Laldasa: Beloved Slave: Sample

Laldasa - Beloved Slave by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

by New York Times Bestselling Author

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge. But if one mrerly sees the diversity of things then one has impure knowledge. And if one selfishly sees a thing as if it were everything, independent of the ONE and the many, then one is in the darkness of ignorance. — Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 18:20-22

— CHAPTER 1 —

In which Jaya Sarojin, Lord Prince of Kasi, meets a strange refugee and becomes an unwilling slaveholder.

o0o

She experienced her emergence through the layers of darkness and pain as an uphill struggle through an oppressive storm. Every breath came at a price; every movement was agony.

Had she lost her breather? She didn’t remember. She gasped for air, expecting the sting of wind-driven sand on her skin, the taste of it in her mouth. But the air was too thick, too warm, too humid.

How could that be? It was autumn. Snow and ice were the only forms of moisture natives of the Kedar knew at this time of year.

Up through the muddle of sensations she climbed, groping toward light. She smelled vegetation, lush and sweet, heard the soft trill of water over rocks.

Wrong—that was wrong. Surely she was hallucinating.

Adrenaline seeped into her veins. She knew, too well, one familiar scenario that would account for hallucinations—that she had fallen through an old sink shaft into a pocket of manda gas. She willed the adrenaline to rouse her; manda fumes were slow poison. They fogged the mind, befuddled the senses, and eventually destroyed both.

She saw light and leapt after it. Made out indistinct shapes—a play of sunlight and shadow. But the sunlight was too bright, the shadows too dark.

She came to on a surge of near panic, disoriented by surroundings that made no sense. She was lying on a bed of grassy turf, overshadowed by softly waving greenery. Ferns—alien, and dripping with dew.

Wrong. Oh, wrong. There were no plants like these…

She tried to lift her head and all but swooned again at the pain. Memory rode the storm of agony. Fragmentary, but complete enough that she knew she was not on a mountain slope in the Kedar. She was not even on Avasa. She had come to the inner planet of Mehtar to…

There the memory failed. She rolled onto her back, slowly, carefully. Her right hand and forearm plunged into cold water.

Gasping in surprise, she rolled again onto her right side, bringing all her senses to bear on the stream. It was no more than a rill, wending its way through the foliage, sparkling where the sun kissed it. But it was clear, cold, and liquid.

She brought her face close to the surface of the water, used a cupped hand to fling it into her face, carry it to her mouth. Her senses steadied and cleared. The pain in her head steadied too, seeming to subside with every breath she took of the warm, moisture-laden air.

The nape of her heck stung when she trickled water over it. She touched it gently with trembling fingertips. They came back spotted with blood. How had that happened?

She breathed, drank water, bathed her face, and waited for the answer to come. It did not. Finally, she dared to sit up. She was at the bottom of a little slope in a tree-shaded glen choked with ferns. The air was heavy with the sweet perfume of alien flowers. Sitting, she was challenged to see over the nodding fronds.

Above her, clouds roved the sky, fat with the threat of rain, now masking the sun, now revealing it. Below her a jumble of colorful carts, tents, and stalls were scattered across an open meadow. People scurried around and between the little nomadic shops, rolling out awnings, setting out wares. On any world that was recognizable as a bazaar.

Memory fluttered. She had come to Mehtar, to the capitol city of Kasi, to buy mining supplies.

The flutter became a flood. She had had money, but no more. It was gone along with her pack, her cloak and—she put a hand to her throat—the necklace that had held her leaf, her personal identification.

Despite the warm air, a hard chill settled in the pit of her stomach. She knew who she was—she was Anala Nadim of Onan, Kedar province, but on this alien world she was no one. She had no identity, no money, no family, no friends. And she had no idea what to do or where to go.

But go, she must.

Shakily, Anala got to her feet and stumbled down slope toward the bazaar. Before she had taken two uncertain steps, it began to rain.

o0o

Aridas, in the midst of clearing the breakfast dishes, was still rattling on when Jaya Sarojin left the morning room. The door slid shut behind him, cutting off the flood of words in mid-sentence. Aridas was a man of a strong and numerous opinions. Jaya was certain he must have heard every one of them.

