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Unafari slipped into the auxiliary lobby, grateful that she didn't have to brave the crowd mobbing the main lobby. This smaller, quieter space had its own exterior door and allowed access to the audience boxes reserved for theatrical staff, their families, and important guests. Gilt frames displayed the advertising posters for the dance, and Unafari spared a small smile at how well her suggestions had turned out. Even the tickets echoed the green speech theme; Unafari's ticket was embossed with a palm frond for success.
People drifted through the auxiliary lobby, chatting about the performance to come. Soft lighting glittered on the cut-glass chandeliers and lush carpet. It made Unafari feel underdressed. She smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of her linen dress with one hand while the other patted the combs that held her hair.
"Don't worry, you look lovely," said a quiet voice.
Unafari squeaked in surprise and whirled to find her escort leaning indolently against a column. He pushed away from the curve of dark wood and walked over to her. "Licensing Inspector Katorsh! You startled me," Unafari said.
"Your pardon, Records Clerk Unafari," he said with a crisp bow. "Ranathera and Jetraal have already arrived, and are ordering refreshments at the moment. Malem and her family should get here soon."
"There's a concession stand here somewhere?" Unafari said, craning her neck in search of it. "I want some spiced nuts, if they have any."
"Not a concession stand; servants will bring a cart to our box," said Katorsh.
Ranathera joined them, her boyfriend Jetraal at her elbow. His curly black hair, black eyes, and olive skin marked him as coming from a different part of the Empire. He looked quite dashing next to Ranathera's fair Glifai features. "I've taken the liberty of ordering for the whole party, since I know the theatre's best offerings," said Jetraal. "Gingered almonds, chocolate-covered apricots, dried meffirb fruit cut like leaves, dates stuffed with pistachios, jungle flowers sculpted from bajolm, and a quartet of sauces for the pretzel gears. Plus I requested a tray of something newly introduced to accompany this show -- chocolate truffles with fillings flavored by edible flowers. Take your pick of Arbane wine, lime fizz, or jasmine tea for beverages."
"Don't forget the corn pops," said Ranathera. She winked at Unafari. "He says they're only adequate here, but I'm not watching a performance without them." They both loved the sweet, crunchy treat made from popped corn and syrup molded onto a bamboo handle.
Just then Malem's family piled into the lobby. Malem held tight to her two excited daughters, and her husband trailed along behind. Unafari raised a hand to wave them over. After a quick round of introductions, they all climbed the stairs to their box. The plush seats and the low rail gave them an excellent view of the stage. The girls chattered and bounced on their seats until their mother shushed them. The refreshments arrived, and lived up to Jetraal's recommendation, but no one paid much attention to that. Their eyes were all for the dance.
The curtains parted with a whisper of velvet, and warm light spread over the smooth wooden boards. Musicians produced the first sigh of melody, soft as morning light creeping over the horizon. The dancers moved onto the stage, each triad drifting inward and forward to claim a section of the floor. Their costumes swayed gracefully with every motion. Unafari leaned forward to watch her careful research come to life.
In this first act, the influence of the Jungle Dance was raw and fresh. The backdrops were veils of green-leaved vines, sewn from dyed rope and slivers of silk. The costumes included skirts or belts of vine, decorated with differently colored flowers. Unafari recognized the jacinth of peacock plant, symbolizing creativity; the deep morinda of torch ginger, representing transformation; and the watchet of eyeflower, standing for indelible epiphanies. These changes would mark whatever they touched, forever, but they would be beautiful in their stinging strangeness. As Unafari watched, the dancers broke out of their triads and swirled into lines, each gender following its own pattern as they snaked across the stage -- something the Trefoil dance had never done before the Rainbow Period. The music swelled to a crescendo.
For the second act, hidden baskets shook flower petals in a slow rain all over the stage. The costumes consisted of nets and knotted panels suggesting vines and leaves. The triads reformed. Unafari spotted Omorth's triad in the center of the stage. Light flashed on the thread-of-gold stamens and the metal sheaths glued over the dancers' fingernails: gold on the men, silver on the women, copper on the no-genders. A few swift-running steps, then Darthein and Tremarda swept Omorth into the air, floating la between them in long graceful leaps. The move symbolized how the needs and desires of the body could lift the mind: not rising above them, but supported by them. Unafari thrilled to see how her abstract ideas blended with Darthein's eloquent choreography.
