Their eyes lock combatively, both waiting for the other's next movement. Toes curled, they wait anxiously for the next beat of the drums.
Her whole life has led to this moment. There is no room for mistakes. Time moves slowly as the taladhari begins his song. Stepping lightly, she directs her hands to the rhythm of the music. Her opponent, clad in a fitting red sari, veers closer toward her in an attempt to match her movement. The spectators watch in wonder, having no knowledge of the feud between their entertainers.
Every spin is filled with defiance, every mudra an extension of her anger. She feels the eyes of the men on her, transfixed by her dance.
They knew nothing of her years of bondage, her years of torment. The nightmares she had over the years of the night she lost her freedom. The slayer of evil, Maa Kali, sits behind them in stone; she had conveniently forgot to awaken when she most needed her.
Her opponent had tried everything to break her; now was the crowning point.
The crowd becomes a blur, melting in with the sparkling lights that illuminated the ballroom. With every strum of the veena, she throws herself into her performance. She was never a natural born dancer, despite years of training. The onlookers do not take notice of her fatigue, her struggle to keep pace with her rival.
She feels the heat rising in her cheeks, her braid becoming heavier with every twirl. The disapproving gaze of her guru snaps her back. Her foe smiles at her maliciously, though she cannot tell if it is a part of her act. They swing and twirl, never meeting one another completely. Their hands glide in unison, their decorated feet nearly touching one another. Her knees are weak, her muscles aching for her to stop, but she knows she does not have a choice; the very essence of her soul is on the line.
Her ghungroo barely keep rhythm. They are face to face now, twirling around another; her heart races. The smooth floor is cold on her feet. She guides her knees outwards, opening her palms in embrace. Momentarily, the music stops, alotting her time to breathe.
Her rival is graceful; her makeup has not smudged, her hair still neatly confined into a bun. She is not worried. A master at her craft, she retains her sensuality and tact. Despite her elegant exterior, her eyes were cold and empty.
The music picks up again; it is the climax, otherwise her final chance for freedom. She sits, knees bent awkwardly.
Protect me, a thought prays, without inhibition and without pain. The prayer came without warning, previously repressed into the darkness of her subconscious. She did not know who it was for.
She stands, stamping her feet. Now was the time to completely lose herself. Her fingers curl, her arms swing, her eyes close in total focus. Her aggression flows into every stance and gesture; though wholly oblivious, the musicians had adjusted to her improvisation. She could feel her rival's frosty eyes on her, attempting to best her one final time.
With the final note, she stops mid-twirl, her arms out and her knees bent. The crowd goes wild, applauding with great fervor. Her scourge slunk behind her, allowing her the limelight.
She is overwhelmed by such sudden praise; in her eighteen years, she has forgotten what it is like to be loved. Her ghungroo feel like shackles, her earrings like weighted locks. She leaves, her muscles sore from her performance.
Her opponent is nowhere in sight, presumably vanished among the hundreds of patrons. Wading through them, she eventually catches her breath in a quiet hallway; a door sits closed at the end. Her feet are quiet, slowly getting closer. The door creaks open, revealing the figure of her keeper.
She inches closer, taking a deep breath for what is to come.