An hour's walk took them to a small cave along the rocky shoreline, one exposed by the low tide and grown brown and slippery with algae. Anandi followed Ravi inside, careful of his footing. "Well?" he asked, impatient.
Instead of answering, Ravi curled his hand around the back of Anandi's neck and pulled him close. The kiss tasted of wine and pesh. Anandi let it last longer than he should have, surprised by how much he liked feeling the firm body pressed against his. Gently, Anandi pushed him back. "Is this your price?"
"I owe you for taking care of me."
"You owe me nothing."
Ravi didn't. Anandi could see his confusion and wished he had a way to explain it better, but he didn't have time. Two can play this game. He cupped Ravi's face in his palms and kissed him. As he'd expected, Ravi sank into his arms, pliable as soft clay. Anandi was tender with him, working from his mouth to his neck and shoulders. Ravi tried to return the gestures, but Anandi nudged him against the wall and pinned him there, mindful of Ravi's bruises. Once he'd gotten Ravi properly aroused, he said, "The bottle isn't here, is it?"
Ravi froze. "No. It is. I swear."
"I can't tell you." Ravi turned his head to the side, cringing as if expecting a blow.
Gods grant me patience. Anandi kissed him again, nibbling gently at his ear and neck. "I won't hurt you, and I promise I won't tell the captain."
For once, Anandi had cause to be glad of the pesh addiction. The effects were wearing off, which made Ravi's emotions unstable. He started to ramble. "He'll kill me if I tell. I wasn't supposed to see. It was an accident I came along in the first place. I followed them, because I thought it might be fun to... you know... out on the beach and all... but when Cap saw me, he gave me an awful beating. Said I was dead if I ever told."
"Now that wasn't very nice of him. If you tell me, I'll give you a treat." He ran a finger down Ravi's chest, stopping just below his navel. "Where's the bottle, Ravi?"
Trembling, Ravi jerked his head at the beach. "Out there near the water. It's in the tide pool."
Ravi led him unerringly to the aforementioned tide pool. Lying on his belly on the slick rocks, he fished in the water with his hand and soon drew out a lead casket sealed with wax. "In there." He slid it toward Anandi, then sat up with his knees pulled to his chest, rocking back and forth.
There weren't any sigils of warding on the box, but that didn't mean the lock wasn't spelled or set with a trap. Anandi spent a few moments inspecting the lock, then dug out a pick from his pouch and worked it open. Inside, nestled in a bed of silk, was the bottle.
As soon as he saw the plain-looking stopper, the hastily scratched runes and fresh wax on the seal, he knew why it had been so shoddily protected, and his heart sank. He glanced back at Ravi, wondering if he knew the truth or if he was being used once again.
Not wanting to draw suspicion, Anandi tucked the bottle into his purse, then hastily locked and resealed the box. He found the hiding place without too much difficulty. The tide was already coming in, which meant their tracks would soon be covered over.
"Thanks. I owe you," Anandi said. He pulled out a small purse of coins and tossed it to Ravi, even though he knew it would only be wasted on drink and drugs.
Ravi made no move to touch it. He sat gazing glumly out toward the water.
Damn it. He hadn't meant to hurt the man's feelings. "Ravi? What's wrong?"
For a long time, Ravi was silent. Then his face crumpled. "I'm sorry."
"You haven't done anything that—"
Anandi looked up the beach, where at least ten pirates were bearing down on them, fast. He was more than capable of using the sword buckled to his waist, but it wouldn't do much good when he was this outnumbered. Captain Maldak wasn't taking any chances.
"Why?" Anandi asked.
"Because Cap and I got paid to set you up."
Figures. The Maurya-Rahm probably sent me over here knowing I'd get killed, and this way they could tell Asa I'd gotten myself into trouble. "By whom?"
"I just did what Cap told me."
