No sane person would leave Jalmeray to venture to the small, lawless island of Veedesha, which lay just off the coast, but Anandi had business there on behalf of the thakur.
The business of his Maurya-Rahm, more likely. The thakur's advisors had heard rumors of illicit trades going on in Veedesha, and while they often turned a blind eye to such occurrences when they didn't concern them, this time reports of a certain potentially devastating magical item had them on edge.
And do they send a soldier or a monk? No, they send Jalmeray’s best courtesan.
He wasn't fond of the Maurya-Rahm, who'd been instrumental in arranging his dismissal as Asa's consort five years before. Asa, being a Maurya-Rahm elevated enough to have the thakur's ear, had made no secret of his fondness for Anandi and his skills. Unfortunately, he'd also been particularly vulnerable to those coveting his position, and after a spate of bitter rumors had been forced to send Anandi away. The severing had been abrupt, brutal, and still stung.
The others were jealous, that’s all, because I was loyal to one man alone and kept his trust. Although the Maurya-Rahm had thought to shame him by reducing him to a mere instructor of courtesan at the Conservatory, he'd quickly proven talented at the job. That was his one comfort. Now he had his choice of patrons and a collection of well-trained acolytes to send out across Golarion to collect more secrets for Jalmeray's vaults.
Yet separation from Asa didn't seem to be enough to prove to the Maurya-Rahm that Anandi had no interest in their machinations.
So here I am on a fool’s errand to prove my loyalty.
He'd chosen his wardrobe carefully, including a simple sword and leather boots. Dressing too poorly would make him an easy target, as would dressing too richly. Better to be a carefree man given to spending whatever money he earned lest he not live to see the next day.
After arriving with the aid of two djinn who had flown him across the ocean from the island of Grand Sarret, he walked through the decaying cane fields to the old city, which was now little more than ruins. The original buildings were still being used, though. Nearly every habitable place had been taken over by rogues and pirates of all sorts. A market had been set up in the central plaza, and purveyors of food, weapons repair, and supplies were doing a brisk business. Ships littered the harbor, everything from pirates' galleons to yellow-sailed slavers to smaller barques and luggers, speedy vessels meant for smuggling and trade.
All in all, this was a place Anandi didn't want to be, but when the Maurya-Rahm called...
I obey, in the sad, sad hope that I might prove to them I’m a harmless, biddable servant.
It wasn't going to happen, he knew, but he kept trying.
A flag bearing Captain Maldak's emblem alerted him to the proper abode, a villa that was in somewhat better shape than many of the other buildings. Some of the pirates had laid claim to one or another of the houses, and when in port, they liked to come ashore and indulge in various entertainments.
One of those entertainments leaned drunkenly over the balcony. His long, dark hair was pulled back in a braid to reveal pointed ears, and from the tailored shirt and pants, gold hoop earring, and rings on his fingers, he was definitely a favored pet. The laces on his shirt were undone, exposing an enticing portion of bare skin.
Anandi raked his attention away and turned it toward the pirate keeping guard outside the villa's gate. She sat in a wooden chair and tilted it back, her leg propped against a low wall. The sharp rasp of a whetstone echoed in the stony courtyard as she honed her dagger. "What brings you to the house of Captain Maldak?" she asked without looking up.
He leaned casually against the wall. "Wizard friend of mine sent me to look for a few things."
"In the market, are you? Come back at sunset and the captain'll be in. Likes to entertain visitors then, he does."
Impatient as he was to get what information he could and leave, Anandi decided to try a different tactic. "Where'd he come from?" He nodded at the young man above them.
"Him? No one knows for sure. Been here as long as we can remember."
"He's a pretty one."
"That he is. Want a tumble with him?" The pirate gave Anandi a sly wink. "He don't mind who he beds, so long as he gets a bit of coin to buy his pesh."
Not only is he a whore, he's a drug-addicted one, Anandi thought sourly. Still, he knew better than anyone that a prostitute could be an excellent source of information for the right price.
"What's his name?"
"Ravi. Ain't got no other." Then, without asking permission, she stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled. "Ravi, boy. You got a customer."
Anandi stood his ground, both curious and repulsed as the gaudy creature disappeared inside and reappeared a moment later strolling out the doorway. The young man paused to give the woman a peck on the cheek and leaned against her as he studied Anandi. "My, he's a fancy man, ain't he?"
"How much?" Anandi asked.
"How much you got?"
He took a gold coin from his purse and tossed it to the man. "Will that give me an hour of your time?"
The young man grinned and gave him a mocking bow. "This way, good sir."
"Mind you bring him back, now," the pirate said. "Cap'll be asking for him later."
