Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Twenty-third Day

I kind of needed to stall a bit, so we've got another dance here.

Chapter 25

Jaden stood before the Master of the castle, with all the eyes of the assembled court upon them. Without either of them moving a muscle, the ropes that bound him fell to the floor.

"We can't have our guest unduly encumbered, can we?" said the Master, as invisible hands whisked the ropes away. "Not on the evening of the Grand Ball."

On the last words, he swung his scepter around in a dramatic arc, and the hall around them changed. The purple carpet down the aisle disappeared, and Jaden noticed that the marble floor beneath his feet felt softer, more like a sprung wood floor, though it still looked like marble. The lighting dimmed, coming from candles in chandeliers that hung suspended in the air with no visible supports. Jaden couldn't remember if they had been there earlier, or if the light had come from somewhere else before.

A thin, reedy tone pierced through the air, a note midway between an A and a B flat. Jaden cringed at it, then remembered in surprise that he had never had perfect pitch before. He decided it must be part of traveling in the dreamlands that you occasionally find yourself knowing things just because that's the way they are, like you do in regular dreams. Then he realized that there were other tones playing and shifting slightly to match the first one, and he turned around to see that the dais and throne were gone. In their place was a bizarre sextet of musicians.

The one that played the reed instrument to which the others were tuning was a thin and reedy creature itself. It coiled over and around its chair and its instrument, which was also curved and twisted and lined with finger holes placed convenient to various small appendages. Another played the violin, or the instrument most like a violin, though it had an extra low string and also several sympathetic strings, like a sitar. It was a little more humanoid in form, but with a very wide, frog-like head and long, delicate fingers. The bass player was so small that the bass had to lay flat on the floor. The furry little creature held four ropes connected to pulleys on a wooden frame that lead to plectrums that each plucked one of the four strings. The bassist hopped around on the fingerboard, stopping each string at the desired note and tugging the appropriate rope to pluck it. The pianist and the players of the other two, unrecognizable instruments, were equally odd. All wore purple and white tuxedos modified to fit their various shapes.

The beings and creatures of the court were by now all milling around and chatting excitedly. Many had on fancy ball gowns, or ball gown equivalents to match their physiology. Some were changing shoes for dancing, or even changing feet in some cases. Jaden felt suddenly lost in the crowd and he wondered if he could just slip away and go back to looking for his hand. Could it be that easy? Maybe they didn't really care that much about him after all.

Then the Master seemed to appear next to him again out of nowhere. He towered briefly over the crowd and clapped his hands twice, slowly. The hubbub quieted and a small space cleared around them, and the Master seemed to be a more normal six feet tall or so again.

"Before we begin, I would like to remind you all," he said, in his quiet yet piercing voice, "to demonstrate the hospitality of our land by dancing with our guest. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Mr. Jaden Sands!"

At this, Jaden felt himself drawn violently up into the air and spun around several times in a full circle. When that stopped, he was hovering some ten feet above the ground, and he was dressed in an elegant suit that had even had the right lower arm altered to fit him. A mixture of laughter and applause came from the crowd as he floated slowly back down to the floor.

So much for sneaking off unnoticed, then. It appeared that he would be the center of attention, at least for a while. And was he really supposed to dance? He had no idea what dancing would be like here, and he was still missing his right hand. It had been bad enough dancing with the paralyzed version, but having it gone entirely would be very difficult.

The music began. It was a polka, fast, twisted and bizarre. The violin and the reed instrument seemed to be playing in parallel major seconds, and the other instruments were divided on which melody they harmonized with, sometimes switching back and forth. The tune had an incredible drive to it, good for a polka, but a lot of it may simply have been due to the desire simply to get farther away from it.

Jaden wondered if someone would ask him to dance or if he was expected to do it, but his question was soon answered for him. A tall, elegant figure in a black gown swept down upon him and they whirled off into the now stampeding crowd. Jaden polkaed like he never had before. The music had sounded like normal polka tempo, so why did he feel like he was struggling to keep up? They must have been going double time, at least. He puffed and panted, and dropped steps frequently, practically running to keep up, but his partner glided around him as though floating along in a lake. Jaden stole a quick glance at her feet, but saw nothing between the bottom of her dress and the floor. He looked into her face and saw nothing but an empty glass mask.

And then he was snatched away from his partner and spun off in another direction. Two large fairies or pixies had a hold of him. Whatever they were, they had small, lithe bodies, translucent wings, and few clothes. They flew around him, giggling incessantly and periodically picking Jaden up to spin him around in the air and then drop him back into the flow of the dance to watch him try to recover. On one of these reentries, Jaden collided with a cloaked figure whose partner reached out to knock him aside with a large, heavily muscled arm.

