Chapter 1: The Invitation
The gate opened.
“Raise the shield,” Carter ordered.
The Atlantis gateroom went tense as Chuck complied. This new world of theirs, this New Lantea, was still strange. Stranger still was the knowledge that they no longer had control over who knew their new address. Sheppard trusted the Athosians to disseminate that information. The Athosians waited until the city was repaired and declared safe then gave that information to select Wanderers who were known to act as living maps. Now there was no way to keep the information quiet and Sam Carter didn't like it.
Colonel Carter was shaping up to be a much stricter leader than Elizabeth ever was.
Chuck announced an IDC. It was the Athosians.
Carter sighed heavily. The entire gateroom watched as she hesitated. Thankfully she wasn't alone.
“Lower the shield,” Sheppard ordered.
Carter glanced coldly at him as Chuck complied just in time for the little girl to step through. She stopped at the threshold and looked around, her eyes darting about chaotically in a manner that marked her as a Wanderer. Finally those eyes landed on Sheppard and she grinned, padding up to him. She handed him a heavy paper envelope tied with red wax and string.
Sheppard took the envelope. “Thank you,” he said. The girl giggled and looked down before becoming distracted and she sat on the gateroom steps to trace the Ancient writing etched into the steps.
The envelope was a familiar make. The Genii used this type of paper and the wax seal crest of the Radim family was now familiar to most of the expedition. Sheppard held it up for Carter's perusal.
“We should take this to the conference room,” Carter said.
“We need to call a meeting, don't we,” Sheppard realized.
“You need to read it,” the girl said, not looking up.
“I gathered that,” Sheppard said. “That's why we're going to have a meeting.”
“I need to make sure you read it.”
“I assure you, we'll read it,” Carter said.
The girl looked up, face stern and her eyes not quite meeting theirs. “I need to make sure you read it because I need to bring your answer back,” she said. “I can't know it's a real answer unless I know you've read it.”
Sheppard sighed and pulled the string on the envelope, breaking the wax seal. The girl picked up one of the red shards of dried wax and put it in a pouch on her skirt. Sheppard pretended not to notice and pulled the delicate light blue paper from its drab brown envelope. He suddenly knew what this was and he did not look forward to it.
The Genii threw boring balls with no music and strange mandatory costuming that made Teyla angry and disallowed Rodney the right to wear pants. And now they were formally invited to another one to welcome their new leader Colonel Carter. Or to size her up as an opponent. With the Genii it could be either one or even both. To be fair, this all could have been a ploy to make sure the Athosian-spread address was correct.
“We'll go,” Sheppard said.
“To what?” Carter demanded.
“We'll go,” Sheppard said again, enunciating carefully.
The girl looked up, her eyes focused on Sheppard's distinctly pointed ears. Then her eyes moved to Carter's distinctly human ears and her annoyance at being left out of the loop. Then back to Sheppard. “Okay,” she said. The girl stood up and padded over to Chuck. “Dial Genia Tertius,” she ordered.
Chuck looked back at Carter and Sheppard. Sheppard nodded. “Dial Genia,” Carter growled, glaring at him.
Chuck turned away and dialed the gate. Symbols flashed on the console and the gate until the wormhole opened with a splash and the little girl padded through.
And then it was over and Sheppard stood on the gateroom floor holding a Genii invitation while Colonel Carter glared at him and called a staff meeting.
This was shaping up to be a bad day.
Atlantis was out of hand.
To be fair to Colonel Carter's leadership, it began out of hand. Not even a few months in the Genii took advantage of the situation and looted a book bound in red leather, the so-called Red Book, a copy of The Silmarillion. It was supposed to be fiction. It really was. Even when Dr. Weir decided it was safer for everyone involved to go along with the Genii misunderstanding, to pretend The Silmarillion was a holy text from Earth, it was supposed to be fiction.
