt comfortable enough wearing was the long, sheer veil on her head. All in all, she felt like a doll.
"Oh, dear heart, don't scowl that way. It might stay like that." Septima patted her cheek gently. "You look wonderful."
"I can't move. I can breath, but I can't move. How do these ladies do it? All this fabric? With the price they pay for this fabric, they could feed dozens of hungry people. I could clothe dozens of people." Rayen picked at the gauzy, white material of her dress.
"Be grateful, Rayen. Those men paid for this dress." Septima turned away from her and moved to one of the small tables in Rayen's room. She picked up a bit of kohl and came back over to the girl. "Hold still while I do your eyes."
Rayen let out a breathe, but allowed the older woman to line her eyes. "You and I both know what they are after. It isn't fair to lead them on. My mother would not have approved… Or any of my ancestors for that manner."
Septima stepped back from her work and smiled. "There," she handed the girl a reflecting glass. "Dear heart, your ancestors are not here and I'm sure that if they were, they would not deny you a bit of luxury. Your mother lived with more beautiful things than you allow yourself. Here's a tip from an old lady to a young one: enjoy yourself."
"If I enjoy myself, I might let them down." Rayen replied firmly. "Now is a horrible time. The crown hasn't been without… it… since, oh, I don't know when and now they are. I don't know how strong I can be. I need to keep my wits."
Septima sighed and took Rayen's hand in her own. "You worry too much. You are stronger than your mother was, so you have nothing to worry about." Then she smiled. "Just don't drink any spirits."
A small smile appeared on Rayen's lips. "Thank you, Septima. I just… I'm scared, Septima."
"Scared of what, dear heart?" Septima frowned.
"I'm walking right into the lion's den. I'll be just feet before them. All they have to do is seize me. I can't fight my way out of there." Rayen could feel her nerve's building in her stomach to form a tight knot.
"They can't do anything to you. It has to be of your free will, not their will." Septima squeezed her hand. "You're a clever girl, besides. I'm sure you can find your way out, if you need to, but I don't think you will."
Rayen nodded, trying to calm herself. No use getting worked up for nothing. Nothing had happened yet. Unless Leandro had told their Imperial Majesties, they probably didn't know. She was just another guest at another party and she was determined to be that. Just make a good enough impression for an audience, she reminded herself.
"Hello?" Felipe's voice echoed in the doorway a hallway away from them.
"That's my escort to the…er… ball." Rayen cleared her throat.
"Sounds handsome," Septima winked at her, making her blush.
"It's just Felipe." Rayen waved her servant aside.
"Well, just enjoy yourself, dear heart. For one night, forget who you are." Septima pushed her forward.
"This is the Great Hall?" Rayen whispered as she entered into the largest building in Sareta. The walls were marble and matching stone pillars six times her size around. Stone statues from all the ancient epic stories posed down the entrance hall, back dropped with colorful tapestries.
As they entered into the ballroom, her eyes widened even more. Gold leafing lined the walls and pillars. Shimmering gold fabric tented the room and white flowers littered the corners. The people in the ballroom were just as beautiful. Not a one was above forty years and all of them had the shimmering glow of some new cosmetic that make the skin sparkle. For a moment, Rayen was envious of them.
"The Emperor over did himself this time." Felipe remarked beside her. "Last year it was purple, this year it's gold. I wonder what it will be next year; silver perhaps."
Rayen turned her attention to Felipe, who looked quite different from his usual attire. He was dressed in red and gold silk and jeweled in gold and rubies. Rayen would never have thought. 'All this splendor and not a cent to the poor,' her mouth turned sour.
"You don't like it," Felipe smirked as he glanced at her. "It's only for one night."
"So I have been told, Felipe." Rayen remarked dryly.
"Ah, there you are!" Leandro waved to them and swaggered over in rich blues and silver. "I was beginning to think that you weren't going to be here."
"I wish I wasn't," Rayen muttered and looked away from the man. Everything was beautiful, at least the room was beautiful, but she didn't really want to be there.
"Leandro, my dear," A woman's voice called from nearby. Rayen had never seen anyone quite so exquisite and the way Leandro's attention was instantly diverted made her breathe catch. "Who is still lovely, little creature?" The woman's beaming smile turned her direction. "And what is she doing standing next to Felipe?"
"I'm Rayen, and really, Felipe is a very kind man." Rayen patted Felipe's arm.
"No need to keep my feelings good," Felipe smirked at her, then turned to the beautiful, blonde woman and bowed. "Empress."
Rayen looked between Felipe and the other woman. "Empress Adora?"
"Yes, that's me." Adora smiled at her. She twirled to the music that was being played in the room, letting her long hair and full skirt flare out. Leandro's eyes followed her and smiled. "I simply adore dancing."
"Do you dance often, Imperial Majesty?" Rayen asked with a slight edge to her voice. Felipe nudged her good naturedly and shook his head to her taunt.
"As much as I can. Do you, Mistress Rayen?" Adora cocked her head to the side.
Rayen felt the edges of her mouth twinge with a smile. "Very. Everyday in fact."
