Chapter 1- Part 1
I love performing. The crowd watches me intently, their breath bated as if a single exhale will cause a slip of my wrist. I manipulate my ring blades by spinning them, then twist my hands so they flip and form a gyroscope around my torso. My hips undulate instinctively to keep my movements quick, while I turn so everyone can see. A round of applause means the illusion was maintained, so I bounce the hoops back up over my head.
They continue to spin as I twist and turn my body. Emperor Aalam is well known for his Imperial dancers. I imitate their style as I swing my shoulders and sway with each revolution. No one here has ever seen the palace, stepped into the grand halls for a celebration, or enjoyed its opulence as they dined by his majesty’s side. My performances are one of their only forms of entertainment, so I make every moment count.
Everyone gasps, enthralled as I flick one away, only to catch it within my thighs as it returns to me. My kicks are quick, and the metal bounces against my calves and thighs as I slide the second ring blade over my head, then onto my neck. I tilt my body and maintain the rotation while spinning it around my shoulder. The lower ring finally settles at my feet.
The hoop slides its way down over my chest, to bound against my hip as I switch to exotic motions. Aunt Izu taught me how women from the Ember Isle dance. My mother explained that there was a time where only prostitutes and wives were allowed such freedom of expression. Every hand movement signifies an aspect of nature. I follow Zero’s story and begin with the moon.
My hands dip down, then my wrists roll up to draw the full circle. Once my fingertips connect above my head, I form a triangle that I lower to my breast. This is my palace, and I raise my left arm vertically. Palm facing my body indicates the cliffside, and I trace my finger down the steep incline before turning my palm away from my body. My finger traces back up to the top of the tall mountain’s peak.
Rain flows as my fingers flick down and across my hips; the droplets trickle into the ocean waves, where today’s hero has washed onto the shore. My arms sweep over each other horizontally as the waves wash over his body, then ripple on the sand with the gentle wavering of my fingers. The shore is close, and he holds favor with the spirits. My arms wind overhead as the trade winds blow him to the beach with each exaggerated arm movement.
The hero is disoriented and seeks shelter as the ring blade travels to my knees. I execute another full body turn while shimmying my feet, then lift a leg and stretch as I hold my ankle. The ring continues to bounce against my calf as I reach out to Zero who unsheathes the sword at his hip.
My character is a Naga, and I shed my human form to become half cobra. I step my foot back down, only to kick the ring blade up into the air and catch it. The afternoon sun is reflected across the crowd as I send the blade quickly down and then up my torso. I writhe within the weapon, then bend backwards as it swivels around my neck. My shoulders and arms slide through, then I twist my body and fluidly coil to sit on the ground.
The weapon settles around my arms and I catch my breath. I stretch slowly and push the ring away, while extending my arms to lay on my belly. I turn my face up to Zero suddenly and toss the blade above me to catch it with my legs. I then quickly open them as I slink back and raise onto my knees.
His story has reached its apex, and the stage is set for our confrontation. The unwitting thief, Jax, has found his way to the underground kingdom and caught sight of its princess as she dances within her resplendent palace. He is an honest thief, and his bag is filled with her beautiful ornaments and precious gems. The princess has finally taken notice of him. I drop my butt and pop the ring blade vertically, so it surrounds me in defense.
The oppressive gazes are a thrill as my audience claps and chants for Jax. My performance far exceeds Zero’s acting, but that doesn’t matter here. Meridians always take the side of the thief.
Zero places the tip of his sword to my throat. He uses the flat of his blade to tilt my head up to look at him. Breaking the fourth wall, he steps back and is as theatrical as possible while explaining to the crowd, “The Naga only bite the truly evil!”
We fight. He flips his wrists in mock swordplay; the metal clashing as I swivel side to side and parry with my ring. I’m at a disadvantage on my knees, but I’m in character and must make do. Zero stumbles back and tosses his blade into the air, while I stand, straighten, and rotate my shoulder to hold the ring blade horizontally at his belly. One final slash would rend him in two.
Jax is at my mercy, but just as the crowd inhales, Zero grasps my ring. “I am a humble thief, and my regret is sincere!”
It is his final plea. I relinquish hold of my ring blade to tumble backwards and catch his sword before it hits the ground. What will be his fate? The Naga has transformed back into a human. Facing him, I press the point of his own sword against his heaving chest while hesitating. Our communication is telepathic. Zero’s eyes are wide and earnest. Without doubt, I stand down. The sword is lowered and the audience overjoyed. Their thief lives.
Zero turns to the crowd with a sudden warning, “The faint of heart should avert their eyes! The Naga digest both steel and bone...”
Our audience takes a collective moment to blink. Danger only enhances the allure. No one, not even the children, would dare turn away at the opportunity to witness something truly grotesque.
As Zero claims, I will rot this sword. The leather wrapped grip feels moist, and I question if the sweat originates from my own palm. The only tricks to our performances are that all our weapons are ornamental. Neither my ring blades, nor the sides of this sword, are sharp. Only the tip.
My tongue work is not just for show. I must take the time to ensure that saliva lubricates every inch of the thirty-two and a quarter long blade. This is my last chance to secure my own safety before I begin its descent down my throat and well into my stomach.
I look around the crowd as I run my tongue along the flat of the blade, to the bejeweled guard. Zero should’ve rubbed on a thin coating of olive oil, but I taste nothing as I lick back up the sword’s length. Even though our weapons have been dulled, neither Zero nor I have a license to carry or display them in public. I’ll be at a severe disadvantage if the police catch us soliciting before I can properly regurgitate title.
One quick bow, then I raise the sword to my lips as I look up. The stench of the ghetto fills my lungs as I open my mouth. I focus on suppressing my natural reflexes, maintain control of my muscles, and adjust so the blade rests as comfortably as it can. It took months to desensitize my gag reflex, but I managed to go from toothbrushes and spoons to a full-sized sword. The pain ignites my libido, but Zero will take responsibility for that later.
He calls out in amazement, “All the way to the hilt!”
Like a true Meridian, Zero pulls a few extra laughs with an all too easy innuendo. My hands run down my throat and over my torso as I make exaggerated gestures, then open and close my fists over my belly, while Zero rallies the crowd. I feign internal struggle. The sword becomes heavy and the cross-guard weighs against my lips as I let the moment build. No one steps any closer, but there is movement as the group grasps that what they’re seeing is real. I stretch my arms wide in triumph and garner a round of applause.
Now that his tale has been told, Zero wraps up the performance. It’s not as easy as simply stating ‘The End’ and closing an imaginary book; unlike a proper production, there were no ticket sales prior to our act. Zero and I have spent the past 20 minutes forming a bond with everyone in attendance. It was a play, but there’s no denying that the risks involved were very real. What was it all worth in their eyes? Copper? Silver? I promptly slide the sword back out, then bow while taking in the sound of coins clattering against the cracked pavement beneath my feet.
Clearly, it was worth ‘enough’.