Death’s Dancer Chapter 1

Death’s Dancer

Chapter One

Isela Vogel danced for gods, no longer convinced anyone was listening. She pressed the ball of her bare left foot into the polished wooden floorboards. As she exhaled, her right leg floated with extraordinary control from the floor. Her fingers flared: palms out, thumbs turned down and in to present the backs of her hands. With a slight bend of her elbows, she pushed her hands away from her body. Her right arm twisted down from the shoulder blade as her left fingertips arched toward the sky.

In every movement, every breath, she danced, demanding their attention anyway.

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The scent of cardamom, oranges, and cinnamon permeated the air from the pots of scented water hanging around the hexagonal ring. There was no evidence dancing in a ring was more or less effective than anywhere else. A tradition of performers dictated a dedicated space, properly lit, with good ventilation and solid flooring, was a necessity. Each academy had its own ring style, but for Isela, the Praha Academy was home.

The domed skylight bathed the room in an aura of hued light from the sea glass soft panes. Although the practice studios in the floors below were mirrored, the walls of the performance ring bore the original Mucha murals. On sunny days, the room warmed nicely. This close to winter, radiators behind elegant, gilded grates provided heat.

Isela bowed her back, the muscles of her abdomen contracting to support her upper body as it cascaded behind her until the sweep of her dark hair dusted the floor. She hated dancing with her hair unbound, but some patrons insisted on it. In some corners, the belief existed that the value and effectiveness of the dance was due to its beauty. Since a majority of dancers were women, she thought there might be some credence to that.

But beauty was not what made dance a language. Each movement had a name, and when strung together in choreographed sequence, they became a request from her patron to the gods themselves. She knew them all. Of the entities they called gods, she knew less.

Powerful, inexplicable forces with their own priorities had existed among humanity since the beginning. Without knowing better, humans labeled them gods and turned to worship, attempting to appease and gain favor. The lack of interest in communication from the gods didn’t stop humanity from trying.

Dancing saved humanity, or nearly doomed it.

Her right palm met the floor before the left. Her belly contracted, drawing first the extended right leg and then the trailing left over her head. She found a moment of balance in inversion, with all four limbs pressing out in opposite directions. It was hard not to feel proud of her skill in these instances. Even knowing her body had already begun to fail her.

She held the last pose for a few breaths. The sensation of the world around her returned as the air rushed into her lungs. Sweat rolled down her skin, pooling at her feet. Adrenaline and endorphins kept the coming ache in her hip at bay, but she knew from experience that the reprieve would not last long. At last she palmed her hands together at her heart, closed her eyes, and floated through a curtsey. The chime sounded, signaling the completion of the dance.

The old Sanskrit invocation whispered across her lips, “Om bolo sat guru maharaja ki, jai! She danced for gods for a living, but she worshipped nothing. Everything divine was in the dance itself, not the entities she moved for.

Finished, she lifted her head and left the ring.

At the edge of the room, a woman waited patiently, towel in hand. Even at average height, Isela dwarfed her visitor.

“Director Sauvageau.” Isela took the offered towel, dabbing at her forehead. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I have a new assignment for you,” the older woman said. “Urgent and extremely sensitive. Come with me.”

“Do I have time for a shower?”

Divya shook her head. “Later.”

Descended from the godsdancing founder, Corinne Divya Sauvageau had been a dancer in her youth. She still moved with a lithe grace, though silver streaked the tidy chignon at the base of her skull. The students had long ago given up trying to guess her age. Isela joked that Divya was impossible to pin down because she was everywhere at once. In spite of her notoriously hectic schedule, she seemed to know everything that went on inside the walls of the Academy.

Her tailored pantsuit, suitable for a full day of meetings with clients, looked out of place in the ring she had once commanded. That didn’t stop Isela from feeling joyfully humbled by the older woman’s unexpected presence.

Taking the slippers Divya offered, Isela hooked them onto her bare feet before tossing a light wrap across her shoulders.

“Your third warrior transition is sloppy.” Divya changed the subject to avoid further inquiry.

Isela inclined her head. It had been a long time since she feared her teacher. “Perhaps you should give me some pointers, old lady.”

The tiniest collection of wrinkles creased Divya’s almond skin around her mouth and eyes. Her laughter startled the custodian mopping the floor. When her gaze fell on him, he hurried back to his task.