The third act had the dancers covered in costumes of tiny silk flowers, all different species of orchid. Unafari spotted the cerulean of sky orchid, representing wisdom; the solferino of dusk orchid, symbolizing joy and madness; and the vermeil of blood orchid, standing for passion. She had done her best to balance aspects of Glifai culture with foreign inspiration, now blossoming on the stage. The male and female dancers locked hands, gently tossing their no-gender partners from one triad to another. The gesture spoke of both trust and symbiosis. Each individual, and each triad, was distinct; still they came together to form the troupe, as the flowers and their pollinators formed the forest represented by a backdrop of painted trees. Yet it went completely against the choreography of the Jungle Dance, which either used individual dancers or large groups to represent each species, not this careful array of triads working together.
In the fourth act, the giant flowers of a Jungle Dance set had been separated into their component parts to form each Trefoil. With delicately embroidered costumes the men portrayed the stamens, the women portrayed the pistils, and the no-gender dancers portrayed the petals. They moved together in their triads for the most part, but at times they broke apart and reassembled into something more like an actual flower: one woman surrounded by six men surrounded by all the no-gender dancers. Unafari noticed how precisely they matched the structure of a blossom she had diagrammed during their trip to the arboretum. Then they swirled away, like a flower falling apart to scatter its seeds, and returned to their triads. This was the central message of the Trefoil Dance: three distinct genders united to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, always different, forever together. Unafari smiled; she would always remember Tremarda in the center, with Darthein and Omorth and the other dancers framing her graceful form.
The fifth and final act brought out the petal sleeves and skirts that Unafari had researched and Malem had fussed over so diligently, edged and twined with Ranathera's embroidered designs. They had worked with the other theatrical crafters to create a truly exquisite display. Unafari admired the way the layered skirts now flowed and spun perfectly as the dancers twirled across the stage. The flowers depicted in the costumes actually belonged to flowering vines, and the body-stockings underneath bore delicate spirals of vine from ankle to wrist. Unafari recognized the aubergine of passionflower, standing for devotion; the rufous of watervine, symbolizing sustenance; and the tilleul of Empress' tears, representing tears of joy -- not actually a vine, that one, but an epiphyte with long trailing chains of flowers. Behind the dancers, silk backdrops showed a multicolored array of leaves and blossoms, the panels sewn together with more rope vines. Everything came together to form a colorful whole, just as the triads slowly converged in the center of the stage, like a cluster of flowers, before the curtains swept back into place.
The lights brightened in the audience areas as the stage lights went out. The musicians shifted to a soft background tune. With a rustle of motion, the audience began to leave.
"Well, that worked out marvelously," said Ranathera. "For a while last month I wasn't sure, all that jumble of colors, but the dance just made those costumes come alive."
"I had every faith in you and Malem," Unafari said serenely.
"Unafari, you did more of the work than we did, with all that research," Malem pointed out, trying to contain her daughters as they chased each other around the chairs. Eventually she caught them and handed them over to their father, where they began to fuss and wriggle.
"The troupe is extraordinarily talented," said Katorsh. "They're every bit as good as some dancers I've seen in Faarar."
"You've been all the way to Faarar?" Unafari exclaimed.
"Several times on business, then once more on vacation; I have little difficulty getting travel permission when I want it," said Katorsh.
"Omorth says the troupe hopes to go on tour, but the application process seems clogged," Unafari said, hesitant to impose on him but grateful for the opening he gave. A hint might pique Katorsh's interest.
"Hmm ... this troupe really deserves a wider audience," Katorsh mused. "Perhaps I can talk it over with some people I know."
"I'm sure the dancers would appreciate that. Maybe if more people know how good they are, it would speed up the approval," said Unafari.
"No doubt tonight's dance will be the talk of the review columns tomorrow," said Katorsh. "It's a good thing we got to see the premier. I warrant the remaining shows sell out before next tenend."
Malem finished picking up a few bits of trash from the snacks and piled those on the food cart. "Well, thank you all for a lovely evening. We need to get the girls home now," she said.
"Oh, you aren't staying for the aftermeet?" said Jetraal.