Anandi yanked the half-elf to his feet and set a dagger to his throat. Ravi was dazed, giggling as he saw his pirate friends with swords and knives drawn. With a sickening feeling, Anandi guessed it wasn't the first time Ravi had been used as a bartering chip.
"Touch me, and I'll kill him," Anandi told the captain.
Maldak waved his men to halt, then shrugged. "He's of no more use to me."
"Liar!" Ravi shouted back. "You need me."
"There are always more whores, boy."
Ravi let out a screech of anguish that burned Anandi's ears. "Come on," he told Ravi. He grabbed the half-elf's wrist and hauled him up the slope that rose to the old city.
Once in the streets, Anandi grabbed Ravi's wrist and hung on as he dodged past vendors, drunkards, and traders. He kept the western side of the island in sight. Beyond the crumbling city's wall were the cane fields, now neglected and overrun. Anandi dragged Ravi toward them. "In there. Give me any trouble, and I'll stab you in the gut." Hopefully it wouldn't come to that. He didn't want to harm the half-elf, and injuring him would only slow their progress.
The threat worked, however, as did Anandi's dagger-tip lightly pressed against Ravi's spine. Anandi didn't let up as they ran blindly through the tall cane and hoped like hell the pirates wouldn't be able to track them.
"Let me go. I'll kill that son of a bitch. I'll kill him. He promised. He promised..."
Whatever the captain had promised, Anandi didn't find out. Ravi broke down sobbing, tears and snot streaming down his face. The only benefit was that his anger gave him speed, and he ran hard, heedless of where he was going.
Anandi herded him to the coast, where he called the two djinn that he'd left there when he'd arrived. Ravi dropped in the dirt, his face a mask of fury.
The pirates weren't far behind. Ravi looked over his shoulder, saw them, and rose shakily to his feet.
Ravi will die if he goes back to them. But I can't take him back to the Conservatory...
Maldak was nearly upon them, sword aimed straight at Ravi's heart.
Anandi shoved Ravi at the nearest djinni. "Get us out of here."
The djinn obeyed without question, lifting both him and Ravi and whisking them across the sea toward the safety of Grand Sarret. The rush of air didn't cool Ravi's fury. Almost immediately he started wriggling and trying to escape. When that failed, he settled for clawing at the djinni's arms and cursing loudly. Their landing in the courtyard of the Conservatory attracted attention from a number of people, many of whom grumbled about being disturbed by such racket. Anandi was glad to see Chakori, one of the resident healers, in the crowd.
"I need you," Anandi said, guiding her, Ravi, and the djinni still holding him to one of the spare rooms in the courtesans' building.
It took two soldiers and a djinni to hold Ravi still long enough for Chakori to tend to him. Even so, he wriggled and thrashed as she forced him to open his mouth and drink the tincture. She gave Anandi a dark look that said, You owe me.
A light tinkling of bells alerted him to another visitor. Damn. There was nothing he hated more than the thakur's insipid little advisors trying to coax information out of him. "His Eminence would like a report of your journey," said this one, a woman whose name he couldn't remember.
They always invoked the thakur's name, even when Anandi knew for certain the thakur didn't give a damn what was going on. "Here." He turned his back to everyone in the room but the advisor and took out the bottle. "We damn near got killed getting it for you."
He watched her face, searching for the slightest hint of betrayal, but her expression showed nothing beyond banal gratitude. "Excellent. I'm sure His Eminence will reward you for your efforts." She took the bottle, wrapped it in a cloth, and tucked it away in a pouch at her waist.
"Tell Asa I want to see him. Please."
"I'll take that under advisement," she said.
"Tell him." He handed her a heavy purse.
She nodded. "I will do my best. But tell me, what reason did you have to bring that with you?" She jerked her pretty chin at the unkempt figure on the bed.
"There's no one better to ask about the pirates. Trust me."
She raised an eyebrow. "The Conservatory isn't the place to keep that sort of rubbish. His Eminence will be most displeased."
