When they arrived, Ruby's bright eyes widened, if even possible. A sloping terrace of wild grass, dotted by a colorful array of flora, rolled down to an open field. Lantern birds were lighting the meadow in spectacular hues, where an assemblage of denizens were gathering; some were slumped over on barrels and plucking instruments while stacks of smoke billowed from their pipes, others were singing a harmonious tune along with the melody, and a sparse few danced to the rhythm of it all.
Jace promptly approached a fellow fae, who was surrounded by a band of minstrels.
He was older than Jace, but Ruby couldn't perceive by how many years. He had curly dark hair, though his long locks were tied behind his head. His clever fingers were delicately strumming an oddly shaped instrument; the object had several strings, so numerous and bunched together that Ruby could not count them, yet the fae was blowing into it as one who does a flute. The sounds it emulated were glorious, and seemed to touch one's very soul.
"I was hoping you were going to be leading the Sans this year, Basil." Jace pressed one of his hands to that of the fae, then they exchanged a kiss upon their cheeks. This display of affection for a friend would have been somewhat strange for Ruby to previously witness, but gradually she was becoming acquainted with the customs of Avelen, and of the fae.
"Could there have been a finer choice, Jace?" He laughed confidently, then nodded toward the young woman, "Who is this lass?"
"This is Ruby." Jace introduced her, bowing as he did.
"And quite a gem she is!" Basil straightened himself out, anticipating a similar greeting, but to his disappointment the young woman was too busy gazing at all that seemed to entrance her. "Though she does not seem to be from around here." He surveyed Ruby's garments, and found them unique and appealing.
"Making her all the more rare," Jace smirked, "and this one fancies stepping! Basil, I say we commence with the Sans."
"And I say that there are no other words that could bring me such joy. Any requests? How about 'Fair as the Wind,' or 'Gather `Round the Fire?'" Basil inquired while adjusting himself and the instrument in his grasp, then he cleared his throat and sipped on a flagon positioned close by him.
"Those are dandy, but we need something with more spirit. Let us step to 'Rush of the Feather.' That will bring some life to the field."
"Aye, consider it done." Basil enthusiastically rubbed his hands together; a refreshed vitality stirred in his speech.
"You heard the lad, prepare to play!" His band of minstrels, who were drinking merrily and joking to themselves, readied with staunchness at Basil's command.
"Aye!" They all shouted in unison, which drew a smile onto Ruby's face, and in a moment all of the sounds in the field seemed to cease, save the whimper of a pure tone emanating from a violin-shaped instrument. The human that gathered everyone's attention with a solitary chord was an older woman, with fair skin and silver hair, though she wore an embroidered dress in fashion to that of the fae.
Then a beat of the drum, soft but rhythmic, gently ushered in other instruments of the band. Those who were present, but not members of the minstrels employed by Basil, smiled as warmly as Ruby, and rose to their feet, drawing closer to one another.
Jace extended a hand toward Ruby, again humbly bowing. "Care to dance, tahni?"
As she glanced around frantically, she saw mortal-kin of several different races that were bent in exact fashion as Jace, proposing the same question to potential partners. A jig was underway, and not simply among the crowd that had been celebrating, but nearly every denizen was now gradually gravitating toward the field.
Then her eyes fixed upon Jace; he was not Cole, but she did not see the king bent before her, as the fae was, asking her to dance. She took his hand.
"You're in luck, lass," Basil shouted after them, just before they disappeared into the crowd of dancers, "Jace is the finest stepper in all of Avelen. Enjoy the Rush!" The sounds of his instrument accompanied his band, adding to the jovial music filling the air of the Aura night.
The Sans began simple and lighthearted, and attendants waltzed to and fro, their arms locked together; portraying the unbreakable bond of the Tahni. Ruby stumbled once or twice, but with Jace's help and experience, she quickly found herself moving like all of those around her.