This morning the subject had been the growing friction between the Kasi-Nawahr Consortium and Avasa’s Guild of Independent Miners. Aridas had been following the story closely in the heralds and had developed copious opinions about it, as with all things.

Jaya Sarojin grimaced, pulling a thick cloak around his shoulders and checking the pale grey sky through the skylights overhead. He’d taken more than one critical sermon on the social evils of allowing das to have opinions about anything. Society seemed compelled to keep things as they were. It was rita, said the pundits, the natural order of things. Stagnation, he called it.

He reached the end of the broad, light-washed hallway and left the house. A damp wind hit his face, making him catch his breath. He waved away his Horseman, who had appeared to hover at his side.

“I’ll walk, Kenadas. Thank you.”

He took deep sips of the wet breeze, savoring its crispness. Even a residence the size of the House Sarojin could become stifling. No, size was irrelevant; it was the Sarojin name that made it oppressive—the centuries of tradition that laced its atmosphere, the political responsibility that encrusted every molding, the social grandeur that gleamed from every inch of polished floor and column. He had grown up with it. For his own survival, he had various escape routes. He was taking one now.

Tomorrow morning he would be in the Council chamber poring over petitions from the Avasan Guild and the Consortium, and would probably be there every morning after that, indefinitely. So today, he escaped, wishing he could relinquish his seat on the Vrinda Varma to Aridas the Opinionated. Ari obviously had more interest in the subtleties of government than his master.

He walked. Paths of pink-veined kumuda gave way to coarser stone, then to sun-baked brick, then to dirt and grass. He stopped at the top of a gentle rise and gazed down the lea and smiled at last. Here was life at its most chaotic. Colorful flags and rags fluttered damply over the ridgepoles of a thousand billowing tents and garish stalls.

Here, there was only foot traffic. No aircars scorched the grass with their dragon’s-breath or flattened it with their air cushions. No cycles rutted the fresh earth. Only the merchant’s wagons came here. The Bazaar was technologically sacrosanct—one of the few traditions of Kasi society Jaya Sarojin applauded.

Each breath sucked in a thousand-thousand teasing, tempting smells. His steps were quick now, and brought him to a well-known stall of pungent and pleasant fragrance.

A round, shiny face peered out at him from under the striped awning. “Nathu Rai! Lord!” The face lit up like a hundred candles. “It’s been a week! Have you been ill?”

Jaya laughed. “I’m healthy enough. Only my humor is ill.”

“Well, then let me cheer you.” The woman waved a chubby hand at her baked goods. “What’ll it be this morning? Choose quickly, before it rains.”

Jaya threw a glance at the silvery sky, but his eyes were drawn quickly back to the table full of temptation. He chose two pastries and bought a cup of hot channa. Then he wandered.

People who recognized him, or at least recognized the signature of rank on the breast of his cloak, greeted him amiably or respectfully, depending on their own station. He bought gifts for the family das and for his grandmother, the Jivinta Mina, who loved such things as the hand blown glass falcon he found.

It was too early for the tent shows and he was contemplating a second mug of channa when the clouds broke.

The rain was relentless. When it became apparent it would continue, Bazaar dismantled itself tent by tent and disappeared into the colorful wagons that had brought it here. The stalls pulled in their wares and closed their awnings.

Jaya Sarojin watched it all with lazy fascination and a little disappointment, standing under the broad leaves of an ancient tree—watched the merchants and hucksters scurrying to fold and pin and lock down tight.

Something caught his eye—something that seemed out of rhythm with the orderly chaos of the disintegrating Bazaar. Just below where he stood at the edge of the wood, a tall, slender figure in mud-stained blue staggered, fell and rose to stagger forward again. It was a woman, he realized. She was clutching her head and obviously injured.

