Downstairs, the cat leapt gracefully from her high perch on the corner cabinet. She affectionately butted her head against Maeve’s shin as she entered the kitchen. She sank down to her knees and gave the coal black coat a few long strokes, then scratched the feline under the chin. She was thanked with half-closed eyes and a rumbling purr. The early light pouring in from the window looked the same as always for this time of year, all rose gold and inviting. She poured herself a cup of coffee and the roasted beans smelled comforting as always. She took a long swallow of the black liquid and her frame visibly sank into a relaxed sigh. Today could be a good day; she just had to focus on the performance tonight. She hadn’t danced in her hometown in a very long while; she was always in demand, so the dance company kept her very busy traveling from country to country.
Maeve let the cat outside to prowl the surrounding meadows, and the flowers looked as colorful as usual. She went to the small shelter down the hill which served as her studio. She danced here long before she ever met the amber-eyed man, before she agreed to the exchange, before the bloody ritual ensured she would have ten years of phenomenal success at a performance career which she worked tirelessly toward her whole life. A decade seemed like such a long time back then, but as she practiced, toured, and taught, the years blinked away frightfully fast. She flipped on the various lights around the room, and the beams bounced off the many mirrors lining the walls. She greeted the plants hanging in the generous windows. The studio smelled the same, the light looked the same, and the polished wood beneath her bare feet was just as smooth and grounding as all the years prior. She rehearsed. She danced and screamed and danced and cried and danced. Afterward, she lay flat on her back with her eyes half closed and breathed and breathed and breathed. The cat slipped through the small door cut into the side of the studio and padded over to Maeve’s prostrate form. She climbed onto her ribcage and settled down, tucking her paws beneath her to doze contentedly.
Maeve thought about the night the promise of the tithing was made. The streets had been empty. The breeze was scented like jasmine, it was a hot night after a particularly crushing round of auditions, which yielded no opportunity. The air hung off her exhausted body like clingy strips of soaked muslin. She felt the weight and restriction of it across her face, and all along her limbs. The trees swayed lazily. The moonlight was bright when his slight frame detached from the shadows as if he was a part of them and they were reluctant to see that piece of themselves go. Her heart raced, even as she recognized something familiar about him. His grin was intriguing. She couldn’t shake the feeling he knew a secret about her which amused him to no end. It did not embarrass her. She was immediately comfortable in his magnetizing presence. He looked at her hungrily, but she didn’t feel as if she were in danger. It felt like a game she could win. It felt like a dance she had danced before. If Maeve was good at anything, it was dance.
The evening of the seventh day since the tithing was due was like any other evening in which Maeve performed. She meditated, she received flowers and cards of admiration and encouragement, her dance company mates shouted “break a leg” as they finished up costuming, make up, and warm ups. The stage lights looked the same as they always did, kaleidoscope colors, and an inky black sea beyond the edge of the stage. She entered her domain easily and she danced. She was finally on her own soil, in front of her own people, telling a story they would understand in their ancestral bones. She pounded her heels, swung her hips, contorted her arms, her spine undulated, her legs leapt. She turned and collapsed and rose like something reborn and unstoppable. The audience gasped and sighed and cried and shouted out.
The music swelled and ended, but her body did not stop. Maeve whirled, her arms moved of their own accord. Her eyes grew wide, but her hips did not become still. Her lungs burned, but her legs carried her back and forth across the stage. She felt hot, too hot, then hotter, but her limbs kept telling a story she did not know. Still her body danced. Her toes bled, and her shoulders ached, but still, she moved. Maeve leapt again and again, even as her thighs quivered and her ankles snapped. She could hear people shouting and screaming, until the roar of her own blood in her ears drowned them out like so many twittering birds far off on the horizon. She did not remember anything about the dance; she would not know how the story ended.
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