It was funny when it was fiction. Colonel Carter enjoyed the opportunity to play, forwarding General O'Neill's joke packages full of Tolkien books and finding bearded engineers to pad the expedition with 'dwarves'. But then they found Ancients who had pointed ears and long hair and inhuman grace and now the ATA-active were developing those same features. The 'dwarven' engineers sang to their projects as they grew replacement crystals through methods thought lost in the half-indecipherable database. Dr. McKay had furry hobbit feet and his hair was curling, though he insisted this was a pre-existing condition and had nothing to do with his month spent AWOL on Scrinia with his wife and husband.
It wasn't funny anymore. It was out of hand.
Colonel Sheppard and Major Lorne both had pointed ears, though Lorne could still pass for human if he tried. Dr. Carson Beckett's ears were more subtle, or maybe he hid them better under his lengthening hair. Dr. McKay padded in barefoot, the curly blond-red hair on his feet as thick as the hair on his head. Dr. Zelenka followed him; he thankfully still looked normal but he called his bearded engineers his 'dwarrow' as though this were all normal, even desirable. Teyla and Ronon came last, they were Pegasus natives and therefore seemed immune to this 'Tolkienization' of the expedition.
It was supposed to be a joke. It was supposed to be a way of teasing the expedition for a situation they allowed themselves to get into. 'Ha ha, you have to act like elves', that sort of thing. They weren't supposed to be elves.
“I heard the Genii sent a Wanderer through the gate,” Teyla began.
“They did,” Sheppard said, still holding the delicate blue invitation.
“Not another one,” Rodney groaned.
“Another what?” Carter demanded. “What did you agree to?”
“Relax, it's a party,” Sheppard said.
“A really boring party,” Lorne supplied.
“Ah'll stay behin' this time,” Carson said helpfully.
“You stay behind every time,” Zelenka said.
“Maybe we can rotate,” Rodney suggested. “You can go and be denied pants this time. I promise, none of the scientists in attendance wear pants. I don't think we're allowed.”
“Gentlemen,” Carter called. The conference room went quiet. “Do we trust this invitation? It was carried in by a child.”
“Oh, a Wanderer sent it?” Teyla asked. “Not a simple courier? Or a message left with my people? Then the invitation must be serious. It would be a grave insult to ignore this.”
“What is a 'Wanderer'?” Carter asked.
“Autistic kid,” Sheppard said. “The Genii use them as spies. And they used the blue paper with the red wax.”
“The red wax?” Ronon asked. “Never even seen the red wax.”
Carter hoped Sheppard was messing with her. But if he was then Ronon and Teyla must be in on the joke as well since they seemed to take this all far too seriously. That left her with the sinking feeling that he was also serious and that meant she had no idea what this galaxy was really like. Reports would never be enough.
“Who do the Genii expect to attend?” Teyla asked.
Sheppard read from the paper. “Myself, Rodney, Sam, you and Ronon, and a 'full retinue' of engineers, advisers, scientists, and soldiers. They mention allowing ceremonial weapons and ask that we bring a skilled master for demonstration.”
“They want sword dancing?” Lorne asked. “Why?”
“They want us to bring the entertainment, hmm?” Rodney asked, contemplating.
“Bad idea, Rodney,” Sheppard warned.
“Just because they're afraid of music doesn't mean I can't bring my own.”
Carter dropped into her seat. It appeared she wasn't going to regain control of this situation. “When is it?” she asked.
Sheppard did the calculations in his head, converting the Genii time system to New Lantean and then to Earth and back. “About six days,” he said. Then he amended. “Five day-night cycles. 1500 hours on what you still call Saturday.”
“On Saturday,” Carter said, emphasizing the word. As though that should have been Sheppard's first thought, not this strange conversion to New Lantea's 27 and a half hour days. And there was no reason New Lantea shouldn't keep Earth's days of the week.
“Saturday,” Sheppard allowed. “They'll provide the costuming, as usual. Oh, hey, this is new. 'In light of recent information and events, we encourage our guests to decorate their hair as they so choose.' Wonder what brought that on.”
Carter pointedly glanced at Sheppard and his wild hair that fell far past regulation length, threatening to cascade past his shoulders. Lorne was less bad, though he seemed to be testing the regulations on hair length as well as he had to keep tucking stray hairs back behind his ears. She might have an idea. The Tolkien books were quite clear how elves viewed their hair.
