"He's resting, although not comfortably," Chakori said. She'd taken Anandi into the foyer outside Ravi's room, although they left the door cracked open. "I've done what I can for him. The rest he's going to have to do on his own."
Anandi handed her another purse.
She tucked it away in her pocket. "Tell me again why you're going to such trouble over this one?"
"It's business. Besides, if I'd left him behind, he would have been killed." And he still might, if the Maurya-Rahm find out what he told me.
"Do I sense your icy heart melting a little?"
He eyed her, discomfited by her bluntness. "A courtesan doesn't love. You know that."
"That's your own stupid rule. Besides, I never said you had to. It's just..." She gestured to her patient. "He's pretty. Or he will be, at least."
"He's a low-caste orphan, raised in filth. It doesn't matter whether he's pretty or not. He can't stay here." Even if I weren't afraid for his life.
"You're just worried that the Maurya-Rahm will hear you're consorting with a pirate's brat, which will keep you on their bad side."
"Don't go there."
She just stared at him. "You're an intelligent, capable man, but you can be so damn blind, sometimes."
Before Anandi could think of a reply, she walked away.
Damn her. And damn Ravi. Once Asa answers my request...
Although there was no guarantee Asa would get his message at all.
∗ ∗ ∗
Anandi was sitting at Ravi's bedside when the half-elf woke, none too happy to see him.
"Damn you." Ravi's expression was wild with hatred. "This ain't what I wanted. You didn't even ask. This is torture. The captain was never so cruel."
"He left you in that awful little cabin to lie in your own filth and then he let his crew treat you like an animal. Tell me, did you enjoy being used and ridden like a pony?"
"He didn't... they didn't... Damn you." Ravi clenched his jaw, anger mingled with grief.
"I plucked you out of hell and set you down in paradise."
"Some paradise, keeping me locked up in here. Get me some wine, at least."
"Not until you tell me who paid the captain to kill me."
Ravi laughed. "How the hell should I know?"
Anandi hadn't known anyone so frustrating other than the Maurya-Rahm. "You told me you did."
A bitter smile twisted Ravi's lips. "You brought me here for nothing, fancy man. Cap kept it a secret."
The nickname was growing irritating. So was Ravi's attitude. "My name is Anandi. You may address me as Master Anandi."
Ravi caught his wrist in a bruising grip. "Master of what?"
Taking a bit of enjoyment in his patient's discomfort, he said, "I'm an instructor of courtesans."
Ravi's face went slack. He sank back against the pillows, looking even more wan and exhausted. "I should have known what kind of a fancy man you were when you started feeling me up back there in that cave. Most men are rough, but you..."
"I'm not the kind that gets a man drunk and drugged in order to sleep with him. Neither do I beat him to make myself feel better."
"You're a self-righteous son of a bitch."
"And you're an annoying little bastard."
"Go to hell."
Ravi threw a pillow at him, but missed. "I'm the captain's boy. Not yours. Take me home."
"He'll kill you. He tried, remember?"
"He was after you. Not me." A second pillow followed the first. This time, it hit Anandi on the shoulder. Ravi's laugh was bitter and chilling. "I know why you brought me. You just want the same as everyone else, Master Anandi. I've heard the whispers. You only got your position because you used to be—"
"Shut up." Anandi clenched a pillow, barely resisting the temptation to use it to smother the insolent youth.
Ravi's face tightened into a mask of hatred. "What are you waiting for?"
"For you to realize I'm not your enemy." He threw the pillow back at Ravi and stalked toward the door.
From behind him came the sound of either choked laughter or sobbing. Anandi didn't bother to see which it was.
∗ ∗ ∗
Later that evening, Anandi had his answer from Asa.
"He will not see you, but he bade me give you this." The Maurya-Rahm handed him an envelope sealed with Asa's mark along with a small, silk-wrapped item.
Anandi waited until she left to open the envelope. The card inside was scented with Asa's favorite cologne.
Your service to Jalmeray has not gone unnoticed. This is but a small token of my regard.
The terse, emotionless message in Asa's hand dashed the last of his hopes. Anandi opened the package. Inside the silken wrappings was a wooden box containing the dried fragile petals of a white flower, the kind found in the gardens near the thakur's palace. The two of them had spent hours there, laughing, talking, and making love. Once, Anandi had teasingly plucked a bloom and tucked it behind Asa's ear.
This, he was sure, was the same flower. He dumped the petals into his palm, heartbroken by the gift, and feeling whatever love he'd once had harden into an impenetrable ball. Anything he'd once shared with Asa was finally, definitely over.
He sank down onto his bed, suddenly exhausted. The trip had been a death sentence. That was all. Likely Asa hadn't even known he was gone.
A cramping pain shot through his hand and fingers. Anandi cursed and flexed his fingers, which were sluggish and slow to respond. Inspecting his hand, he saw that one of the petals had turned crimson around the edges. Anandi pushed it aside to see blood welling from a pinprick in his palm. How...?
