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Madame always told anyone who asked that she'd known instantly what a beauty I would grow up to be. She'd tell them that she'd known I would be a wise investment, and so had deliberately molded me as a dancer from the day I joined the troupe.

By the time I was old enough to understand why she always presented this as my "official story" I was also old enough to understand that part of the reason we were in such high demand was due to Madame's reputation as a fearsome tyrant who not only recognized talent, but nurtured it ruthlessly: from the way they mobbed our shows, the public apparently considered such iron rule a guarantee of artistic quality. Most of them also seemed to interpret her motherly demeanor as an "act" that camouflaged a cold, merciless nature. (It's ridiculous that no one ever questioned why we'd stay with such a monster, although I suppose they thought we stayed for the money – all performers being vain and greedy, of course.) Because of this, very few dared cheat Madame or harm any member of our company: wherever we went, the Butterfly Troupe tents and stage were as safe as if we had been within stone walls. Those of us inside this charmed haven kept our mouths shut, of course: no reason to tear down misconceptions that kept us safe and packed the house night after night. The truth of it, of course, was that Madame's kindness was no act. She was genuinely good-hearted, compassionate and generous and protective to the core.

And she was content for that to be a secret known only to the troupe. "Let people think of you what they will," she told me once, "especially if it works to your advantage."

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"Your posture's too stiff, Ageha," I told him. "Bend your elbows more." I demonstrated. "From shoulder to blade tip, you're echoing the curve of the crescent moon." I nodded to the musicians. "From the beginning, please."

Even with dozen dancers to watch, still I noticed how he tensed whenever anyone was near him. Every time.

What he was going through I could not imagine – or rather I could, all too well. I had, after all, helped Mica clean him and bandage him on that night some weeks ago, saw the old scars and the fresh bruises and the horror of what had been done to him before he'd been thrown out in the desert to die. I had sat vigil over his fevered delirium several times after threatening to tie Mica up if she didn't get some sleep. My heart ached when I saw the boy shudder and cringe from even the gentlest touch, even in his sleep. "Why would anyone do that if they didn't mean to keep him? What kind of monster were they?" a tearful Mica had asked me over and over. "And how can we possibly help him?" And every time, I had answered this question by saying, "We will treat him no differently than the others."

"Let's try something ... Ageha, could you move to the end of the back row? Either end is fine." Perhaps not having anyone behind him would help that part of him that clearly trembled to flee.

Slave 31, he had said his name was, but he had taken my suggestion that we call him Ageha without demur. Slavery is the loss of freedom, but had he been enslaved for so long he couldn't remember what freedom was like?

And there it was again. Even in the corner of the stage, even with only a girl to his left and in front of him, his face was haunted and pinched.

"Hm, I think the stage is too crowded. Let's try it with the back row sitting out today." As Adrella, Charis, Lelu, and Ageha filed off stage I said, "Those of you not dancing, learn from the others. Watch for what they do well or not so well, and put what you learn into your own performance."

While the girls sat in a row in front of the stage, he crept around to sit next to me – which was, I suppose a small victory at least. I watched him watching the others: as the dance went on his face relaxed and took on an intense fascination, as if the swirling colors and sounds were taking him to a place where what weighed him down was swept away, a place where his world became graceful and joyous and pure.

 

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Note to the recipient: I'd meant to just write a small "squeak under the deadline wire" bijoux for you here, a prose poem snapshot, but suddenly my head is swirling with additional scenes. ~ As I see you might be  traveling/internetless until the reveal, I'll continue to add to this between now and then in hopes that I get down everything Ageha and Madame want to say before you have a chance to read. :)

P.S. The anime was a very faithful recreation of the first 5 volumes of the manga, and is absolutely worth watching, imo, because the incomparable Kaneto Shiozawa voiced Ageha. ~ That gorgeous voice is at the core of my Ageha characterization and headcanon.

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(02) 27 Dec 2011