“That means no pants,” Rodney muttered.
“Relax, you can bring other scientists to suffer as you do,” Lorne said cheerfully. “I volunteer to stay behind.”
“Traitor,” Sheppard muttered.
Carter sighed. It appeared they were invited to a ball and there was nothing she could do about it.
Chapter 2: The Preparations
Dahlia Radim strode past the guards at her brother's office threshold and pushed the door open. He was busy as she expected but she hadn't quite expected this.
Ladon Radim stood in his underclothes, arms out and legs spread as a tailor took measurements for a garment. Archivist Linas Rainar stood nearby, a sheaf of papers in his hands as he read out correspondence and took down Ladon's answers. The desk was not unoccupied, a little girl sat in Ladon's chair and kicked her feet, her legs too short to reach the floor. The girl's assigned Scout stood behind her, waiting patiently for the scene to require his talents.
“I'm sure there's a necessity for all of this,” Dahlia said.
Ladon grinned and pulled away from the tailor's ministrations. He stepped forward and embraced his sister, not caring that she seemed fondly unamused at the situation.
“The Lanteans are coming,” the girl said. “I haven't given my report yet.”
“You remember the Betrayal of Colonel Ellis,” Ladon said even as his tailor pointed angrily at the floor in an attempt to shame his subject back to his appointed spot. Ladon complied, allowing himself to be yanked and manhandled back into position so the tailor could do his work. “Dr. McKay fled Atlantis in grief and told the story of the city's battle against the Machine Pretenders. Dr. Weir has been seen accompanying and aiding those same Machine Pretenders even as Atlantis believes her dead.”
“And this somehow leads to new clothes,” Dahlia said.
“I will need a new uniform for the ball,” Ladon said.
“He listens to neither reason nor tradition,” Archivist Rainar said, idly flipping through pages.
“If Dr. Weir's fall wasn't such a closely guarded secret, none of our Forward Guard would wear black again,” Ladon said.
“Black is traditional,” Rainar said. “We might as well hold these balls in the open under the sky with all you've already done.”
“It's not that big a change,” Ladon said.
“Kala, dear, perhaps you could recite the invitation?” asked the girl's assigned Scout.
“Yes, Scout Doce,” the girl Kala said. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath then she began to speak. “The invitation was written on light blue paper made of pressed caerule petals and sealed with red wax. The ink was shiny purple black made from powdered iratus shells. It was very pretty. I kept some of the red wax.” She took the shard of wax from her skirt pouch and laid it on the desk while she talked, her eyes still closed. Then she began to recite the written words of the invitation, words she'd been allowed to read once before the invitation was sealed under wax and protective brown paper.
“On this day in the sight of the Ancestors, Chief Radim of the Genii peoples recognizes the esteemed Colonel Samantha Carter of Earth to be the current and rightful leader of the Lantean Expedition. Therefore, a celebration of alliances and continued fortune is proposed in the Genii tradition under cover of blackest night, hidden from the watchful stars.”
“Yes, yes, I know how these invitations go,” Dahlia said. Traditional invitations tended to have long-winded introductions with coded instructions of how to access the secret passages that would bring the revelers to the appointed ballroom. These instructions were wasted on the Lanteans who tended to show up in broad daylight and hang around the village making a nuisance of themselves about trade and business and preparations until an escort brought them to the appointed staging area.
Scout Doce laid a hand on Kala's head, calming the annoyance brewing there. “Perhaps you should discuss their answer,” Doce said.
“Yes, they wanted to read the invitation in secret,” Kala said. “Colonel Sheppard opened the invitation in the gateroom around everyone. Red wax scattered everywhere. I saved some. He read the invitation and said they'll come. Colonel Carter looked angry and like she isn't really in charge because she and Colonel Sheppard have the same rank. Like how Dr. Weir and Dr. McKay had the same rank. I didn't stay for the argument because I knew it would be done in secret and the Lanteans would attend anyway because Dr. McKay says we have good food and because Colonel Sheppard looks like one of the Ancestors now.”