A sudden, agonizing pain lanced up his arm. A moment later, it receded and he drew in a shaky breath. His hand had gone numb and frozen in a fist that crushed the fragile petals.
Panicked, Anandi surged to his feet just as a new cramp flared through his chest, so excruciating it took his breath away. Whimpering in pain, he staggered into the hallway toward Ravi's room.
Oh, gods. Irori spare me. Why would Asa...
But Anandi knew his former lover too well. Asa would never poison him, but the other Maurya-Rahm would.
The guards took one look at him and paled. "Help..." Anandi croaked. One guard caught him as he collapsed. The other raced toward the healer's quarters.
The cramps came more frequently, jabbing at his gut. Numbness spread throughout his body until it was all he could do to keep breathing.
Anandi could just make out a blurry figure crouched beside him.
Ravi took the guard's place and slapped Anandi's face, causing it to burn and sting. "Did you eat something? Touch something?"
"The box..." It would have been easy to conceal a needle.
Ravi pried the box from Anandi's hand and used the silken wrapping to hold it for inspection. "Damn."
Anandi couldn't answer. He could barely drag air into his uncooperative lungs.
Ravi set the box aside and laid Anandi flat on his back. "Breathe, damn it." He curled his fingers together, one hand atop the other, and placed the heel of his hand in the center of Anandi's chest. He pushed down. Hard.
Oh, hell, that hurts.
Ravi kept up the compressions. "Don't leave me here alone, you bastard. You owe me."
Anandi supposed he did, but it was a little late for that, now. Poor Ravi. The Conservatory would throw him into the streets if the Maurya-Rahm didn't kill him first.
Footsteps pounded down the hall. "What have you done, you filthy devil?" Chakori's sharp cry cut through Anandi's rapidly fading awareness. "After all he did for you..."
"I didn't!" Ravi protested. "I ain't the kind to poison a man!"
So what kind are you? Anandi wondered as blackness swallowed him.
∗ ∗ ∗
From the angle of the sunlight, it was late morning when Anandi woke. His aching body felt too heavy to move.
"Easy," Chakori said. She was sitting in a chair next to his bed. "I almost lost you. In fact, I would have, if it weren't for..." She nodded at Ravi, who hovered nearby, looking uncomfortable.
"Thanks." It wasn't enough, but he was too tired to say more.
"We know who did it. We traced her through her operative, and when she was interrogated, she panicked and tried to make a run for it. I don't know what kind of pressure the Maurya-Rahm who conducted the interrogation put her under, but she confessed to forging Asa's note and copying his seal in order to poison you. Seems she'd overheard Asa mention how much he missed your company, and given the success you've made of yourself at the Conservatory, decided to eliminate you before your influence grew any stronger. The Maurya-Rahm—how shall I put it?—have one fewer member in their prestigious ranks this morning."
Anandi winced. At least that meant Asa still cared about him. "Leave us," he said to Chakori. When she was gone, Anandi asked, "How...?"
Ravi shrugged. "Cap seen a lot of men stuck by a lionfish and taught me what to do."
Jaw set, Ravi said, "I ain't the kind to let a man die if I can help it. Even if it's a man that kidnapped me." After a while, he sighed and took the chair vacated by Chakori. "You were right about Cap, you know. I thought..."
"You thought he loved you." Like Asa loved me until he couldn't and sent me away to keep me safe.
Ravi nodded and slumped in defeat. "What happens now? I ain't any use to you."
"Not true." Anandi gazed at the young half-elf, past the flushed face, seeing once again the inner strength and intelligence that had allowed Ravi to survive for so long. "You're my diamond in the rough. Once I get you cut and polished, you'll shine like few other men do."
As he'd hoped, Ravi's eyes glittered with desire. "Why me? Why not some other poor pirate's brat?"
"I'll show you."
He summoned a djinni who procured Ravi a set of silk pantaloons, a matching vest, and sandals. Ravi already had a gold hoop in his ear, which Anandi left, but he hung a thick gold chain around Ravi's neck. Then Anandi sat Ravi on a stool, had the djinni fetch his cosmetics with which he added color to Ravi's cheeks and eyes and drew long, intricate designs to highlight his features.
When he was done, he turned Ravi to face the mirror. "There. That's a man who can have anything in the world that he wants if he knows how to get it."
Ravi was silent for a long time as he stared at his reflection. "Like you? Do you have everything you want?"
"I did, once."
"Now..." he shrugged. He ached for Asa's touch, but it was gone, never to be his again. He took Ravi's hand in his. "Now I have a diamond. The question is, how brightly will you shine?"
"Brighter than all the stars in the sky," Ravi said, and squeezed.
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Gary Kloster's upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel, Firesoul!
Evey Brett is the author of numerous novels and short stories. She holds a Master's degree in writing, and is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, and Taos Toolbox. Find her online here.
Illustration by Mike Burns.