"We really can't," said Malem. "I've spent a lot of time on this project, and it's been lovely, but my family needs me and I miss them too. It's time for us to go home." Then she turned to Unafari. "Give everyone my regards, would you?" She pressed something into Unafari's hand.
Unafari held it up. Three calling cards fluttered apart in her grasp, attached to each other by a green ribbon, like three leaflets on a single stem. She laughed. "This is so clever!" she said. "Of course I'll tell everyone you're sorry to miss the aftermeet. I'm sure they'll understand the need to get your daughters home for bedtime." From their squealing, the overstimulated girls sounded like a handful for two parents, let alone one.
Malem and her family left the box. Jetraal and Ranathera stood next. "I'll lead the way to the lounge, if you like," he said. "It's on this level. The staff should be setting up now, to give the dancers a few minutes to refresh themselves."
"That's very kind, thank you," said Unafari. She tucked her hand in Katorsh's elbow and off they went.
The lounge consisted of a nice room with silk wallpaper and several clusters of furniture. A long narrow table bordered one wall, stacked with sliced sausages, cubed cheeses, and fruit. The aftermeet gave the more exclusive attendees a chance to mingle with the performers after a show. Since about half the box space went to members of the Entertainment Guild and their families, and the other half to wealthy and accomplished citizens, the mix usually made for interesting if relaxed conversation.
Unafari clung to Katorsh, unaccustomed to this level of society. But she quickly found that people gave him a polite nod and then asked her and Ranathera about their work on the costumes. Jetraal, meanwhile, dove into the small crowd at the food table, intent on connecting with some friend of his who worked as a chef.
Before long, Unafari found herself deep in conversation with a history professor who studied outside influences on Glifai culture. Barafforso clearly came from a mix of cultures himself with his medium-brown skin, golden-brown hair felted into long twists, and violet eyes. "I wish your book were already in print," Unafari said with a wistful sigh. "I'd love to have a copy."
"Well, the publisher wants me to collect some endorsements, so I could send you the manuscript," said Barafforso. "Given that you just consulted on a very striking historical dance production, I'm sure a few kind words would get you a copy of the finished book."
Unafari twittered at him, waving her hand. "Oh, I'd love to, but who would want to hear from me?"
"Records Clerk Unafari, you will never make your mark on history with that attitude, and even after chatting with you for a few minutes I can already tell what a shame that would be," Barafforso said firmly. "I'll send you a copy of the manuscript directly. You needn't reply with false complements if you loathe my book, but I do expect you to give it your very respectable attention."
Katorsh chuckled. "I'm pleased to see someone else appreciating her talents, History Professor Barafforso," he said. "If you've anything on license changes or legal influences in that manuscript, I should like to see a copy myself."
"It would be my honor, Licensing Inspector Katorsh," the professor said with a nod. "I call your attention to Chapter Thirteen about the Gender Reforms and interactions with Affanumuur; but I shall place markers for several other incidents that might interest you." So they all exchanged calling cards.
Just then, a murmur of excitement heralded the entry of the dancers. All slightly damp from the showers, they wore soft casual robes and promptly settled themselves on the couches. Servers brought over trays of refreshments. The crowd eddied and flowed to accommodate the new members.
Omorth claimed a couch near the center of the room, flanked by Darthein and Tremarda. Ranathera squealed in surprise as Tremarda pulled her onto the couch, saying in a playful tone, "You made us look beautiful. You should share in the fun as our adoring fans tell us how amazing we are."
"You too, Unafari," said Darthein, waving her forward.
Of course the couch barely had room for four people, let alone five. Unafari tried to demure, but Omorth said, "We must have our historian, our research genius! You saved us all from a fate worse than unemployment!" With that, al climbed onto the laps of lai two partners, and everyone scrunched together into a happy mass so as to make room for Unafari.
Katorsh and Jetraal wound up leaning on the arms of the couch, grinning at the big pile. "Dancers, you know -- they're so very tactile!" said Jetraal. Sure enough, several of the other couches had turned into similar piles as the triads pulled in favorite members of the staff, other friends, or patrons who particularly favored them. It gave the aftermeet a casual atmosphere for everyone to relax after the formality of the dance -- although one luxuriously clad carnal worker laughingly admonished her friends to "save that for tonight, lovelies" in the interest of preserving some modicum of propriety.
"Where's Malem?" Darthein asked Unafari.