Jaya left the protection of the trees. Drawing nearer, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, that the woman was under surveillance by two Sarngin—guardians of law and order—who were even now moving toward her. Curious. He wondered what she might have done to merit their interest.

Jaya stepped into her path as she stumbled on a tuft of grass. Grasping her shoulders, he steadied her when she would have fallen. She stared at him, mutely, through eyes the color of the clouds where Mitras burned. A wave of hot static swept down through his body, granting him a moment of intense, if pleasant, surprise.

She was truly exotic—skin the pale gold of a freshminted coin, hair the hue of black cherries, eyes in which one could imagine he saw a winter storm. He took her to be somewhere in her twenties. Her clothing—a blue, one-piece coverall made of rugged material—suggested she came from a rural region, or even from Mehtar’s sister-planet, Avasa. She wore no id at either her neck or wrists. That she had once possessed it, Jaya surmised by the thin, red line of welts on her neck. He took her left hand and turned it palm up. It was innocent of markings.

The Sarngin were hurrying toward them now. Impulsively, Jaya pulled off his cloak and threw it around the woman’s shoulders. The Sarojin crest gleamed even under the clouds. Grimacing, he hugged her to his side as the Sarngin drew level with them.

Their eyes had not missed his scanning of her palm, and would understand the gesture of the cloak in that context. They knew what he knew—the woman was yevetha—unmarked, unregistered. Their eyes told him that as they each gave a crisp rendition of the respectful greeting.

“Good day, mahesa,” said one of them, a sergeant in rank.

“Our blessings, Nathu Rai,” murmured the other.

Jaya smiled and nodded. “A good day to you, friends,” was all he said and mentally urged them to simply move on.

“The day is rather cool and wet for Chaitra,” returned the first officer, “but you don’t mind the rain, I see.”

Jaya let his gaze flick to the woman’s stricken features. “No, Sarngin. Rain brings blessings.”

The sergeant nodded and bowed, a slight gleam of irritation entering his eyes before he averted them. “Then enjoy your blessings, Nathu Rai Sarojin. Peace.”

Jaya inclined his head. With the Sarngin gone, he released the woman, turning her so he could see her face. The static curled below his stomach as he checked her eyes for dilation.

“Are you all right?” he asked and got no answer but a blank stare. It was followed momentarily by a slight nod. When he continued to search her face, she nodded again, more emphatically, and managed something that might have been intended for a smile.

The Sarngin still watched, and Jaya suspected they would follow him for no other reason than to see the law was obeyed by the Taj caste as well as shaped by it. He considered his options for a moment. He could attempt to elude the Sarngin and get the woman to the House Sarojin. He might then be able to help her recover her id or have some fabricated. Or he could obey the law and take her to a dalali for processing.

That felt wrong. Legal, proper, but wrong.

Jaya began to walk, holding the young woman at his side, half-supporting her tenuous steps. The Sarngin moved at a distance, shadowing. Well, he would at least go through the motions of taking her to a dalali. Once inside, he could wait the length of a processing and exit again. The thought of circumventing caste law was a perversely pleasing one, and Jaya Sarojin savored it.

Meeting the road to the spaceport, he hailed a public aircar, which carried him and his dazed companion back into Kasi. Here, her eyes scanning the buildings beyond the vehicle’s windows, the woman finally spoke.

“Where am I?”

Jaya smiled, hoping to put her at ease. “At last! Words! I was afraid you’d been knocked dumb. You’re in Kasi. Did you mean to be in Kasi?”

“Yes…but not like this.”

“What happened?”

“Thieves,” she said.

He nodded as the car slowed to a halt before the dalali of Ashur Badan and Kareen Devaki. “They took your id,” he said, and felt her stiffen.

Her face went white as she raised a hand to her neck. “I know. I go to prison?”

He paid the driver and helped her out onto the gleaming walk. “No. You go here.” He turned her to face the dalali’s glistening facade with its intricate pattern of inlaid tiles. As he did, he saw the Sarngin again, getting out of their blue aircar up the street. His reputation must have preceded him: Nathu Rai Sarojin, disrespecter of order, who treated das as if they were free men.