Dahlia turned to Ladon, a look of incredulity on her face.
“When have you known a Wanderer to exaggerate?” Ladon asked.
“How many Wanderers have seen an Ancestor?” Dahlia retorted.
“Colonel Sheppard's appearance does match the description of the Tria Ancestors provided to us by Ronon Dex,” Rainar admitted.
Ladon gestured to his Archivist with a 'there, see?' expression. Dahlia sighed and rolled her eyes. “Let me know if we know if this Colonel Carter's unbound or not,” she said. “I would like to avoid having to wear the chains this time.”
“Duly noted,” Ladon said as she left, the door closing behind her. He wondered when would be best to tell her about the weapons demonstrations and the potential for music. Wanderer Thara's education on the unnamed string instrument had progressed. Ladon wondered if Dr. McKay would even recognize the little girl he taught in a dusty street so many moons ago.
“Men!” Pause. “Men!” Pause. “Men!” Pause. “Men!”
Colonel Carter knew that voice. Why Dr. Kusanagi was shouting said word over and over in the gym was less known. Generally when Dr. Kusanagi practiced her naginata in the gym at the SGC she followed several strict routines, almost like dances. The kiai shouts were usually more powerful than this, less enunciated, almost primal. This was not that. This sounded too deliberate.
This... was not what she expected.
“What's going on?” Carter demanded.
Dr. Miko Kusanagi held her shiai-yo naginata at hasso, paused the moment before the strike to her target's men, his head. Sergeant Barrows, the marine who was her target stood at attention, a half-hour's worth of cold sweat running down his face and staining his BDUs. He refused to move, instead his eyes flicking to Colonel Carter.
Despite the odd silence of the gym they were not alone.
“What?” Ronon demanded. He pushed himself off the wall where he'd been leaning near Colonel Sheppard and Major Leonard. A group who looked like the rest of Major Leonard's current team lurked nearby and Carter did not want this to be a team issue. If Colonel Sheppard was overseeing a team issue that meant it was bad enough to require implicit approval from command and usually ended up with someone in the infirmary or on the Daedalus for the three week ride of shame back to Earth. Or both.
Miko allowed her weapon to fall back into chudan, her entire body relaxing from a tension that hadn't seemed real. Even with the bamboo blade pointing at his navel Barrows sighed and fell out of attention.
“Who would like to explain what's going on here?” Carter asked, feeling as much the as schoolmistress she sounded like.
“Nothing big,” Ronon said at the same time Sheppard said “Nothing important.”
“The responsibility's mine, ma'am,” Major Leonard said. “The Aulorins assured us Sergeant Barrows' comments weren't what prevented our exploration of the ruins. But in my professional judgment they didn't help. This was unfortunate.”
“The readings were most interesting,” Miko said. “I have come to understand why Dr. McKay spends so much time in the field. I was denied that discovery.”
“And this is a reason to go at Sergeant Barrows with a naginata?” Carter demanded.
Miko stepped back, pulling her weapon to rest. Her long hair fell down her back, tied away from her face in a loose ponytail that did nothing to hide her pointed ears. The thick glasses didn't detract either, especially not as she grinned a cold smile. “The first time was not,” she admitted. “Nor the second time. But the third grew tiring.”
“You didn't think to bring this to my attention before...” Carter gestured toward the weapon and Sergeant Barrows where he stood.
“We did,” Leonard said. “It's all in our mission reports.”
Carter was coming to hate how Atlantis used reports to hide away important yet unfortunate information where it couldn't be found. The worst part was, because the report made for a paper trail proving their point, she couldn't claim ignorance without looking incompetent. The expedition must have learned it from Caldwell, that man was a master at hiding important information under boring minutiae.
Carter sighed and pointed to Miko. “Stop using people for target practice even if they deserve it,” she said. She pointed to Major Leonard. “You need to come talk to me about these things. You're as bad as Colonel Sheppard.” Then she pointed at Sheppard. “You, stop condoning this.” Finally she pointed to Barrows. “And you, see Teyla tomorrow, here, at 0500 for some 'education'.”