“Come to my office,” Divya said. “Before you ruin my reputation as a fire-breathing dragon.”

Her eyebrow rose when Isela left an extra tip on the offering tray beside the door. “Bribery?”

Isela shouldered her bag and faced Sauvageau. “An expression of gratitude.”

Divya had handpicked Isela from a school performance nineteen years earlier, overcoming resistance from the Academy officials to enroll the unknown child of American refugees. Theirs wasn’t the only resistance she had to overcome. The director made her plea in person on the doorstep of the family home, promising to take personal responsibility for the gangly eleven-year-old.

The invitation was a privilege that existed on a knife’s edge. To be a dancer would bring the girl uncomfortably close to the powers that had led the world to the brink of destruction. Though the godswar had ended and dancing was now rigidly sanctioned, those who danced served as a reminder of the peril and promise of human communication with the gods.

These days, the most successful dancers lived comfortable lives, performing primarily for business deals and the personal issues of the wealthy.

Isela shivered in the cool air of the hall, aware of the students moving past her. Their stares itched at her skin like the drying sweat. She resisted the urge to look down or away. She was no longer a girl, plucked from the stage of a poorly lit community center to walk in these shining halls among more well-connected, well-regarded peers. The stares no longer judged and found her wanting.

She no longer lived in constant awareness of her differences. She would never be as lean as the classical prima ballerinas. If she needed a more supportive top than the thin-strapped leotards provided for her full breasts it was no longer a source of shame. That her body veered toward curves over the long, corded muscles developed by years of training no longer brought embarrassment.

She’d conditioned her body to master the most demanding maneuvers, mastering the inversions and acrobatics that made her renowned among her peers. More than half her life had been devoted to study and performance. She made dance her purpose, stripping it down to the bones and reassembling it as her own. She was what many of them aspired to become. Or feared enough to give wide berth. She had earned her place.

“Your every move is the dance,” Divya cast her stern expression about, discouraging those who contemplated approach. “Even the First Years can see it.”

Humbled by praise, Isela’s gaze went to the floor. “I have you to thank for that.”

What would be left for her, she wondered, when she could no longer dance? The clock had begun to tick; each performance brought her closer to the end of her career. She no longer knew herself without it.

The director’s phone chimed, and they paused while she checked the screen. Divya’s mouth twitched again. This time Isela thought the smile held a hint of sadness.

“That was an exceptional performance,” Divya said. “Your patron added a nice bonus to your check.”

Isela spoke to cover her discomfort at her mentor’s unusually liberal praise. “So what’s the job? If you’re sending me to Sur Americas again, I need to get my shots. I was sick for weeks last time.”

“Closer to home.”

The equivocation soured Isela’s curiosity as they continued the walk in silence to the director’s office.

The broad oak door opened smoothly as they approached. Divya never hesitated. Isela hung back a step, marveling as she always did at the door, which never failed to open at the right moment. On the other side, a stocky man, with the hands and ruddy neck of a laborer and fringes of white hair kept carefully combed around the base of his skull, held the handle.

Divya greeted him with a nod. “We’ll take tea, Niles.”

Niles oversaw the Academy’s security in his capacity as Divya’s personal assistant. He didn’t exactly look the part, in spite of the expensive suit and impeccable manners, but Isela had seen both his handwriting and his combat skills. She had no doubts about his qualifications for the position.

Always effortlessly formal, he bowed. “Miss Vogel.”

“Don’t you think we’re past all that?” She smiled as he closed the door behind them. “You make it sound like I’m twelve and getting busted for mouthing off in Salle’s class. Again.”

“Apologies, Miss Vogel,” he said without breaking his stern expression. “Madame Salle sends her regards.”

Divya pinched her lips closed on a smile.

Divya’s personal sanctuary always surprised Isela. Something about the woman’s suits, clean lines, and rigid demeanor always made Isela think she would be more at home in the ultramodern official suite used to welcome patrons. But this room of carved wood and bright fabrics, with its overstuffed chairs and cozy nooks, had her personal touch in every corner. Divya gestured toward the reading chair close to the fire as Niles followed with the tea service.

“That will be all.”

Isela frowned. Divya never spoke to her staff so curtly. Niles bowed and retreated to his desk in the outer room.