“What is this place?”

“A…brokerage. Come.”

He led her gently, still thinking, still watching the Sarngin, into the sumptuous foyer. From behind the long gleaming service counter across from the doors, a clerk saw the Nathu Rai Sarojin and rang upstairs for the proprietors. The whisper of his name brought them both down to the foyer.

Jaya saw them at the top of the green-carpeted stair—Ashur, short and fat; and the svelte, handsome lady Kareen Devaki, still beautiful though graying. He smiled, then saw that the Sarngin had come into the foyer behind him. He nearly swore aloud. No faking then, unless he dared use his status to induce the brokers to run a bogus processing.

He gritted his teeth. No. He would not ask a law abiding business to break the very law he was honor-bound to uphold, even if that law itself soured his stomach.

Next to him the woman, her eyes on the couple descending toward them, murmured, “Who are they?”

Jaya’s hand tightened on her arm, trying to soothe the fear he could hear in her voice. “Trust me,” he said. “Do as you’re told and you’ll be all right. What’s your name?”

“Anala. I’m not going to prison?” she asked again.

“No prison, Anala. Just follow instructions. Good day, friends.” He spoke loudly for the benefit of the Sarngin and held his hand out to be taken by the two dalal, each in turn.

“This is a rare privilege, Nathu Rai. How may we serve you?” asked Kareen, appraising first him, then his companion. Her eyes, as always, told him he attracted her, and sent an invitation he always refused, though graciously. It was almost a ritual by now, having taken place at every meeting since he’d reached fourteen years.

Ashur Badan was more interested in the woman. “Yours?” he asked with characteristic bluntness.

“It would seem. I found her wandering without id. She’ll need processing.”

Ashur took Anala’s hands and turned them palms up. He grunted delicately. “Unmarked.”

Jaya feigned affront. “You think me a thief?”

“You think me a fool? But you do have a reputation, Nathu Rai.“

“Not for pirating dasa. I would have purchased her.”

“You, mahesa, have never purchased a dasa in your life,” said Ashur, with the familiarity of one presuming on an old family acquaintance. “This we know. You merely surprise me.” He turned his gaze back to the woman, assessing her with an expert eye. Breath hissed between his parted lips. “Exotic! Her coloring, her eyes. She would bring a rare price at auction, Nathu Rai. Would you—?”

“No.” Jaya cut him off, disgust leaving a sour taste in his mouth. “I need to have her processed.” Jaya sent the two watchful Sarngin a meaningful glance.

Following it, Kareen raised her artistically shaped brows. “Can it be that rita has finally caught up with our rebellious Sarojin?”

“Well, convention has, at any rate,” admitted Jaya wryly. He lifted off his personal id leaf and draped it around the woman’s neck. “How long?”

“How much do you want done?” asked Ashur. “She has a natural beauty—won’t need much painting. So pale. Is she Avasan?”

“I don’t know.” Jaya surveyed the silent woman. “She needs bathing—clothing.”

“Consider it done.” The dalal fingered the medallion at Anala’s throat. “Your personal seal?”

“Yes.”

“As you wish.” He signaled a clinician to his side and sent the woman away with her. “Will you wait here? We have refreshment…”

“No, I have some business to do next door. I’ll come back for her.”

Jaya replied to Anala’s last, pleading glance with one he hoped was reassuring.

o0o

Anala’s present circumstance terrified her in a way the dangers she had faced almost daily on Avasa had never done. She had been in a mine when a pocket of manda gas was loosed; she had piloted a sandcat through a red blow. This was nothing like that. This was worse. Her mind felt muddy, her thoughts tangled, her body weak. There must have been at least one chance for escape—a chance she could have taken.

All she had to hang onto at the moment were the assurances of a total stranger that she was not destined for a Mehtaran prison. Now she was being led away from even that contact—denied the only hint of safety she’d known since the thieves had attacked her.