"She had to leave early, so she could take her family home," said Unafari. "She sends her regards, though." Unafari held out the ribboned calling cards.
"I regret missing her, but we have rather monopolized her time over the last several tendays," said Darthein. He passed the cards down to Omorth.
"We shall simply have to invite her family out to dinner, then, at some time convenient for them," said Omorth. Al was currently seated on Tremarda's lap, with her fingers combing through lai long hair, and lai legs draped over Darthein's lap to wave coral-painted toes in the air. Charming even under ordinary circumstances, Omorth was downright radiant in the wake of the night's performance.
"I'm sure Malem and her family would love that," said Unafari. "You know, you should bring your whole troupe to the museum some time. I'm sure the curator would gladly arrange a special tour for you, and you might get some new inspiration."
"Well, spring is the season for innovation," said Omorth. "Come summer or autumn, though, we could use ideas for the winter season when we usually do something historic. Send me a note in a few months."
"Oh, is that why you came to us when you did?" said Ranathera. "I didn't know the historic motif was a regular feature."
"Not exclusively, but yes, we tend to introduce brand-new things in spring and reintroduce old things in winter," said Tremarda. "New performers and choreographers open in spring, for instance, while reprints of classic guidebooks come out in winter."
"Yes -- I often get one of those as a year-end present from someone," said Unafari. She still felt a little strange to be piled on a couch with one coworker and three famous people, in a room full of success-drunk dancers and enthusiastic patrons. But she was getting used to it. Then Tremarda and Ranathera got into a discussion of embroidery with a high-fashion modiste. Omorth and Katorsh started talking about travel around the Empire, and what the entertainment competition was like in other cities. Unafari found herself pulled into a debate about the history of symbolism with Darthein, Barafforso, and some poet whose name she couldn't even pronounce, let alone remember. Even when that conversation climbed over her head into academic esoterica, she and Darthein enjoyed sitting back to listen to the debate.
Then Katorsh turned to Barafforso and said, "I believe what impressed me the most about the performance was its cohesion. All those tiny details came together into a seamless whole."
The history professor nodded. "Yes, the elements of the dance were quite precise, and the symbolism tied everything together beautifully. The results were extraordinary."
"You can thank our archivist for that," Omorth said, draping a fond arm around Unafari.
"We'd be lost without her," Darthein agreed. "Unafari has a remarkable eye for minutiae. She wound up building us a cross-reference index between the pattern books, the monographs on symbolism, historic illustrations, and a field guide to the Rainbow Rainforest."
"Indeed?" Barafforso said. He leaned forward, eyes alight. "I should like to see that index. Perhaps my publisher would be interested. I don't believe there's anything like it in print."
"There isn't. That's why we needed Unafari to put the pieces together," said Darthein.
"She's very good at finding clues," said Katorsh. "All you have to do is lay them out and admire the big picture."
"Wait, what?" said Unafari, somewhat dizzied by this turn of the discussion.
"We're just admiring how your attention to detail made the dance work as a whole," said Darthein.
"You weren't watching it like that, though, were you? You skimmed over the stage and picked out one point at a time," Katorsh said with a small smile.
"Well -- of course," Unafari said. It was impossible to watch everything at once; the flood of information became too overwhelming. You had to focus on one little thing that you recognized, and then another, to avoid getting swept away by it all.
"Think of the things you noticed about the dance, then put them together in your head," Katorsh suggested.
"It's like looking at the ephemera spread all over a worktable, or making an index," Darthein added.
Unafari thought about it, and just like that, the pieces did come together in her head, a jigsaw assembling itself into a whole complex image all at once, intricate as a jungle panel in the backdrop. The colorful flowers spoke of inspiration and connection, while the modern dance spoke of respecting the history from which it had sprung. Unafari sucked in a breath, amazed at the intricacy of it. "Oh," she said softly, "I see."
"So that's why the dance turned out so well, and why we're so glad that you shared your talents with us," Darthein said.
Unafari blushed, and nodded, embarrassed by the unaccustomed acclaim but at the same time filled with a wild giddy joy at the thought of contributing to something so vast and momentous. It was exhilarating.
"Do remember to show me that index some time," said Barafforso.
"I will," Unafari promised, thrilled all over again at the idea of sharing her work with a proper scholar.