Divya served the tea herself, handing over the delicate porcelain cup.

Isela resisted the urge to run her hand over her hip as endorphins and adrenaline faded, leaving a throbbing discomfort in their wake. The fewer people who knew about the damage, the better. If Divya knew, she’d force Isela to retire or cut back her schedule. Isela may have needed the money less than she had as a young dancer, but she had never needed dance more than she did now.

Her stomach grumbled audibly, and Divya offered up a tray of biscuits. At heart a performer, the director would not be rushed.

“The client is… unusual.” Divya grappled with the word.

Reaching for a third biscuit, Isela paused. Divya was patient, yes, dramatic perhaps, but it wasn’t her habit to hedge.

“If it’s the nude thing again…” Isela withdrew her hand, rolling her eyes. “I don’t care how many times they ask, I am not taking off my clothes for art, faith, or anything else.”

Divya smiled with such wistful sadness it was as though she was recalling memories of an old friend, or perhaps someone she had lost.

What in Hades was going on? Isela shifted uncomfortably.

“Know that we have ways to protect you,” Divya assured her. “And your family, if you decide not to take the job.”

Isela focused on her breath as her heart raced against her ribs. “What kind of job is this?”

She’d heard of terrible things happening to dancers, back in the old days.

Following World War II, the discovery of godsdancing changed humanity forever. A young ballerina drew on her culture’s tradition as a great synthesizer—a land where thousands of gods existed not as separate entities but facets of one—and crafted a language by combining them. She linked moves, added accents from one discipline to the base of another. She commanded the attention of the gods and learned to bend their will to human desire. She trained others, and the dance began to evolve into its current form: a combination of moves drawn from hundreds of traditions around the globe.

At first there was success: crops flourished, illnesses retreated. But pettiness and greed began to color human requests. Governments collected dancers for their arsenals, rewarding families with bribes or manipulating them with thinly veiled threats to gain their cooperation.

The result: a two-week international conflict known as the godswar left the world ravaged and on the edge of chaos. Fifty years later, it was still recovering.

The director set down her teacup, bringing Isela out of her thoughts. “You must know that I tried to decline, but the necromancer can be very… persuasive. I reminded him you must be willing for your dancing to be effective.”

But Isela’s brain had stopped. “The necromancer?”

The one thing humans learned to fear more than the power of gods was the only thing that saved them from annihilation: necromancers. Unlike the gods, the Allegiance of Necromancers announced and named itself. Within hours of declaring their world takeover, sightings of the vicious forces, capricious storms, and indiscriminate destruction vanished. Without arms, the war ended quickly.

The eight members of the allegiance carved up the globe and assigned satraps to smaller regions within. The shells of human governments remained, but it was no secret who kept them in line.

The necromancers’ powers extended beyond human laws, controlling the life and death of their subjects. With their ability to suspend death, some doubted they had ever been human at all. As far as anyone could tell, they were immortal, or at least impervious to human weapons, and mortals who pissed them off had a way of turning up dead, or worse.

Unlike other major cities, Prague was not held by the satrap of a distant power. The European necromancer, Azrael, was so fond of the city he made it his base.

“He requested you specifically,” Divya finished.

“He wants me to dance?” Isela asked. “For what? An earache?”

The joke, intended as a distraction from the worst-case scenario, fell flat.

“For him,” Divya answered, ignoring her jibe. “He wants you to dance for him.”

After the war ended, the allegiance stated the intention to maintain a new world order, namely, an enforced peace. Though they put a stop to government recruitment of dancers, necromancers permitted their continued existence by sanctioning academies for training and managing dancer solicitation. The regional satrap was responsible for approving all requests. Dancing outside the regulation led to swift and harsh punishment.

In recent times, most dances were for exclusively mortal concerns: restoring health, securing business deals, good marriages. Hiring dancers was becoming an antiquated ritual; the wealthy version of lighting incense in a temple or paying an indulgence, with somewhat better returns.

Isela put down her tea to keep from splashing it all over her shaking hands. Divya met her eyes, and Isela knew the time for jokes was finished.

Isela kept her voice steady. “He supports the Academy, and he’s a good one—right?”

“He’s a necromancer, Isela,” Divya said evenly. “Some say he personally nailed that man’s eyes to the door of his shop.”