Anandi doffed his cap and forced a smile. Then he followed Ravi along the beach until they reached a trysting place sheltered behind a few boulders. The place was little more than a lean-to, a roof covering a ragged mattress. Disgust rose in Anandi's throat.
"Not to your liking, sir?" Ravi asked.
"I'm not interested in sharing your bed. I just want to talk."
"Talk? Ain't no one who wants to just talk." To emphasize his point, he pulled off his fine shirt to reveal a slender, too-thin body marred by a few fading bruises. He sidled up to Anandi and wrapped his arms around the older man's waist.
Anandi resisted the urge to cover his nose to block the reek of sweat and wine-scented breath. "Perhaps a swim?"
Ravi grinned and shucked his pants. "Last one in's a sand devil's dinner!"
He ran haphazardly toward the water. Anandi watched him go, annoyed by the ease with which he'd become distracted. Ravi was filthy, crude, and likely had no information of use.
Yet he couldn't help grinning as he watched Ravi bounce around, seemingly uncaring about how idiotic he appeared. Ravi went out a little farther and dove under.
When he came back up, he was waving frantically and screaming something unintelligible.
Anandi tore off his shirt and raced toward the water, yanking his boots off along the way. He dove in, paddling hard until he reached the half-elf...
...who wasn't drowning. Anandi stood up and yanked Ravi to his feet. The water was waist high, and while subsequent waves hit his chest, there was no risk of being pulled under. "What the hell are you playing at?"
Ravi clasped his face and pressed their lips together. Anandi caught the bitter taste of wine before Ravi pulled back. "You're awfully stiff for a fancy man."
"I'm soaked, and it's your fault. Come on, wretch. Out."
He shoved Ravi toward the beach. Once there, he peeled off his wet pants and laid them out to dry in the sun. He ignored Ravi's stares and various lewd gestures, determined not to get too close despite his interest in the young man. For an instructor of courtesans to return home diseased would be a disgrace.
Defeated, Ravi sprawled out in the sand, eyes closed. Anandi perched on a boulder and gazed down at him, his mind starting to turn. The young man was likely older than he appeared, being a half-elf, but he still had the look of an eighteen- or twenty-year-old Vudrani. Spending any more thought on him was likely a waste of time, but there was something about him that kept Anandi's attention. Behind those drink-glazed eyes was a glint of intelligence, and he must have a great deal of skill at manipulating people to have survived so long in this den of rogues and murderers. Unlike some of the other slaves and prostitutes Anandi had seen, this one hadn't given up. He knew how to play the game and meant to keep winning. It didn't take much to imagine Ravi dressed in the fine, gauzy outfits favored at the Conservatory with cosmetics darkening his eyes and set loose among some of Jalmeray's well-positioned denizens.
What the hell am I thinking? I don't want anything to do with an ignorant pesh addict like this. If I brought him back to the Conservatory, the Maurya-Rahm would find a way to be rid of me for sure.
He forced the possibility from his mind. There was work to do, after all, and Ravi was nothing more than a means to an end. "That captain must be a profitable one, seeing as how you have all those fine clothes."
Ravi shaded his eyes with a hand and gazed up at him. "I know what you're fishing for, fancy man, and you ain't going to get it. What the captain hauls is his business. Not mine, and definitely not yours."
"I was looking to make a trade. I've got a wizard friend of mine looking for a very particular item."
"Then it's the captain you'll be wanting. Not me."
"Have you ever seen him with any kind of ancient artifacts? Mirrors, statues, a small brass bottle capped with lead?"
"I seen all kinds of things, but Cap would use me for kraken bait if he even thought I'd spilled any of his secrets," he said with such finality that Anandi knew it was useless to pry any more. After a while, Ravi started to shiver. "You got any pesh on you?"
"No. I most certainly do not." Annoyance crept into his voice. This afternoon had been a waste. He should have known better than to bother with addicts.
Ravi sat up and reached for his clothes. "Too bad. Listen, I got to get back to the villa. It's been fun and all, but..."
"But you need your pesh." He stared at Ravi, calculating how best to earn his trust. "Do you like living this way?"
"Ain't so bad," Ravi said as he dressed. "I got everything I need." He flashed his gem-studded rings for emphasis.
"I don't need your pity, fancy man. I got a life here and I ain't ashamed. I got lots of people who want me."
"But do they want you or just the fantasies you give them?"
The saucy grin couldn't hide the pain in Ravi's eyes. "Go home, fancy man. I ain't got nothing you want." He walked away, leaving Anandi feeling oddly guilty.
Then he shook it aside. A few hours more and he'd be able to speak to the captain and get the hell off this blasted island.
Coming Next Week: Meeting the pirate captain in Chapter Two of Evey Brett's "Diamond in the Rough."
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.