Which meant the Maurya-Rahm did not approve. Anandi wondered if he'd just earned himself another attempt on either his life or Ravi's. "He won't be here for long. I'm only keeping him to answer a few questions on subjects that might prove of interest to the thakur. I'll send you a full report, of course."
"Of course." To his relief, she left him in peace. The two guards remained nearby, and the djinni aided Chakori, fetching cloths and bowls of ointments.
At last the healer came over to him, scowling. "That's a right little bastard you have in there. No manners at all. Where did you find him? In a slave's galley?"
"Close to it," Anandi admitted. "He was a pirate's boy. How is he?"
She shrugged. "Going without that damned drug is doing a number on him. There's not much I can do, and in my experience, it's better to let them suffer a little so they can learn. Make it too easy, and they'll go right back to pesh the first chance they get."
"I'm not going to bother telling you everything I found. You can probably guess. I will say that he's now clean and I mended as many of his bumps and bruises as I could. Other than that, he's malnourished and dehydrated, and he's going to get worse before he gets better."
"Thank you," Anandi said, and handed her a small purse for her troubles.
He kissed her cheek. "I'll see you later."
∗ ∗ ∗
"You bastard. Why the hell am I here? What do you want from me?" Ravi paced the room like a wild thing in a cage, circling round and round. "I'm not going to tell you a damn thing. Take me home."
Anandi sat calmly in a chair near the door, having sent the guards to stand outside. They were there to protect Ravi as much as to protect others from him, but no need to make the young man any more nervous by telling him that. "If I take you home, they'll kill us both."
"You don't know them like I do. All it'll take is a little sweet-talking and I'll be back in their good graces. I've done it before."
"You mean, you'll be back in their beds."
Ravi shot him a dirty look and kept walking. "It's the best place to knife them while they sleep."
Anandi had patience. It was only a matter of time before the Ravi exhausted himself. The djinni hovered nearby, serenely watching half-elf's agitated movements, alert for any request.
An hour passed. Desperation replaced the anger in Ravi's expression. "I need some pesh. I'll do whatever you want. Just... please."
"You're not getting any more pesh. Ever."
Ravi snarled and tore at the bedclothes, flinging pillows, sheets, and comforter to the floor. Then, with a show of strength, he ripped off the mattress and sent it hurtling against the wall. The effort tired him. He doubled over, panting and trembling while the djinni remade the bed.
After two more hours, the pleading grew more frantic. He knelt beside Anandi's chair and clawed at Anandi's pants. "I need some pesh. Please. If you don't give it to me, I'm going to die."
"You're not going to die. I promise you that." He gripped Ravi's chin and forced him to look into his eyes. "Hear me? I won't let you die. I need your help."
Ravi laughed, a hollow, depressing sound. "There's only one thing people need my help for." He broke away and resumed his pacing. He shivered and chafed his arms. "It's freezing in here."
Anandi found the temperature quite pleasant, almost too warm, but recognized the symptoms of withdrawal. "I'll get you a blanket."
"You can get me some pesh or a bottle of wine, at least."
"No." Anandi gestured to the djinni, who magicked a blanket into existence and draped it around Ravi's shoulders. Ravi tossed it aside. "It itches."
By nightfall, Ravi had slumped against the bed and was shivering uncontrollably. Again, the djinni covered him with the blanket. This time, Ravi left it where it was. "Please," he begged, though his voice was hoarse now. "I don't want to die."
"Come on. Into bed." He went to help the youth up. Ravi shook so badly he could barely stand. Even so, he jerked away from Anandi's touch.
"Easy," Anandi said, gripping his arms and setting him on the bed. Hoping Ravi had been broken down enough to answer, he asked, "Who paid off your captain to have me killed?"
"Will you get me some pesh?" He was childlike now.
Anandi hated himself for lying. "If you tell me the truth. Who was it?"
But it was too late. Ravi's eyes rolled back and he convulsed in Anandi's arms.
Coming Next Week: The long arm of power in Chapter Four 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.