“I'll inform Teyla,” Sheppard said. He and Ronon grinned as they realized what 'education' meant. Miko was impressive in her own right but Teyla wouldn't be satisfied with mere 'target practice'.
“All of you, dismissed,” Carter said. She turned and left the gym, resolutely not listening as she heard Colonel Sheppard invite Miko and the rest of AR-5, Major Leonard's team, to the Genii ball.
Archivist Belen stood before the small clouded mirror in his chambers. The metal needed polishing but he hadn't had time, he wasn't sure how, he'd never learned, a dozen excuses for the dusky bronze he hid in his chambers from prying eyes.
He didn't need his reflection to be perfect. At least, not usually. Right now the clouded dusk interfered with his needs. He spat on a cloth and rubbed at the bronze, trying to wipe off some of the corroded scale. It didn't help. Bah, he'd need hours and polish and would have to admit he didn't know the technique...
A knock at the door was all the warning before it opened. Belen looked up then back at his task. “Archivist Vocan,” Belen greeted.
Vocan stood in the chamber door taking in the scene. Belen kept few things, he lived a somewhat austere life for his rank, but that wasn't what made him curious. Belen stood before an ill-kept bronze mirror in full dress regalia, his large red velvet collar high enough to keep his hair confined. The brass fastenings of his doublet strained with the months of proper food and care that came with rank. The tails of his coat dangled too short and thin to cover the curves of his crotch and rear accentuated by the tights that encased his legs. But Belen wasn't fussing over any of these things like a Charader might. Instead he spent his concentration on a strip of carefully tanned leather, wrapping it around his bicep then sliding it down to his wrist then back up to the elbow.
“You might worry more about your doublet than your trophy,” Vocan drawled.
“I've taken well to my rank,” Belen mused. “There's no shame in that.”
“Depends,” Vocan leered. “Are you planning to unbind the Lantean leader?”
Belen held up the strip of leather. “Not planning on it,” he said. “I took this from Lucius Lavin. The man confessed to trying to unbind the Lantean leader.”
“Among other things.”
Belen wrapped it around his upper forearm below the elbow. That placing seemed to satisfy him and he curled his arm to hold the strip in place while he reached for a charcoal pencil. “Dr. Weir may have fallen to shadow but I still intend to honor her justice.” He marked the strip with charcoal and then pulled it off, laying it flat on his worktable. “Do you think I can requisition some brass from the tailors?”
“Unlikely,” Vocan said. “Chief Radim is trying to convince the entire Forward Guard to change their uniforms.”
Belen visibly paused. He carefully put down his charcoals and turned with deliberate care. “What?”
“The Lanteans are coming to favor black as they fall under shadow,” Vocan said. “Dr. Weir's fall is classified but well documented; she's given up all her colors for silver and black. I'm not sure if Chief Radim merely wishes to distance himself from any hint of influence...”
“...or if he's scared.” Belen looked down and took a deep breath. “Fear is a weakness the Genii cannot afford.”
“That may be why Chief Radim has called for a weapons demonstration this ball.”
“Us or them?”
Belen considered the situation. Fear was unbecoming of any Genii, especially among those of rank. Spreading that fear to the entire Underground by inviting the Lanteans to terrify with their weapons would throw suspicion off of Chief Radim. After all, if the Lanteans terrified him, why would he risk allowing them to demonstrate their power? “I heard when Dr. McKay last sang in public he nearly became a dragon. Twice.”
“Storyteller Hedgewick prevented him,” Vocan agreed. “And Colonel Sheppard the second time. I was there. I saw Dr. McKay's control over sound and shadow with my own eyes. Perhaps if we kept him away from the wine...”
“We're not going to sabotage the weapons demonstration, are we?”
“Of course not,” Vocan said as he checked the hallway outside then closed the door against prying ears. “We're simply going to prevent Dr. McKay from singing.”
Chapter 3: The Demonstration
The door to the ballroom opened and Teyla stepped into view. The look on her face was radiant, serene, almost joyous as she descended the steps to the ballroom floor. Below her a collection of older women in frumpy gowns gathered to coo and congratulate. They took her by both hands and drew her into their gaggle and Teyla looked as though she couldn't be happier.
