A Dance with Society's Expectations

17 Dec 2021  C. chou  12 mins read.

She dipped a pen into the inky liquid, before bring it to her face. Gently, she traced over the edge of her upper eyelid. Her movements precise and graceful, from her years of adorning the same appearance. Taking another brush, and dipping it in red, she accentuated the lower corner of her eye. Pulling on the headpiece and securing it with a ribbon under her chin, she walked over to the mirror and inspected herself. Flawless, as usual.

Walking with confidence, she stepped onto the stage. A glorious metallic spear at hand, shimmering in the moonlight. Her naturally dark hair took on a violet hue, as it always did under Selene’s loving gaze, hiding her true identity from all those that watched her that night at the stadium. She smiled up at them, striking the first pose. Guided by the music coming from beneath the stage, she danced across the surface – a foreign dance, quick movements intermittently interspersed with emphasized poses. Each pause, perfectly in sync with the music’s patterns of rise and fall.

The crowd cheered around her, as she swung the polearm, arcing it around her like a baton. Her body swaying and bending with the weapon’s movements, as though in a drunken stupor induced by the gods and the weapon itself. The music fell, lower notes taking prominence, before a sudden break. She froze, striking a sudden pose, eyes staring straight into the audience. Then the dance continued, following the music as it rose, gradually building in speed and intensity, before her cue came again.

Finally, came the last verse. Moving with the rhythm, she threw her weapon up in the air, once more, catching it behind her, and pausing in another pose, her gaze lingering on the moon, watching it longingly. Then with the next beats, she positioned the polearm to point at the ground. Holding it prominently before her, the weapon’s shaft diagonally across her body, she struck her final pose for the act. Freezing in the stance as the music came to an end, she returned her attention to the crowd, her eyes partially lidded and blinking seductively.

The crowd cheered, at the final drum beat that broke the silence. Freeing herself from the posture, she struck the butt of the spear onto the ground and while holding it, bowed, thanking everyone for being entertained by her performance.

Back stage, she shed her mask. Wiping away the protection that the makeup granted her, and donning her normal browns that so contrasted from the vivid colors that decorated her while on stage, it was as though she shed a part of herself. The shard of confidence that her fans knew her by, vanished as her hair faded back to its original shade.

No one would suspect. She sighed. No one would truly admire her, if they knew the truth. The harsh reality of who she was. Who they saw on stage was a magnificent foreign princess, a woman that at least belonged to noble blood. A belief that couldn’t be further from the truth. Reality assigned her to the lowest rung in society, the lowest part of the caste. A shadow that she would never be able to walk out of within her lifetime.

But despite her position, she had always loved the stage. At least, she had for as long as she remembered. She couldn’t help sneaking to the stadium whenever it was closed, and letting the stage take her. Letting herself get lost in the persona it granted her. Her caste wasn’t allowed on the stage, moreover entertain thoughts of performing before people. Yet, word of mouth spread, an audience slowly trickled in. Before she knew it, she was entertaining entire stadiums with her nightly performances.

She appreciated their cheers, their approval, and their presence. But, none of it really belonged to her. She knew without a doubt that they would all turn away if they knew who she really was. Sighing, she hid away anything that might reveal her identity, anything that came to be associated with her acts, into a knapsack. She stifled a laugh, at the irrational thought. It’s not like many would make the connection anyways. More likely than not, she’d end up arrested for stealing from the backstage rather than shatter her stage identity.

Shuffling into the night, her brown clothes hanging loosely over her body, so unlike the more closely tailored outfit she previously wore on stage, she adjusted the knapsack over her shoulders and headed for the direction of home.

Entering the rundown shack, closing the door behind her, she slipped by her sleeping parents, careful not to disturb them. Crack! A stone bounced off the window next to her. She peered outside. It was Karith, her childhood neighbor and classmate growing up. But also, her nearly nightly visitor. Once outside, he handed her a basket of fruits. Food that her family normally didn’t have the luxury to purchase.

“Thank you.” She told him, keeping her eyes down on his tunic. It was white, embroidered with gold, a symbol of his family’s status. A constant reminder of the difference between them. Head still lowered, she turned to enter her home.

“How have you been doing recently?” He asked, as he occasionally did. Was it just a formality? Was it curiosity? Did it show he cared? Or was it a perverted habit of the rich and socially accepted?

“Fine.” She answered, as she always did. Never elaborating more. There was no reason to. The status of their home, the prevalence of their daytime work, and the total disregard or even disgust that they usually received from others was public enough for anyone to see. Still she appreciated his gesture, sending fruits, despite not being required to. She turned and smiled at him, giving him a wave, before heading back inside.

The following night, she walked down the stairs leading to the backstage area, still smiling from the conclusion of her performance. As she entered the dressing area, which the musicians that joined her had previously promised to keep exclusive to her during her nightly performances, she froze. A familiar figure stood there. Karith. Did he suspect something? As a member of the highest social class, he had the power to strip her of her dreams, then and there.

She turned, fully planning to run, her confidence leaking out of her, despite her costume. She couldn’t let anyone steal away her dream. Her love.

“Rose!” Karith called behind her. Right, he couldn’t have seen through her disguise. No one had yet. She took a breath, and turned to confront him.

