At sunset, Anandi returned to the captain's villa where a few silver coins to the doorkeeper saw him inside. The party had already begun, made lively by the musicians and acrobats in the ballroom. The human man seated in the chair covered in velvet and gold filigree was obviously the captain. A thick brown beard trailed down his chest, resting lightly on the blue brocade coat studded with golden buttons and trim. The jeweled goblet in his hand was already filled with wine and a servant stood by with a bottle at the ready.
A line of admirers had formed to vie for his attention. Anandi sighed. It was going to be a long night before he had a chance to get near enough to introduce himself, let alone arrange for a meeting. Annoyed, he scanned the room, looking for an alternative opportunity.
Ravi was easy to spot, and he wasn't the only prostitute working the room. At least a dozen women were there in tight, low-cut dresses. Two other pretty young men flirted with one guest after another.
Yet Ravi was different. He clung to the men, letting them pour wine down his throat in exchange for a kiss. Twice, one of the men drew him off into a secluded corner from which they emerged flushed and disheveled. The drunker Ravi got, the worse the men treated him.
I'd never let my students be so ill-used. Never.
Anandi turned, surprised to see the captain at his side. "Yes, sir. I am. I appreciate your generosity."
"Good." He sipped his wine. "I've been told you wanted to speak with me."
"On behalf of a friend, yes. I'm told you're the man to see if I want a good selection of magical items."
"Aye, that's true." He eyed Anandi. "Why don't you come back tomorrow afternoon and we'll have a bit of a chat about just what you're looking for?"
"I will. Thank you."
Laughter came from the corner, where a shirtless Ravi was on his hands and knees lapping up a puddle of spilled wine. Anandi's stomach curdled, but the captain laughed. "Fine boy, isn't he? My favorite."
"Indeed," Anandi said, and excused himself before his anger caused him to say something he'd regret.
∗ ∗ ∗
Anandi took a room at the dilapidated museum that had been refitted to serve as an inn, paying extra to have the space to himself. He barred the door and kept a knife under his pillow, trusting neither the proprietor nor his customers. The wine and delicacies from the party rested sourly in his stomach.
The image of Ravi, kneeling on the floor and grinning like a dog, wouldn't leave his head. The young man was starved for affection, as many addicts were. Anandi had seen enough of them to know the pain they were desperate to cover up, but he'd never had much luck finding a way to help them.
Better he stays here, where he belongs.
The echoes of drunken carousing meant a fitful sleep punctured by images of Ravi dying, wasting away in pesh-induced dreams, knifed, or meeting some other equally brutal end. He couldn't see any better options at the Conservatory; Ravi was ignorant, unkempt, and far too wild to fit in.
It doesn't matter. I just need him for information. A courtesan doesn't love anyone, especially another courtesan. The love he held in reserve for Asa had hardened him to anyone else's attentions, anyway.
By the time Anandi staggered out of bed in the late morning, he'd firmly convinced himself that it was absolutely impossible to take Ravi back to the Conservatory.
No matter how much he wanted to.
∗ ∗ ∗
"Back for more?" the pirate asked as Anandi approached the villa.
"Captain asked to meet with me this afternoon," Anandi replied.
"Cap's busy for a bit. He said to tell you to wait."
"Ravi around, then?" He scanned the villa and grounds, but Ravi was nowhere in sight.
From the derisive way the woman spoke, he guessed Ravi was either high or sleeping off wine sickness. He wasn't surprised after everything that had happened the night before, but he was concerned. "Perhaps I could take a look at him. I've a knack for healing."
"Ain't a good idea, fancy man. Best to leave him be. There're a few other boys hereabouts. Might be one of them could do you just as well."
Anandi slipped off the ruby-and-gold ring one of his patrons had given him for protection. "I'm afraid Ravi's quite captured my interest. I'd like to see him." He held out the ring.
The pirate fitted it to her finger then admired the way it glinted in the sunlight. "He's in the little room next to the captain's, which is the one with that balcony. Cap lets Ravi sleep it off there, sometimes."
Anandi hurried inside, ignoring the catcalls and snide comments from the crew scattered throughout the interior. He found the room easily enough, but just as he'd feared, it reeked with sickness. Neither was it particularly habitable. The crumbling plaster walls were speckled with mold, and the only furniture was a rotting bed, a three-legged night table propped against the wall and a splintering chair. The occasional squeak and rustle of tiny clawed feet hinted at other occupants that, to Anandi's relief, stayed out of sight.
Ravi was splayed on the bed, pale and unconscious. The worn blanket barely covered his nakedness, leaving numerous welts and bruises visible. Anandi laid a hand against his forehead and frowned at the heat emanating from the young half-elf's body.
Ravi opened his eyes at the touch. "I need some pesh. I need..."
"You need something to settle your stomach." He opened the door and peered about. Finding a halfling dressed as a servant, he tossed her a coin and she ran off to fetch some hot water and broth. When she brought them, he dug through his pockets for one of his packets of herbs and dropped them in the mug of hot water. "Drink this."