Isela’s stomach lurched. It had been all over the feeds. The eyes had continually moved—pupils opening and closing—for days. A guard had been assigned to the door to ensure they weren’t tampered with. What had become of the rest of the man was a mystery.

Even when the allegiance united to put the pieces of the world back together—keeping the fallout of the godswar from becoming a full-scale apocalypse—some of the individual necromancers proved to be tyrants to their own people.

“They have hired dancers for intercessions before,” Isela went on, bent on talking herself out of panic. “Look at Leonora. She was able to retire after dancing for the Sur American necro. This could be my ticket.”

To where, she had no idea. What was there for her outside the Academy? But her hip was failing. If the doctors were right, she should worry less about the future of her career than her ability to walk when it was over. How much longer did she have?

“Leonora danced in the ring.” Divya’s words came slowly.

That was it. The thing that was making the older woman nervous. No, Isela corrected, scared.

“He wants me to dance… where?”

Divya spread her hands. “At his discretion. It’s an unusual request these days, but it has been done before. Once. I suppose it’s a matter of security. You know how zealously they guard information about themselves.”

Divya shook her head, catapulting herself from her chair with uncharacteristic violence. “You’re not going to take it.” She paced a small circuit near the bookcase, her hands clenched at her sides. “I didn’t bring you here and train you to become fodder for a necromancer. We have a network, from the old days. It’s rusty, but we protect our own. I can get you and your family out of here today.”

And go where? There was no place on Earth she could go where the allegiance would not find her. What would he do to her, or her family, when he did? She thought about her parents. They were much older than when they had left the United States. And her brothers had families of their own now. What of the Academy? It wouldn’t take Azrael long to figure out Divya had helped her. How many would pay the price because she ran away?

If anything, she was the expendable one. All she had was a philodendron slowly taking over her apartment. The knowledge didn’t stop her throat from choking with despair. Her passion, her skill, her life—the one she had worked so hard to shape for herself—was now being offered up. And she would have to hold the platter.

If it meant protecting everyone she loved, she would do it. “I won’t run.”

Divya sank into her chair, and Isela saw her age in the slump of her shoulders and the deep lines carved by her frown. Isela folded herself onto the floor beside her mentor. She reached out tentatively and laid her fingertips on the older woman’s hand. The skin was soft and paper-thin.

She could feel Divya’s pulse racing. The faintest twinge of sweat and fear came through her usual scent of spicy peppers and warm chocolate.

“Hey, I’m the best, remember?” Isela forced cheer into her tone that sounded maniacal to her own ear. “Of course he wants me.”

Divya’s haunted eyes stared at her. “When you were eleven, I promised your mother that this life, the Academy, was a way of giving you security.”

“And you have,” Isela said firmly. “You gave me… everything. Now let me use it.”

She was a performer. She made herself smile.

Divya collected herself. “He asked for you. Make it your advantage.”

“Oh, I can be a diva.” Isela waved her hand with a stilted laugh. “I better be getting paid for this.”

Divya looked almost her old self again when the corner of her mouth twitched faintly. “My dear, the paycheck alone makes Leonora’s wealth a pittance.”

The godsdance was a job, a way to provide for herself and take care of her family in a troubled world. A job that would one day—sooner rather than later, in her case—end. She stared into the fire as her eyes blurred. One big job would set her family up for life.

“He would like to meet with you this afternoon,” Divya said. “To discuss the choreography.”

“And the petition?”

“You’ll have to talk to him about that,” Divya said, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “I am not permitted to know.”

Closing her eyes, Isela took a breath. She held it, sipped a bit more air, and exhaled. When she opened her eyes, Divya was waiting.

“I’m going to shower and change.” Isela rose from her chair. She was proud of how steady her voice sounded. Casual, even. “Then I’ll just run over to the castle.”

Like that was something she did every day.

“Niles will take you.”

The gesture touched Isela more than she expected. “He’ll never—”

“He insisted.” Divya interrupted, her voice coarse with emotion. “I insist. I’m still in charge.”

Isela collected her bag and rose from her chair. Niles held the door as she passed, deferring her gratitude for the tea as though it was any other day.

“We all have a job to do, Miss Vogel.”

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© Jasmine Silvera