She fought her fear under control and clutched the cloak closed over the medallion. Those had to mean she’d be returned to him. He seemed kind. At least, she hoped it was kindness she saw in his face. He was obviously someone whose words were more than casually heard.

The clinician guided her through an archway into a nearly sterile corridor of white tile that opened into an equally immaculate warren of dazzling white and chrome. Steam rose from a myriad shower nozzles along the walls where clinicians bathed their female charges or watched them bathe themselves.

“Please disrobe.”

Anala turned her head too quickly and staggered against her attendant.

“You’re injured. Here, let me see.”

She was seated on a tile bench while gentle but businesslike fingers made an inspection of her forehead.

“Quite a lump. Fortunately, the cut is not deep and it’s above the hairline. It won’t be seen. We can dress this with ointment. Now, your clothes.”

Those were summarily peeled off and her personal garments tossed into a bag. Her protector’s cloak and necklace, however, were carefully handled by a young white-robed attendant whose sole task seemed to be their safekeeping.

Two women guided her now, taking her to a shower and washing her with embarrassing thoroughness. Her hair was cleansed, her wound cared for, and her body and hair both dried by a device that spewed warm air. Then she was perfumed from head to foot. It was all dizzying—all relaxing. She wanted to sleep, but her tenders kept her on her feet.

The bathing over, she was drawn into yet another tile chamber. Her eyes rebelled at the glare of white unveiled by steam. They closed against it.

“No inspection for this one,” said a half-familiar voice. “Nathu Rai Sarojin will be back shortly. Process her and dress her…” A hand captured her chin, then brushed her cheek. “And put some blush on those cheeks. She’s deathly pale.”

“Yes, Devaki-sa.”

It was the woman from the foyer.

“And those cuts,” the woman went on, briefly touching her neck, lacerated where the chain of her id had cut. “They’ll need to be covered. She’s to have the mahesa’s personal seal.”

“Yes, Devaki-sa.”

A swirl of skirts and the fading of her pungent scent signaled the proprietress’s departure, and Anala was guided forward again. She was stopped before a vicom terminal with a luminous dome cabled to it. One clinician took her left hand and placed it atop the small dome, holding it there. The other woman touched the terminal’s keys, calling an image to the screen before her. Nodding in approval, she tapped a final keystroke.

Anala jumped as the dome blazed with light, sending a burning tingle through her palm and up her arm. The hand was then turned palm up and a rod of purple light passed over it. To her surprise, her palm glowed with an intricate golden pattern.

Still tingling from the light globe, Anala was taken to a carpeted room with walls the color of an ice lake. Her eyes opened wide to take in the racks of bright clothing. Nearby, clinicians tried shimmering prints on a dark-skinned girl with a cap of curly black hair and a sullen expression. Around the room others were being fitted before large mirrors.

Anala was led to her own mirror to have a variety of materials tried against her complexion while her attendants debated which colors suited her best. They decided on a deep saffron dress, fitted her with undergarments and shoes, touched up the scars with flesh paint and her cheeks with tawny color. Minutes later, she stood dressed, curried and perfumed in a staging area near the dressing room.

“Good,” Kareen Devaki approved her. “The mahesa will be pleased. Hold her here until he returns.”

o0o

Carrying a new cloak and a package of roasted nuts, Jaya Sarojin entered the dalali through the long foyer to have a grinning Ashur Badan appear to escort him.

“Your timing is perfect,” enthused the dalal. “She’s ready and waiting. If you will follow me, please?” He led the way to a small, but sumptuous gallery with a stage and walkway.

“Very grand,” commented Jaya wryly.

The dalal was obviously pleased by the compliment. “We’re justifiably proud of it. We just bought out Asta Kagum, next-door. That makes Bedan-Devaki the largest dalali in Kasi—and the most prosperous. We now have eight showrooms. Three on the ground floor and five upstairs—plus private facilities. We guarantee every purchase…if it passes our inspectors, of course,” he added, “in the case of this girl…”

“I understand. This is one of your showrooms, then?” Jaya glanced around the small gallery and up the carpeted walkway.