The melody flowed like sweet wine. After a while, the whole crowd was swaying and stepping in a myriad of paired dancers, but much like sweet wine, there came a more vivacious rhythm. When the music livened, the pairs of steppers evolved into dancing circles.
Arms were still holding on to one another, but Ruby waltzed alongside Jace and a dainty fae woman, blushing with a drunken smile on her lips. The merriment shared among everyone in the circle was evident from their cheerful expressions. Many of them were singing along to the tune, raising their voices to the starry sky above.
'Rush of the Feather' was sang in the tongue of the fae. Though Ruby did not initially comprehend the meaning of their voices, she could hear the whimsical tones, comparing it to the poetry of her own time. There existed a speech of fellowship that extended beyond the chorus of carolers; the young woman did not know the words, but she understood the bond.
The circle collapsed back into pairs, Ruby with the fae girl, and Jace with the girl's human partner. Routinely, dancers jumped or kicked opposite legs, twirling and spinning. The crowd traded steps and swapped dancing partners many times in this manner, then the two were reunited, a large circle was formed, and the music slowed.
Ruby's face was flushed with a scarlet hue, and she could feel her heart beating wildly. Jace turned to her while they pranced in their circle, "I hope you are ready to fly."
The music transformed; the rhythm changed; the dancing turned. The males began to toss the females into the air, several feet off the ground. When airborne, the females pulled on tassels attached to their dresses, then these beautiful maidens twirled while ascending toward the twinkling stars; their garb would open and expand, revealing a multitude of shimmering colors. As the maidens descended, it appeared as if they were glowing flowers falling from the sky. The men would catch them, and send them sailing upward once or twice more, and they dropped just a beautifully.
Ruby was astounded at such a sight of grandeur and grace, but when it came for her time to be thrown in such a manner, she was reluctant; the young woman was still clothed in her jeans, camisole, and copper colored boots. She did not have tassels to pull, nor a dress to make her look the way other maidens had looked upon their descent. But before she could pull away from Jace, he tossed her as high as his might allowed.
Though she had her concerns for first impressions, Ruby did not expect to fascinate the crowd of steppers, but she exceeded fascination when she ascended. Suddenly, as she rose in the night time, while it seemed all eyes were upon her, a multitude of rainbow hued lantern birds spiraled around her figure.
The birds sent her whirling higher, much higher in fact, than any other maiden could reach. It was a brilliant view, from Ruby's perspective, but just as she began to enjoy it, she felt her body gradually drag back down toward the ground. Her heart raced again, beating like continous thunder, and as she landed, she was caught by several of the male steppers. They all bore similar expressions; wide eyed and rosy smiles, grateful to be able to touch such a gem. Then she was tossed again, and more lantern birds whirled past.
It all seemed like a glorious dream, and as she fell for the last time, Ruby landed in the arms of Jace. "You were amazing!" Hastily he pursed his lips, and pressed them against hers.
She pulled away immediately, slapping the fae across his face. "Jace!"
His smug expression remained, and he enjoyed the taste that lingered in his mouth. "You sure are a tempered mortal. Look around."
All of the steppers were pressing lips together, though it was not for the sake of physical intimacy. Each denizen was kissing whatever partner they ended the dance with, regardless of race or gender. It was the greatest sign of companion appreciation one could show, and during Tahni, all were friends.
Ruby was indecisive, hesitating as Jace slowly moved closer for another kiss. Her mind wandered to thoughts of Cole, which more than surprised her, when at the moment before their lips could meet, Cole leapt from what seemed like nowhere, and greeted Jace with a heavy punch. She dropped from his arms.
All of the citizens and celebrators at the Tahni festival gasped in horror as Jace toppled to the ground, spitting a sparse trail of blood. The countenance of the two could be compared to hungry hounds, ready to maul each other for the most savory portion of sustenance. Yet before they could exchange more strikes, a squeaking voice cried aloud far off.
"Now presenting Lady Raylyn, queen of the fae!"