John Sheppard watched in confused acceptance. The Genii had some weird thing with clothing, that was for sure. He didn't mind it, the black uniform with tarnished brass buttons fit him quite well. The tight velvet corsets the younger women wore were nice to look at, especially as the women stopped being so creepily young and the corsets grew ornamented. The corset the Genii stuck on Dr. Kusanagi was particularly nice with the three brass chains wrapped around it. Teyla always wore the same corset. But not this time.
For some reason Teyla wore the same frumpy unadorned gown as the older women and she seemed delighted by it.
“Why is Teyla in a nightgown?” Carter asked.
Sheppard glanced over at his commanding officer, the guest of honor as Chief Radim insisted. Carter wore a black uniform like his own though the buttons were more tarnished. She looked uncomfortable, kept shifting around in her uniform jacket. The bindings that flattened her chest so she fit into the uniform could not have been comfortable.
“No idea,” Sheppard said. “They always put her in a corset before.”
“I hate corsetry,” Carter said. “I'm glad they didn't put me in one.”
“Dr. Kusanagi doesn't mind,” Sheppard said. He pointed out Miko where she stood in the middle of what would have been a dance floor if it wasn't empty. None of the Genii men would dance with her. Maybe it was the music, the little girl plucking at what looked like a Vulcan lyre to a tune only she understood. There was no proper beat for dancing.
“Dr. Kusanagi told me the corset reminds her of her armor,” Carter drawled. “Except the corset covers the back.”
“Shouldn't armor cover the back?” Sheppard asked.
The little girl plucked on as they went back to watching the crowd. The Genii stayed away from the girl playing her instrument, distancing themselves as though the girl carried some sort of disease. This left a blank space around her that several Lanteans were trying to use as a dance floor. Lorne in his black uniform tried to pull Dr. Parrish out to dance but Parrish was more interested in trying to keep himself covered. The botanist, in fact all the male scientists from Atlantis and Genia, wore velvet doublets with high collars and what might have been tights. Some had impressive boots, others wore arrays of brass buttons and brooches, but none of them wore anything that might have been pants.
Unfortunately, Dr. Parrish was too tall for his doublet. It hung on his frame as though it were cut for someone with more of a belly but it wasn't long enough for modesty.
Dr. McKay approached the center of the circle with his roll-up piano in hand. At least his doublet fit, just long enough to cover anything important. Although the tights were cut strange, leaving him in mostly bare feet. Sheppard wished Rodney would have just shaved his feet for this and been done with it; there was no telling what happened on this floor, no one should subject their bare feet to it.
“So what happens now?” Carter asked.
“We all mull around,” Sheppard said. “Someone drinks the wine despite orders and ends up drunk as hell. Speeches are made. There's food. The Genii scientists tend to clear out early taking half the women with them. Sometimes they come back, it's better if they don't. Trust me, it really is. Last time some 16 year old kid in a corset tried to get Rodney into some alcove.”
“Wait, what? Isn't he...”
“He said he was married,” Sheppard said. “That made it worse.”
The doors to the ballroom opened again and this time there were gasps of shock. The room went quiet, the solitary plinking of the Vulcan lyre growing loud in the silence.
Dr. Stewart held her head high and seemed to dare any to question her as she walked down the stairs with a nearly regal air of disdain. A few older women stayed to greet her but most moved away, dragging Teyla with them in an almost protective manner. Sheppard couldn't figure out what it was. Yes, Dr. Stewart still had her O'Neill-mandated beard. Yes, the Genii stuffed her into one of the night-gown like dresses and then wrapped her stomach in brass chains. Neither of those things should have mattered. Right?
“Is this normal?” Carter asked.
“To be honest, not really,” Sheppard allowed. “Teyla always wore the corset before, the Genii never have music at these things, and I've never seen anybody shunned like that before.”
“I wish I had Danny here,” Carter said. “He can always find his way around an alien culture.”
“Doesn't he join them half the time?”
“Not half. Not quite.”