"Oh dear," Felipe muttered as he leaned to whisper in Leandro's ear. "This will be very interesting." Leandro shot him a look.
"A dancer then?" Adora narrowed her eyes a little. "Perhaps you could… entertain us a bit?"
Rayen raised her chin slightly. Was this woman challenging her to a dance? The Empress must be truly crazy to believe she could embarrass her by forcing her to dance for the public.
"Adora," Leandro warned at her side, "this isn't exactly the time for this."
"Yes, my dear Leandro, it is." Adora gave one last look to Rayen before she turned on her and waved to the musicians.
"I hope your precious Empress can dance," Rayen whispered as she brushed past Leandro to follow Adora.
Leandro's good time was ended abruptly by the two women who were walking toward the center of the room. He should have known better than to put two very stubborn, very competitive and quick tempered women together in the same room. He had expected Adora's reaction, it was always the same, but Rayen had been unexpected. Leandro had not expected the dancer to rise to Adora. He had expected her to get angry, but nothing like what he was about to witness.
Rayen gave a bow and encouraged Adora to go first, which she did proudly. Felipe was laughing beside him, obviously already prepared for the outcome.
"Was this what you were thinking when you wanted to show her how worthy our rulers were?" Felipe laughed.
"No, most certainly not." Leandro frowned.
The music began, a lively and upbeat tune that would allow Adora to show off her footwork. She tossed aside her velvet shawl and with a slender hand, lifted the hem of her dress. Adora winked at Leandro from her central spot and then turned and raised her hands above her head and clapped on beat.
For the next few moments, Adora jumped and clapped and swayed in rhythm to the music. Every man in the room stopped paying attention to the women they were standing amongst and watched the Empress with an affectionate eye. She smiled and tossed her hair, catching their eye. She ended with a spin that would have left anyone dizzy in the room and looked up through her long lashes to smirk at Rayen, who would dance next.
Leandro was left breathless just watching the beautiful woman. Perhaps Rayen could not beat their Empress. No offense could be made if Rayen didn't beat her at her own sport.
"Remember to breath," Felipe reminded him. "And catch your breath. I think our little Rayen may just surprise us."
Rayen spent a moment with the musicians, then walked into the center of the room slowly. The music beat slowly, with only a steady drum beat. Rayen circled the room at a slow walk, each step a drum beat. She reached the center once again and stopped, kneeling down. As the other instruments joined the drums, Rayen rose slowly and seductively. Her hands rippled like the water, taking her whole body with it.
The music rose in passion and speed and Rayen followed its rise seamlessly. Her feet moved and her hair flashed as she spun and jumped, always fluid and always tempting.
"She's like a snake," one man remarked quietly near Leandro.
In the beginning, Rayen had been conscious to out dance the Empress with complicated movements, but as the dance grew longer, Rayen seemed to have forgotten that she was being watched.
She jumped and spun, using her shawl as an extension of her arms. She threw it and wrapped it around herself and the air flowing about her. Her silk veil flew from her hair and drifted over the crowd; one man reached out and grabbed it.
As the music slowed to an end, so did she, bringing her audience back to the present with herself. Rayen posed for a moment to catch her breath, then turned to Adora to smile.
"I don't think the Empress is happy, Le," Felipe remarked hardly above a whispered, too afraid to speak louder.
"What?" Leandro snapped back to attention, tearing his eyes from Rayen to look at his friend.
"The Empress, Le." Felipe pointed to the fuming blonde woman before them all.
Leandro turned his focus to the Empress and watched as she stiffly commended the red-haired girl that had so easily out performed her. "Yes, the Empress doesn't look too happy."
Leandro tore his eyes away from the two women and walked out of the room. He had a sudden desire to be far away from both the women and breath in the fresh and cool, outside air.
"Leandro," Emperor Piedad came up behind him quietly. "Who is that girl?"
"Mistress Rayen, Imperial Majesty," Leandro replied stiffly.
"And why is Mistress Rayen important enough to be dancing with my wife?" Piedad squared off to Leandro.
Leandro looked at the man sideways. "Imperial Majesty…"
"She's it, isn't she? She's the girl we've been looking for, isn't she?" Piedad's eyes lit up in a way that sent chills running down Leandro's spin.
"Emperor Piedad, I…" Leandro couldn't find the words to say. He wasn't sure he wanted to hand Rayen over to Piedad for whatever means he may have for her.
"I want to meet the girl, Leandro. I want to meet her tomorrow." Piedad informed him evenly.
Author's Notes: Oh, boy, is this story taking a life of its own. Originally I had planned this as a little story for a good friend of mine while she was recovering, but now… Now, I have come to really love this story. It was an idea inspired after a rather curious dream I had a week ago that involved black beads, a dancer and two men who were helping her escape. It was really far too complicated to even begin to explain. There was a lot to the dream that I just "knew" and "understood."
Thanks to those who have read and reviewed so far! I really take what you write too heart. I really tried to add more description, which is funny, because that is my instructors' pet peeve with me and my writing. That just shows how much I really need to pay attention and really think about what I'm writing and creating. So thanks for the encouragement and criticism. I really appreciate it.