Ravi wrinkled his nose. "It smells vile."
"So do you. Drink it anyway." Anandi helped Ravi sit up enough to swallow the contents a few sips at a time.
When Ravi lay back down, he said, "Hey. There's only one of you now."
"You going to pay me for my time?"
"Shut up and eat."
Ravi gave him a pout, but he let Anandi spoon-feed him the broth. "Why you being so nice?"
"You aren't used to it, are you?" Inwardly, he was glad. It would make his job that much easier.
"That ain't true. I got a nice room and all sorts of pretties from my friends."
"But I'm not asking for anything in return."
Ravi was silent as he finished the rest of the broth. "You're an odd one, fancy man."
There was a sharp knock. Anandi turned in time to see Captain Maldak open the door. "How's he doing?"
Anandi was in no mood to be civil. "As well as can be expected after a night of carousing."
The captain shrugged. "He's used to it."
"Your crew was rough with him last night." He drew the blanket back just enough to expose the welts and bruises along Ravi's back.
"They usually are. Not much I can do. Boy makes his own choices. Here, Ravi." He tossed a small bottle onto the mattress. Ravi pounced on it and tore at the cork with his teeth. Then he stuck the bottle between his lips and drank greedily.
The stink of sour cactus milk turned Anandi's stomach, but he resisted the temptation to snatch the bottle away. Now wasn't the time to break him of the habit, not when it was likely one of his few pleasures.
Sighing happily, Ravi nuzzled the pillows. Within a few minutes, the tension left his body, and he wore a glazed, vacant expression.
"That's a good boy." The captain strode over and patted Ravi's cheek. "He'll be all right by tonight. You'll see," he said to Anandi.
Anandi hoped he wouldn't be here long enough for that. Seeing Ravi's poor treatment sickened him.
"Share a drink with me, fancy man. Looks like you could use one."
Reluctant as he was to leave Ravi, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Anandi followed the captain next door. The room was as gaudy as Anandi would have expected for a wealthy captain's lodgings. The silken bedclothes were piled high with pillows. The desk and chairs were covered in gilt, as was the bed. Anger filled him again that Ravi was treated poorly when the captain lived so well.
The captain gestured to a small table. "Sit." He picked up a decanter and two glasses and joined Anandi. As he poured, he said, "Now, suppose you tell me your real interest in prowling around my villa."
"As I told your guard, I'm in the market for an item for a certain wizard friend of mine." He waited until the captain drank before taking a sip of the wine. Delicious.
"Magic trinkets and the sort? My hold's full of them. I might be willing to let you have one or two, for the right price."
"You're generous, sir, but the item I seek wouldn't be kept so casually in a ship's hold. It's far too dangerous should it fall into the wrong hands."
The captain's face showed nothing. "And there's some reason you think I have this... item with me?"
"Rumors. That's all. My patron sent me to find out."
"What, exactly, are you looking for?"
"Just a little thing, really. A small brass bottle engraved with sigils of binding and capped with a tiger-headed stopper."
The captain laughed and slapped the table so hard the glasses jumped. "You take me for a fool. The Bottle of the Bound has been lost for centuries. And even if I did find it, what use would it be to me? I don't know the word to release the fiendish army within it, let alone the one to put it back."
No one did, although it was rumored the bottle could be opened and the army freed without the proper words. The consequences if that happened would be disastrous, which was likely why the Maurya-Rahm wanted the bottle in safekeeping.
"I assure you, sir, that bottle is not to be found on my ship nor anywhere in this villa."
Anandi believed him. No one would keep such a valuable item on a ship prone to attack and storms. But that doesn't mean he doesn't know where it's at. There were so many ruins on Veedesha it would be easy to hide such a small thing as a bottle and almost impossible to find it without aid. "I appreciate your candor, Captain. And I would be interested in looking at some of your other treasures."
"Of course. This way."
They spent an hour sorting through the captain's trove. Anandi picked out and paid for a few knickknacks, items of little interest to the Maurya-Rahm. In the end, he expressed his disappointment and took his leave on what, he hoped, were good terms.
When he went back to Ravi, the half-elf had the glazed expression of someone who'd just had a most pleasant dream. "Hey, fancy man. Care to join me?" He threw back the covers.
Anandi stared pointedly at the floor. "No. I've got business to attend to." Anything to get out of this festering stinkhole.
"Like finding that bottle?"
Fixing his gaze on Ravi's face—only his face—Anandi asked, "What bottle?"
Ravi reached under the bed for his clothes. "I ain't stupid. That old bottle. The one Cap probably told you he didn't have. I'll show you where it's at, for a price."
"Which is?" Anandi held out a hand to steady the half-elf, who teetered as he dressed.
The sly smile hinted at something Anandi knew all too well. "Show you when we get there."
Coming Next Week: Treacherous shores in Chapter Three 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.