This flung him into the arms of an androgynous, metallic dancer covered in spikes, which pinned Jaden painfully to itself while hardly pausing to lose its momentum. The spikes dug in painfully on each bounce of each beat of the polka

The polka seemed to continue for hours, with Jaden being flung violently from one partner to the next. This is like a nightmare from back when I was first learning to dance and was so bad at it, Jaden thought as the music finally ended and he collapsed, panting, to the floor. But that was only the first dance.

The music started up again almost immediately, and this time it wasn't anything that he could recognize as danceable. It changed time signatures almost constantly, moving between four, seven, thirteen, six and a half, or pi beats per measure, and the first two beats of each phrase were upside down, which Jaden knew would make absolutely no sense back in the real world. It barely did even there in the dreamlands.

He realized that he had ended the polka near the doors of the Great Hall, and he headed towards them, wondering if he could sneak out now. But two troll guards like the ones on the outside of the doors were there blocking the way. One of them pushed him back with the butt of his spear. However, Jaden noticed that they let other dancers through who wanted to go out for a breath of fresh air, so they were clearly under orders to keep him inside.

He didn't have long to consider it, though, since he was once again grabbed from behind and drawn out onto the dance floor. Another agonizingly long dance followed, with Jaden trying desperately to perform the correct steps to the strange music and being traded from partner to partner, as before. And more dances followed that one, each more difficult, painful, and/or mind bending than the one before.

The tango was one of the worst. Jaden ended up dancing most of it with a being that seemed to be made almost entirely of fire. Jaden could feel his skin crackling, bubbling and scorching in the searing heat but he was unable to get away. He didn't understand why it didn't simply burn him to death, but when he was finally pulled free he saw not a single mark on his skin. His rescuer was a large, wobbly, tentacled lady who oozed around him, squeezing him into bizarrely convoluted moves.

When the tango ended and he finally gasped free of his partner, Jaden leaned against a pillar and wondered how long he had been dancing. Hours? Days? Weeks? The ball showed no sign of stopping though, and he had the suspicion that there had really only been a small number of dances so far. The music began yet again, and Jaden felt a tap on his shoulder. With a groan of despair, he turned.

And found himself looking at Zoe. He blinked several times. It was definitely the girl he had met at Jammix, and she didn't seem to have wings or claws or any of the other oddities of the other dancers in the room. She did, however, have an elegant, silvery gray dress that looked like the color of dreams.

"Now that the tango is over," she asked politely, ignoring Jaden's bewildered look, "would you like to waltz? I was very careful not to ask you for the tango this time, did you notice?"

"Honestly, no, I'm afraid I didn't," Jaden replied, recovering somewhat. "It's been all I can do to just stay alive out there, and I didn't even realize you were here. But yes, please, I'd love a waltz. A real waltz."

They began dancing in a barrel hold position, which worked well enough to deal with the missing support of Jaden's right arm.

"So what are you doing here?" Jaden asked as they danced. "Are you dreaming?"

"Yes, of course."

"But you know you're dreaming. That seems unusual."

"I've been having lucid dreams since I was six. I'm used to it. When one started tonight, I felt like dancing and, well," she blushed slightly, "I remembered dancing with you last week, so I thought I'd look for you. I'm not sure why I put you in this weird ballroom, though, or why you don't have a right hand anymore. Sorry about that. It wasn't intentional, but even lucid dreams are not always completely under my control."

"Well, the truth is, I'm not really part of your dream. At least, not in the usual way." And Jaden tried to sum up his situation and how he had gotten here. Zoe listened intently and seemed to take it all very much in stride.

From time to time as they spoke and danced, other dancers would take a swipe at Jaden and try to steal him away. But now that he was more in control of his dancing, and also had Zoe helping to keep an eye out, they were able to evade the attempts at cutting in. Zoe seemed even lighter and quicker on her feet than she had in real life, which was saying a lot.

"Alright, then," she said, when Jaden had finished the Reader's Digest version of his story, "let's go find you your hand."

"As far as I can tell, I'm trapped here, and I haven't seen my hand anywhere around this ballroom."

"You may seem to be trapped here, but I'm not. This is still at least partly my dream. So let's go."

The music was beginning to speed up.

"But what do we do?"

"Let's try getting a running start first."

As the tempo increased, the bass and the high, reedy lead instrument began doubling together on a fast, staccato melody, while the other instruments created a smooth background of increasing tension with rising chords flowing one into the other. Jaden and Zoe broke into a redowa, dodging past and between the other couples on the floor until they found a clear track at the outer edge of the room. They began barreling down it full speed, as though on a race track.

"Now what?" Jaden asked as they practically flew down the length of the hall.

"Keep going, dead ahead."

"There's a wall there."

"I know. I think it will be okay."

"You think?"

"We're still in a dream, remember? We can make this work. Just go for it."

"Okay then… here goes nothing."

And just as the music reached the final crescendo of the waltz, Jaden and Zoe took one last redowa leap and flew directly through the solid stone wall.