“You are a fan?” She asked, maintaining the pretense.

“Of sorts.” He answered. “Tamila.”

“You…” She started, knitting her eyebrows. He knew. She took a breath, calming herself. “I am Rose.” She added with more confidence. He couldn’t know it was her. He had no hard evidence. She had to dismiss any suspicions.

“You think I don’t know you? Why do you think I only visited at night, when your duties clearly ended before dark?” He asked. “Why can’t we go back to the way things were? We were so close as children.”

He was right. They had been. But society made it clear to her that they were of two different worlds. School had been a rude awakening. Life in society, even more so. Without waiting for her response, he wrapped his arms around her.

“Tamila, I like you.” He said.

She froze. Her eyes widening in shock. Of all the girls interested in him, of all of those that do their best to appeal to him and gain his favor, why her? She had been doing her best to stay in her place all those years, trying to do her best to maintain the wall between them. She couldn’t risk jeopardizing her family’s safety for a friendship.

“Marry me.” He said, arms still around her waist. “You and your family would be under our protection if you do.”

“I…” She hesitated. Her heart fluttered. As much as she tried to distance herself from him, she couldn’t help but reciprocate his feelings over the years. After all, she wasn’t sure where she and her family would be if he wasn’t there supporting them for all those years.

“Your social status would increase.” He said, sounding like he was trying to persuade her. “You could dance without fear.”

Her heart yearned toward him, like a moth toward a light. Her family’s safety. Her dreams. And him. It was all too enticing.

“Is it because of my success?” She asked, pulling away from him. She had to know. Why else would someone of his station ask to marry her in a monogamous society? Why would he choose her, when any other connection would bolster his family’s reputation. “Does your family know?”

“I’ve always loved you. Father is aware. They’ve never judged your family in the past. Status doesn’t matter to us.” He answered, staring into her eyes.

She couldn’t trust him. It just sounded too good to be true. “I want you to promise me that you won’t share with anyone my identity.”

“I’ve always known from the start.” He answered, looking nostalgic. “I’m not sure if you remember, but I was your first audience member.”

She stepped back. So that figure in white at the back of the stadium all those years ago… Tears spilled down her cheeks. Before that appearance, she had thought that her performances on the stage would remain nothing but an unachievable dream. She remembered seeing the same figure return night after night, and questioning herself how he would react if he knew the truth. She had thought that each member of her loyal audience would leave her upon learning of who she was. But, here stood a man that contradicted everything that she had thought to be true.

But marriage meant she would legally belong to a man. It meant restrictions on the very freedoms that allowed her to sneak out at night. She couldn’t. Her heart had been crushed by empty promises before. She couldn’t let it be again. She turned, wiping away her tears. Picking up her knapsack. So what if she walked down the streets looking this way. She needed to get away from him.

“To you, I grant myself, my soul, my love, and my life.” He started, kneeling on the ground behind her, and making her stop in her steps. “I grant you my vow to support and protect you and all that you care about, your freedoms, your family, your dreams and wishes. I grant you the right to share all that I have and all that I will ever have. So long as you accept me and my word.”

It was the wife’s oath. The oath that women of upper classes gave to the men they married, surrendering themselves to them. But it was also magically binding. Weddings between castes did occasionally happen. But a man making a woman’s oath? Unheard of.

“You…” She said, voice fading away as she clenched her fist.

If she accepted, he would become physically unable to act against them. A step that most men weren’t willing to take, even if they expected the same from their wives. It was an ultimate testament of the authenticity of his offer. Not only was he being genuine, but he was also offering all the power to her. By giving his oath first, he was giving her the chance to walk out, or to choose not to give a reciprocating oath, even while accepting his.

“I do accept.” She finally said, sealing the oath. Tying the agreement to the very essence of his being.

“Then you are my wife, from this day forward.” He declared, immediately wrapping his arms her waist.

She put a finger to his lips, shushing him. He was right, but she had always disliked a lack of balance in power. Her social status, prior to accepting his words, was a constant reminder of that. “To you, I grant myself, my soul, my love, and my life.” She said, repeating his oath. “I grant you my vow to support and protect you and all that you care about, your freedoms, your family, your dreams and wishes. I grant you the right to share all that I have and all that I will ever have. So long as you accept me and my word.”

“I do accept.” He said, without hesitation. Without pause, he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers, drawing her into a kiss that she would always remember. He was hers just as she was his. Her dreams, her love, and her family. She had always thought she would have to give up something. But this man granted her everything. Draping her arms over the back of his neck, she returning a kiss to the man that shattered her ordinary world, and pieced it back together as a glorious, magnificent structure.

Author’s Note:

This was initially written inspired by a piece of artwork I saw…but finished with the idea: Things aren’t always as they seem. By the time I finished, I realized this story addresses (at least to some degree) a prompt that I read earlier this week. Perhaps, the prompt was subconsciously on my mind as I wrote, so I thought that I might share it with everyone at Promptly Written!

C. Chou
C. Chou

A writer that loves cabbages and bamboo, but also enjoys writing and sharing fiction (particularly the fantasy genre). Find me on Medium at: https://chouxherbe.medium.com/