“One of our private showrooms,” explained Ashur. “We have a larger gallery which we use for our regular auctions. This room, you understand, is only for clients of the Taj. Now, please sit, and we’ll bring your dasa to you.”

At a signal from the dalal, the curtains parted and a black-robed attendant led the dazed Anala down the walkway to the circular pedestal at its end. There, she was turned about so Jaya could see the transformation.

He caught his breath on a wave of pure sexual attraction. He’d thought her exotic before, now she was stunning—a jewel of garnet and topaz. But the jewel was flawed; the silver eyes screamed terror.

He stood and moved forward, gesturing at the attendant to bring her down the carpeted steps to floor level. The new cloak went around her shoulders immediately.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked the dalal.

“One hundred dagam for partial service, mahesa.”

He paid in cash, retrieved his own cloak and medallion, and the bag containing Anala’s effects and took her to a waiting car. She was silent. Thinking she must be starving, he offered her the roasted nuts. Her hands shook as she put the nuts into her mouth. Three handfuls was all she took before she was sucked into a seemingly bottomless sleep.

He carried her into the House, directing Aridas to have a meal ready for her waking, and assigning Ari’s wife, Helidasa, to be her attendant. Then he retired to his personal quarters, feeling irritable and morose. When he caught Aridas glancing at him warily, he laughed.

“Sorry, Ari. I’m finding new rooms in life, is all. And I’m not sure I like them very much.”

He got out the presents he’d bought then, still safely stored in his belt cache, and gave them to Aridas to present to his family, all indentured servants of the House Sarojin. The little glass bird he took himself, carrying it reverently to the wing of the House occupied by Jivinta Mina.

He found her in her dayroom, enjoying a break in the clouds. She sat in pillows beneath a skylight, holding her sharp featured face to Mitras’s brief smile.

“Jivinta,” he said softly.

Her bright eyes opened and snapped to his face. She was bird-like in her movements—sprightly despite her advanced age.

“Gauri!” She smiled and a thousand tiny wrinkles transformed her face into a thing of art.

He didn’t mind the childish pet name from her—or from Aridas, who also used it in private moments. He would always be their Golden One; it would be useless to protest.

“A present, Jivinta.” He held the glass bird in a shaft of watery sunlight and watched her eyes sparkle at it.

“A bird!” She took it from him. “Ah, a falcon! How like you it is—the sharp eyes, the proud head.”

Jaya laughed. “And I thought how like you it was.”

Mina Sarojin was pleased. “Well, we are of a kind, you and I… You got this at Bazaar?” At his nod, she leaned forward as if conspiring. “Take me with you next time you go.”

“Jivinta, your leg won’t carry you over that rough ground,” he protested.

“Then we’ll take a palanquin. Promise you’ll take me.”

Jaya smiled. “All right, yes, I promise…” His smile knotted itself into a grimace.

“What is it, boy? Tell your Jivinta.”

Boy. He sat at the edge of her hassock, scratched at his close-trimmed beard, and mused that every hair in it would be white before Jivinta Mina would stop calling him ‘boy’ and expect him to share all his secrets with her. And he would share them—every last one. There were no secrets between him and Jivinta Mina.

“I found a woman at Bazaar today and brought her home.”

“A woman? What kind of woman? Why am I not meeting her?”

“She’s sleeping.”

“You wore her out already?”

He ignored that. “I found her wandering—hurt, confused, without id. That was stolen. I think she may be from Avasa, by her coloring.”

“Is she pretty?”

“She is…” He tilted his head from side to side. “…stunning would be the right word, I think.”

The old woman’s eyes sparkled. “Ah, and you rescued her!”

He shook his head. “Unfortunately, the Sarngin saw her. I had to take her to the Bedan-Devaki.”

Mina laid a wrinkled hand firmly over his. “Poor Gauri. And you vowed not to take any dasa to yourself. Well, you can always return her to the brokerage.”

Disgust was quick to engulf him. “What, and have her sold into some…business?”