Sheppard rolled his eyes and turned his attention toward the middle of the ballroom where he sincerely hoped Rodney wasn't making a scene.
Dr. McKay approached the middle of the dance floor when he noticed two Archivists approaching him. He'd seen them around at these things, he should know their names. Vulcan and Balloon or something. No, that wasn't it. Whatever, he had some horrific boredom he needed to stave off and it involved the roll-up piano tucked under one arm.
And of course they got in his way. “Yes?” Rodney asked.
“Dr. McKay, how good of you to attend,” Vocan said. His doublet was well worn and faded, the brass buttons tarnished to black with raised gold lines.
“We were hoping to speak with you tonight,” Belen said. His doublet was tight around the middle, much newer, and the coat tails were disturbingly short. Rodney did not want to look too closely. He had first-hand knowledge of just how precarious the under-fastenings of the Archivist's clothing really were. He himself was one unfortunate sneeze away from falling out and needing to excuse himself to tuck certain bits back in away from public view. He knew this for a fact, it happened at a previous ball.
“Right, right,” Rodney said dismissively, hoping the two Archivists would either leave or give him their names so he could tell them he was busy.
“We were informed Chief Radim requested a ceremonial weapons demonstration,” Belen said. “Yet we haven't seen anything thus far. You must understand, I study medicine and Archivist Vocan here studies history, we are most interested in what you brought.”
“Oh, that's easy,” Rodney said. He pointed to Sheppard and Miko across the room. “They brought practice weapons for the demonstration.”
“Only practice weapons?” Vocan asked. Rodney wasn't sure if he seemed curious or disappointed.
“There's no reason to kill just for entertainment,” Rodney said. “Maim, sure, but death is a little extreme.”
Belen seemed relieved.
“If you'll excuse me,” Rodney said as he stepped past them to the raised dais in the middle of the ballroom. It was supposed to be used for speeches, the speaker's voice echoing to the entire room from the dome above. Instead a young girl, not even old enough for a corset, sat on the dais and plucked an instrument that looked very much like a Vulcan lyre. A strong sense of deja-vu hit Rodney as he recognized her, the girl he once taught in the middle of a road. He taught her this very instrument. “Huh,” he mused.
The girl Thara looked up at him and smiled. She kept playing.
Rodney took it as invitation and ascended the dais. “Scootch,” he said, poking her with one foot. She slid over and he sat down, trying to find a way to comfortably sit without anything falling out. He ended up folding his legs under him and laying the roll-up piano out on the dais before him.
“What's that?” Thara asked.
“This is one of my favorite pieces of Ancient tech we've found,” Rodney said proudly.
Thara touched the blank white surface. Nothing happened. Rodney laid a hand on it and a series of single tones rang through the ballroom. He grinned.
“It is a device of the Ancestors,” Thara said. She stopped playing as she turned her focus on Rodney, her eyes darting all over him to catalog... something. Rodney wasn't sure what it was. He nervously tucked a lock of curly hair behind his ear, self-conscious as how much he'd let himself go out here. Maybe Sheppard was right, he should have shaved his feet and cut his hair.
“And you can use it,” Thara said.
Rodney shoved his nervousness down beneath. It became easier as Thara's considerable attention left him, instead focusing on the general ballroom. Her eyes lingered on John Sheppard, on Miko Kusanagi, on Evan Lorne. They all had pointed ears, they were all known to carry the blood of the Ancestors. She looked back at Rodney, focusing on his ears.
“Quit staring and play,” Rodney snapped. He drew his fingers along the roll-up piano, letting the instrument's range trill through the ballroom. Then the tones changed as the instrument seemed to shift types, from piano to harpsichord to single long notes like an orchestra's worth of violins.
Thara nodded and drew her fingers along the lyre's strings, plucking out a rhythm that hadn't seemed to make sense to anyone else. But it made sense to her. And as the strange mutable notes of the roll-up piano joined her, it made sense to another as well.
