Bells sounded as the dancer sailed across the stage, the song of her jewelry adding to the drumbeats that drove her steps. Her hand against the tambourine quickened and the drums suddenly fell away, her bells and bangles the only music as she ended with a flourish, silk skirts swirling out as she spun in a dizzying circle and then froze, chest heaving as she struggled to catch her breath.
There was a great stretch of silence that filled the room, each member of the crowd catching their own breath. Then, a cacophony of cheers and whistles rose like a tidal wave, gold coins flying toward the stage and the captivating dancer who still smiled. She curtsied and blew them kisses, jewelry jingling with each gesture, before gathering the coins up as the men returned to their meals.
Once their eyes were no longer on her, she let her smile fall, and sat with her skirt carefully arranged to hide her bleeding, blistered feet. She gathered her coins together, silently depositing them into a pouch at her waist. She remained seated, the ache in her legs too great to let her stand, and watched the men tear into their decadent meals, her own belly painfully empty.
A figure appeared in the corner of her eye, and she turned to find a man standing at the edge of the stage, a large bundle in his hands. His skin was too pale to make him one of her people, but his eyes were soft and kind. He pushed the bundle over to her, the soft music it made telling her it held a fortune of coins inside.
She pushed it back, shaking her head. It was too much.
He smiled and caught her before she could pull away, laying her hand on the prize, squeezing them gently under his. It was a gift
She wept, bowing so deeply her forehead touched the floor. She felt a soft press of lips to her head, and a quiet whisper in her native tongue as the stranger squeezed her hands a second time.
“Raise your head, my girl, and embrace the sun.”