Of course there were also many people who came and went, lavishing praise on the evening's performance -- but Unafari was surprised and pleased by how much these attendees knew about the dance. "I wasn't sure how much of our work the audience would really appreciate," she confided to Omorth between fans. "They seem quite passionate about it, though, and most of them are remarking on very particular points."
Omorth grinned. "Ah, the Trefoil is a connoisseur's dance," al said. "Guild members love to talk shop, of course, and the paying patrons who can afford a box license can also afford a private education with plenty of attention to the arts. Plus we save one box for our long-term fans, people who can't afford fancy seats but come to many performances over the years. The ones who truly love the dance get invited to join a Seniors' Box when they retire." Al nodded to a group of white-haired fans who had been ensconced on a couch of their own and surrounded by two triads' worth of lithe young dancers. One of the old ladies was actually braiding the hair of a Mayaloi girl whose straight raven tresses reached her hips, demonstrating some obscure but lovely point of decoration.
Unafari let herself sink into the plush couch and just enjoy the company. At last the aftermeet wound to a close, though. Servers passed around tall, narrow glasses of the fine Arbane wine.
Omorth rose gracefully to lai feet, followed by Tremarda and Darthein, and proclaimed a toast: "To the past, to the future, and to the presence of you all -- thank you for the gift of your attention."
Unafari drank, the bubbles tickling her nose. She rarely had anything so fine on her own account, but she thought she could learn to like it.
* * *
Unafari sagged over her desk, grateful that the day was almost over. The Museum of Glifai Artifacts and Fashion customarily closed during the five intercalary days of Nuvimev; the first day of Balimev therefore tended to produce vast crowds. Plus the Records Room had to deal with all the backlogged mail and forms and other business.
A messenger rapped on the door and leaned in, the springing gazelle on his uniform glinting silver. "I have a delivery for Records Clerks Unafari, Malem, and Ranathera," he said. He clipped the message license to the back of his wooden case and offered it to them to sign.
"Thank you," Unafari said as she signed her name.
Malem took the package. "It's from the Entertainment Guild."
"Our bonuses came!" exclaimed Ranathera. "Open it, open it!"
"You open it," said Malem, handing the package to Ranathera as she took the message license to sign it.
Ranathera quickly dumped out the contents onto her desk. "There's a card to the three of us, signed by everyone in the troupe," she said. "These are our bonuses." She sorted out the three smaller packages. Bonuses for performers and supporting staff came from tips received during the shows. These usually included a small amount of cash, a larger amount of tokens, and a random assortment of whatever goods or services people thought the troupe might enjoy. "Well, I have four desire tokens and a luxury token -- and here's a claim chit for a dozen skeins of silk embroidery floss!"
"Here, sign this," said Malem, pushing the message license at Ranathera. Then Malem opened her package. "I have two desire tokens and two luxury tokens. This other note says none of the other tips seemed right for me, so the troupe sprang for novice dance lessons for the girls."
Ranathera laughed. "They never stopped hounding you after that show, did they?" She scribbled her name on the line and sent the messenger on his way.
"Not for a minute. They were all over the dancers when we went out to dinner," Malem said with a wry smile.
"Unafari? You're being awfully quiet. What did you get?" asked Ranathera.
Unafari gave them a wobbly smile. "Six desire tokens and -- and --" she said, her voice shaking. She turned the precious page around to show them.
"Classes?" Ranathera squealed.
Malem crowded close. "The university donated a trimester worth of classes," she said. "Oh, Unafari, this is wonderful! What will you study?"
"I don't know -- I need to see what they offer -- but I can hardly wait to find out!" she said, her eyes shining.
"What's this?" Ranathera said as a scrap of paper fluttered free of the university's page.
Unafari picked it up, read it, and laughed. It held three signatures -- Darthein, Omorth, Tremarda -- and two words: Impress us.
* * *
aubergine -- dark purple, like eggplant.
cerulean -- a bright sky-blue.
jacinth -- a reddish orange.
morinda -- a deep reddish-purple, like mulberry.
rufous -- a reddish brown.
solferino -- a medium purple-red.
tilleul -- a pale creamy green.
vermeil -- a golden red, or red with yellow highlights.
watchet -- a pale blue.
This story came out of the April 17, 2011 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by prompts from LJ users Kelkyag, Xjenavivex, and Haunted_blood. Sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette.