The Moon Sat on a Balcony
This story is influenced by the culture and religion of India in the late 15th century.
The women depicted in this story are based on historical figures such as Umrao Jaan Ada and Begum Samru. Courtesan culture and skill of this time has been a prominent theme in many Bollywood movies such as Devdas, Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam. A more familiar courtesan to Western readers will be Chiyo Sakamoto, the protagonist of the film Memoirs of a Geisha.
The dance style referred to here is mujra, based on the classical native dance form kathak.
Courtesans are not prostitutes, rather, they are the result of a lifetime of education and training that enables them to escort, amuse and pleasure high-class men. As written in the Karma Sutra: “…every woman has an inkling of the profession in her nature…” (Book 6).
The loop of the ‘g’ in the word ‘Kazekage’ had started off as a sharp, narrow point, mirroring the quick, dedicated manner in which the young Kazekage had begun his work. As though every letter stole precious time, he had zoomed through hours of paperwork in minutes...that was until he realised that upon finishing with his reports he would have nothing better to do than meet his council. In a desperate bid to prevent such interaction from happening, Gaara had taken to making sure every letter was taken care of.
Now, the loop hung limp and fat as the leader of men took his time, idly swirling his pen on the yellowing parchment; begging for the working day to be over. He glanced around his office, ornate and grand, it swallowed him into a world he was unsure of. One moment he was ushered away from public eye and the next, limelight had been thrust upon him. Is it what he wanted? Even he did not know.
He was avoiding meetings with his council, just to be rid of them, stopping servants from bringing him his lunch just so he did not have to endure their stares. Gaara was in a world he was yet to understand; bored and alone, he sat at his desk, deceptively resolute, unknown to be fearful.
The Kazekage’s gaze left his office and dropped down to the work in front of him. Was not there something that could tear him away from this place, from his station as a leader? Rubbing his eyes, he relaxed a little as a soft breeze flew in through his window and ruffled his crimson hair.
“Gaara!” The Kazekage looked up, alarmed as his elder brother barged into the office, a large smile on his face, a glass of something in his hand.
“Kankuro,” Gaara nodded at his brother and watched, almost with jealousy, at the way his brother grinned and jostled and was happy; what would it be like to feel that way?
“Geez…you’ve only been Kazekage two days and they’ve given you this much work?” Kankuro helped himself to the seat opposite Gaara’s desk and picked up a bundle of papers, eyes madly skimming the pages.
Deciding he had had enough of the interruption, Gaara put his head down and got back to work. “I’m technically not Kazakage until the festival.” He murmured without looking up.
Throwing the papers back down on the desk, Kankuro marched over to the window and gestured to the calm plains of Sunagakure. “You are a man of power now, little brother,” Kankuro ignored Gaara’s look of boredom, “aren’t you going to take advantage of all the benefits that comes with?” A moment of silence. “Are you almost done?” The puppet master puffed out his chest in triumph as he saw he had caught his brother’s attention.
“Almost,” Gaara glanced up at him with a quizzical look, “why?”
Kankuro swayed slightly as he walked over to him, put his hand on Gaara’s desk, leant in and indicated with a nod to all the papers around them. “Get over this insanity and let us leave this place!” He announced, dramatically, “I feel completely walled in.” He sniffed and could see Gaara was seriously considering the offer.
It was exactly as Kankuro had said- he felt walled in too. Put in too small a box and told to stay put, that’s what it felt like to be Kazekage. He glanced down to the fat, pathetic ‘g’ he had scribbled and made up his mind instantly.
“Where to?” Gaara asked, already standing. “But I don’t want to go anywhere inappropriate.” He added before his brother could respond.
“A place where politics is discussed perhaps?” Kankuro asked, trying to hide his smirk, “where they serve fine tea and contemplate the writings of the Great Philosophers?” Gaara put on his robe to leave the palace.
“That sounds agreeable.” The Kazeakge said with a nod and, Gaara being Gaara, took no notice of the bellowing laugh his brother gave or the massive pat on the back Kankuro gave him than almost knocked him over in surprise.
“Agreeable,” Kankuro murmured, ushering his brother out of the office, “very agreeable.”
Diamonds or rubies? Rubies or emeralds? Crushed silk or chiffon? Tea in a china cup or plum wine from a goblet? Decisions perhaps every girl wishes she could make every day, every hour, as Ai did.
Yes or no?
The only question that mattered was left unuttered, non-existent in a world of choices, in a world of beautiful things.
The girl with too many decisions to make closed the curtain that divided her sleeping quarters and her fountain room as she heard the footsteps of someone fast approaching. Ai looked past her fountain to the mirror ahead and took in what she saw. Fair skin and dark hair with electric blue eyes that shone out in any darkness. She was slim and graceful, as she was trained to be. Was she beautiful? Ai grimaced at the thought. How could she ever know the answer in this world that was bursting at the seams with other beautiful things?