The Lanteans cleared out of the dance floor as Rodney began to play the roll-up piano. Carter nodded and Sheppard responded in kind before nodding to Major Leonard. Leonard and his team approached, a bundle of what looked like long sticks in hand. Sheppard took two, a pair of bantos rods, and Miko took one, a shiai-yo naginata. They both approached the dance floor while Rodney stopped playing and shushed Thara into silence.
A quiet pall descended on the room.
Chief Radim approached Colonel Carter, a glass of wine in hand. “What have you planned, hmm?” he asked, almost sounding nonchalant.
“You asked for a weapons demonstration,” Carter said. “The two of them have been practicing together. They volunteered.”
Radim looked at the weapons Sheppard and Miko wielded. He recognized the bantos rods but this wooden polearm Miko wielded… “I know of Dr. Kusanagi’s chosen weapon,” he said. “It has a black staff and silver blade. This is a stick with bindings.”
“It’s a practice weapon."
Carter glanced over. “She nearly killed a friend of mine with that practice weapon,” she said with an odd finality.
Radin’s sneer fell to something more like calculation. “How?” he asked.
“Crushed his throat,” Carter said.
Radim seemed lost in thought. “And you forgave her?”
Carter shrugged. “We’ve all almost killed someone at one time or another.”
Radim glanced nervously at her then looked away, taking a deep draught of wine to cover his discomfort.
Carter ignored him as Sheppard and Miko took opposite sides of the dance floor and allowed their weapons to fall into opening defensive postures. Then…
“Rodney!” Carter scolded.
Miko laughed as Sheppard pouted and looked betrayed. Rodney took his hands off of the roll-up piano, the strains of music fading away. “What?” he asked innocently.
“Not fair,” Sheppard said.
“I think it’s more than fair,” Miko said, clearly amused.
“Rodney, you’re my friend,” Sheppard whined.
Carter scowled at Rodney for daring to interrupt with something that sounded far too much like music from an old video game, the opening chords of a boss fight. Rodney refused to be cowed, instead holding his hands over the roll-up piano in a promise that he wasn’t going to follow orders this time. He wasn't military, he didn't have to follow orders.
Sheppard sighed and took up his defensive position again. Miko held her blade at chudan and grinned.
The music began again as the two fighters began to move. They circled around each other, sizing each other up, stalking with a grace that Radim did not often see outside of the Wraith. The comparison gave him chills as Sheppard twirled his rods with the same easy grace as a Wraith blade.
He struck first, blades darting out as Miko hopped away then returning with a wide swing. Sheppard ducked and rolled, hitting the floor with far less force than seemed natural. They circled again, this time Miko striking first with a stab to the belly. Sheppard caught her blade in his sticks and directed the blow to one side, turning to try and slice at her throat. She blocked him with the shaft of her naginata then leapt away again.
As they moved Radim noticed something he did not want to see. Their movements matched the timing and force of the music Rodney controlled.
The two fighters, or were they dancers, darted in on each other again and again, striking and then pulling back. It appeared they were purposefully prolonging the battle but for what reason? Then the music slowed, growing ominous in its depth. Miko and Sheppard drew back to circle, waiting for the right moment.
It came in a pause as Miko drew back her weapon and let loose a kiai shout. Sheppard visibly reacted, pulling back into his own defense. Radim thought he could see fear in Sheppard’s eyes. And then he knew why as the music changed, demanding blood as it approached a crescendo.
Miko charged, striking with blade then haft then ishizuki then blade of her naginata, driving Sheppard back in defense. He couldn’t attack back, not with the speed she displayed and the music growing faster and faster until…
Everything stopped. Then everyone turned on the one who demanded that stop. Colonel Carter stood alone, stern fury falling from her in waves.
Then Rodney’s shock turned to annoyance and he let his hands drop, pulling away from the roll-up piano. Miko and Sheppard both scowled at her despite Sheppard’s sticks forcibly tossed wide and Miko’s blade at his throat.
A single clapping sound broke the silence. Then another then more as the Lanteans applauded and cheered as though this were nothing more than a show. As though it were a common occurrence for their weapons master to use music to dictate a battle.
Radim drained his wine glass.
He’d asked for a weapons demonstration. But he hadn’t expected the Lanteans to truly deliver.