Friday, July 25, 2008

Concubinage by L.E. Bryce

"My dear, you have been out in the sun today, haven't you?"

Hanithi evaded the question with a polite smile. His escort, a wine merchant from Akkil, lacked the status to secure a place within the temple of Shalat, forcing Hanithi to watch the High Prince's procession from the plaza among scores of other middle-ranking courtesans.

The omission did not smart quite as much as the humiliation of being forced out from underneath the sunshade by Nesper's ample girth.

"You must take greater care with your complexion, my dear," said his hostess.

Wrinkling a sunburned nose, wincing at the mild discomfort, Hanithi assured her that he would. "Your advice is precious to me, my lady," he said.

Tanarharit, her attention already on her next guest, urged him to enjoy the hospitality of her house. While the merchant gravitated toward the servants bearing trays of food and wine, Hanithi sidled past milling nobles, tradesmen, and courtesans, dodging inquiries from attentive slaves as he left the atrium and stepped outside.

A secluded garden beckoned just off the inner courtyard, down a shaded walk. In summer, ripe herbs and fruit trees would make this a fragrant oasis, cooled by the fountain at its center. For now, it simply offered a pleasant retreat in which to enjoy the final hours of a warm spring afternoon.

"What is such a lovely akharu doing without a companion?" asked a voice.

Sitting on the wide edge of the pool, a young man trailed long fingers through the water. Beaded sandals lay discarded on the tiles below him.

"You do not seem to have one either," replied Hanithi.

The young man, who could not be older than twenty, had the beardless, indolent look of a well-bred courtesan. In short, a potential rival.

Laughter greeted his remark. "Rest assured that I did not come alone. Sadly, though, my client prefers to celebrate this holy day with business rather than the pleasure of my company. But come, whoever chose that pink garland for you? It clashes horribly with your robe."

Hanithi, ready to turn on his heel and return to the atrium, frowned at him. "Unless you mean to exchange garlands with me, spare me your comments," he said crossly. "It is rude."

Still laughing, now slipping his garland of white flowers over his head, the young man tossed it to him. "If you prefer mine, it is yours for the asking," he said. "I am Inandré, by the way, and you still have not answered my question. How does such a lovely courtesan manage to be without a companion on the day of the Great Marriage?"

Hanithi could not decide which bothered him more: Inandré's lazy, seductive manner or his ready laughter. "I never said I was alone."

"Oh, but you are!" said Inandré, grinning. "How else do I find you here, so forlorn and eager for my conversation?"

"Had I known I would be so accosted, I would have stayed inside," replied Hanithi.

Inandré chuckled. "Your sweet blush tells me otherwise. Now tell me truly: why are you not with your client?"

"Because at this moment he prefers a good meal over good company," said Hanithi. "I am sure he will want me later, but right now I have had too much to do with crowds of people. I desired a few moments of quiet. Sadly--" He glared meaningfully at Inandré. "It seems to have eluded me."

Inandré watched him with intent dark eyes. "That pink garland still looks horrid on you," he commented. "Come, take that off and I will give you mine."

"It will look no better on you."

"When men look at me they are not thinking about the flowers around my neck, except how to get them and everything else off me," laughed Inandré. "As for the women, they are usually eating themselves with envy over my jewelry or wanting to know the name of my designer. At least I will have the pleasure of seeing you wear my flowers."

"You are shameless."

"A modest courtesan rarely finds success. When I want something, I pursue it--and what I want right now is that horrid garland from around your neck."

Hanithi removed the flowers and started to hand them to Inandré, but to his surprise the young man gracefully rose and bowed his head. "I will appreciate it more if you put it on me yourself."

"Are you flirting with me?" asked Hanithi.

"Yes, and shamelessly."

"Should akhari be doing that with their peers?"

Inandré purred as the garland slipped over his head and draped over his shoulders. "If you have to ask, then you obviously have not been a courtesan for very long."

Hanithi stepped away, taking a seat on the opposite end of the fountain. Inandré laughed at the gesture, the sound alternately arousing and infuriating. "It has been long enough."

"Long enough, and still one as lovely as you manages only to attract middle-ranking admirers?" asked Inandré. "Either you are too shy to make good use of your beauty, or you are a complete novice."

Rather than answer, Hanithi studied the cobalt tiles that lined the fountain, tinting the water blue. As part of his manumission gift, his master had provided a modest house and pension, enough to enable him to become a courtesan. Many nobles had shown interest in his favors, and his golden beauty should have won him higher-ranking admirers than it had.

Nothing was as it should be. Nesper had paid handsomely for his company, which was just as well, because Hanithi needed the money to pay his clothier's bill, but something was lacking. He stared at his reflection, shadowed by the trees above, and wondered what he could have done wrong.

Inandré seemed to read his thoughts. "I should not tease you," he said. "You have no more control over what men want than I do. Everyone is pining after that pale creature who is the new royal favorite. Half the akhari I know have tried to bleach their hair. Two have burned theirs past repair, and all of them look ridiculous."

"I have no complaints," Hanithi said quietly.

Scornful laughter jarred his ears. "Of course you do. You are simply too well-bred to say so."

"Are you commiserating with me, or trying to seduce me with compliments?"

Inandré resumed his place. Fingertips playfully flicked droplets in Hanithi's direction, scattering his reflection, and irritating him. "Can I not do both?"

"If this is your best effort, you will not succeed."

"Ah, but if you truly found me annoying, you would have already left," said Inandré. "That you remain tells me I have some small chance."

After a moment's thought, Hanithi answered with his own flicker of droplets, dampening the front of Inandré's garment. "Has anyone told you how insolent you are?"

"Many times, and that is only within the last hour." Grinning, Inandré shook water off the garland. "Admit it, dear. You are enjoying yourself far more with me than with whatever bore you arrived with."

Hanithi suddenly remembered his client. Sooner or later, once the man had finished stuffing himself, Nesper would want his company. "I should not linger too long."

"Curse me for having reminded you," said Inandré. "Now you will leave me alone again, and--" An artful hand fluttered over his brow, his throat, warding off an imaginary attack of the vapors. "Whatever shall I do?"

"Return to your own client before he curses you for your inattention and passes the word to all his friends." From a pocket deep within his robe, Hanithi withdrew a fired clay wafer and handed it to Inandré. Such tokens he gave to admirers and others whose company he sought.

Inandré studied the imprint left by the cylinder seal. "So your name is Hanithi," he said, drawing out the syllables. "A fitting name for such a succulent plum."

He smiled and tucked the wafer into his robe. "You will see me again, my dear."

Hanithi was abashed and aroused enough that, had circumstances permitted, he would have invited Inandré to his house that very evening. However, a proper akharu never strayed too long from his client's side, no matter how disinterested the man might seem.

As expected, Nesper scarcely noticed his absence or his presence when he returned to the crowded atrium, and after a few hours Hanithi went home to a solitary bed.

The irony of his situation was not lost upon him, for the Great Marriage was not an occasion to be without a lover. Half the city is making love tonight, he thought, staring at the ceiling above his bed, and yet here I am, a beautiful courtesan, all alone.