“Ai!” She jumped at the sound of her name and proceeded to wash her hair at the fountain. She leant over, picked up a golden jug and plunged it into the water. She watched as rose petals, put there by another working girl, swirled and fought against the pull as they were sucked into the jug.
“It is your first show tonight!” The voice, excited and sweet, came again from the other side of the curtain. “Megumi-sama has picked out the finest silks,” a heartbeat of silence, “I hear the new Kazekage is coming,” The voice had changed; no longer excited and jittery, but calm and dreamy. Ai poured the water from the jug over her head and let out a deep breath as the cool water soothed her in Sunagakure’s heat.
“They are yet to announce his identity.” Ai responded in a bored voice, trying desperately to hide her nerves.” It is kept secret until the festival.” Her soft voice drifted with the steam through the curtain.
“He will keep his face covered I think,” her friend responded, Ai was unsure if she had even listened to her. Just like Miko, the girl behind the curtain, so carefree and witty, no wonder she was everyone’s favourite dancer. “Perhaps this new Kazekage will be a regular like the last.” Miko’s stream of consciousness filtered through the curtain to Ai. “Now he was handsome.” She heard Ai laugh.
“He was a lot older than you!”
“So? All the Kazelage’s are old! It’s because they are the most wise and best at fighting or something-”
“I thought your conversations specialised in politics? You should know why.” Ai smiled, she enjoyed teasing Miko, and the relaxed conversation was soothing her nerves. Her smile faded as she pushed her hair back. “Oh no…Does that mean that I’m just going to be dancing for an old man?” It was Miko’s turn to laugh.
“Yes I suppose,” she heard Ai groan, “but there will be the others.”
“Everyone is coming to see the new flower of the Tea House!” Miko responded happily. A few moments of silence passed. Miko knew these moments, she had experienced them a few years ago, when it was her first performance. “When you do it a couple of times,” Miko chirped in a hopeful voice, “you will gain many admirers and they will give you the most beautiful of gifts.”
“Uh-huh.” Ai nodded behind the curtain; not paying any attention, trying to keep her mind off it. Unbeknownst to Ai, Miko took great offence to not being listened to, especially when she was trying to help.
“You know he might not be too wrinkly.”
“Oh, be quiet Miko!” Ai shouted over and slumped onto a marble seat by the fountain. “I am not allowed to know his identity before everyone else so I will never see him!” Ai reasoned to herself but Miko was uninterested.
“Ooooh…imagine,” Miko whispered dreamily, “...you and the Kazekage. That is like a dream come true for most of us.” Looking around the room, Miko saw Ai’s clothes for her performance laid out on the bed. She went over and straightened them out. Brushing the silk with her fingers and smiling as the gems shone and glittered in the lamplight, she heard Ai push the curtain away to reveal herself in a towel, a look of distress on her face.
“What if he wants to…” Ai’s voice trailed away and she slumped her shoulders in defeat; “what would it be like, to be with someone you barely know?” Miko raised an eyebrow; it was entirely unprofessional to speak in the way Ai was. It implied she still had not given in to the rules of her job.
“Ai,” Miko said slowly, wondering how to proceed, but upon seeing the look of worry on Ai’s face, she quickly decided against a lecture. “You will be fine.” Miko reassured her. With a quick smile and nod of the head, she walked up to Ai and kissed her on the forehead. “Perhaps he will give you a nick-name, it’s a sure sign of affection!” Miko laughed happile and Ai forced a smile. “I’ll prepare drinks,” Miko beamed and put a reassuring hand on Ai’s shoulder.
Ai let her leave and looked over to the bed. Blush pink silk glistened at her as though reminding her: “it’s time.”
The troubled Kazekage rode in a carriage different to that of his brother’s. If they were seen together then people might guess the identity of the Kazekage and it was a backward tradition, in Gaara’s opinion, that they should not know until the festival. It also explained why Gaara had to wear this ridiculous garb: the traditional Kazekage uniform, complete with hat and face covering. Only his ocean coloured eyes were visible while the rest of him thrashed and ripped at the material, desperate to breathe.
The claustrophobia lead him to lower his window and lean out slightly to catch what little breeze was available in this part of Sunagakure. As he was taking a deep breath in, he saw his brother’s carriage, a little further ahead, pull up in front of a house made of glass. The mere size of it impressed Gaara; the palace was not even that big. This house must have been at least seven storeys, with different coloured glass burning as it reflected the dying sun.
As Gaara took in the beautiful home, he thought he spied the moon sitting on the highest balcony and he stared in utter fascination as it glittered and shone from its perch as though welcoming him home.
From the seventh storey, Ai stood on her balcony in a last attempt to calm down. She took deep breaths and went through her dance in her head as the lyrics of her song, a song she had written, were running fast out of her memory as her nerves crept in.
And all at once they stopped. Like a wave of worry something tore through Ai that caused all her thoughts to stop. Ai had seen it; the carriage of the Kazekage was pulling up outside her home. He was here. The Kazekage had come to see her.