“A kaladan,” said Mina bluntly. “You can say the word—I’ve heard it before.”

“To a kaladan. Or as cunnidasa to a private owner.”

“And what will you do with her? Your mother has wanted you to take a cunnidasa for some time. Perhaps this is an opportunity to appease her.” She tilted her head to study his averted face. “Does she attract you, this woman?”

He nodded. “When I look at her, Jivinta, it’s like…” He chuckled, making a gesture of dismissal. “I can’t describe it.”

“What? My grandson has never felt lust before? Liar.”

“Not lust…sakti…the force of life.” He grimaced. “Maybe it’s past time for a cunnidasa.”

“Cunnidasa are for the management of lust—for exorcising such demons as cloud perception. Lust clouds, sakti illuminates. Know what you feel before you act on it.”

He smiled at her and she smiled back, adoring him with her eyes. “I’ve heard father and Uncle Namun both say that.”

“Ah. And where do you suppose they got it?”

“Are you always right, grandmother?” he asked her.

“I try to be,” she said.

— CHAPTER 2 —

In which Jaya discovers that his new “houseguest” has dangerous family ties.

o0o

Jaya was on the shaded patio overlooking Aridas’s artfully curried garden when Helidasa appeared in the doorway behind him.

“She’s wakeful, Nathu Rai.”

He glanced at her, only half seeing her at first, then focused on her face. It was set in almost prim lines.

“Have I earned your disapproval, Heli?” he asked.

“I’d have no business disapproving a Lord, Nathu Rai.” Only the words were meek.

Jaya sighed. “Yes, Heli, I have taken a dasa. And yes, I do remember that I swore not to. But it was against my will.”

Helidasa’s eyebrows rose questioningly. “How does one enslave another against their will?”

“One finds a stranger wandering, injured and without id, through the Bazaar, and one gets to her just before the Sarngin do. Your next question would be, ‘Why does one take the stranger to a dalali?’”

“That dascree in her palm be hard to remove,” Heli replied, admitting that her curiosity had led her to a close inspection.

“I know. I’m sorry about that. But the Sarngin were watching our every move. They followed us all the way into the dalali.”

She nodded, unbending a little. “She’s very beautiful. What will you do with her?”

“First, I’ll find out what she was doing in Kasi—if she has any family that can produce more id leaf for her. Then-“ He shrugged.

Helidasa glanced back over her shoulder. “Well, you’ll be hearing about that soon, then. Shall I bring her meal out here?”

His gaze going past Heli into the interior of the solarium, Jaya realized his foundling had come downstairs. She was standing near the door to the entry hall, looking out at them.

“Yes,” he said, “bring it out here.” He nodded toward the stone table set like a jewel in the center of a pastel mosaic saroj, a scene from the creation of the universe worked into each of its pale blue petals.

“And you? You are hungry also, Jaya Rai.”

Jaya smiled. It was more command than question. “A little. Thank you, Heli.”

The dasa grunted, satisfied, and went into the morning room. Jaya watched as she directed the other woman toward the mellowly lit patio. Anala emerged into the late afternoon sunshine, her gaze taking in the gardens in a wide-eyed sweep. The setting sun caught the deep copper hair and saffron gown and turned her to a pillar of flame.

Lust clouds, he reminded himself. Sakti illuminates.

“You have a beautiful palace, Lord,” she told him. Her eyes met his and retreated behind a wary screen. “Sarojin… That’s the Taj House of Kasi. Your father holds a seat on the Vrinda Varma?”

“I hold a seat on the Vrinda Varma. My father is in the arms of Tara-rama.”

“He is blessed,” Anala responded automatically, pressing her palms together over her heart. “Why am I here?”

Jaya smiled wryly—blunt. “It was your best option.”

“The others being?”

“The others being sale to the highest bidder or to a kaladan.”

“A what?” She stopped by the stone table, her attention shifting from the bird-filled trees to his face.

He averted his eyes and gestured for her to be seated, then moved to sit across from her. “A kaladan.”

She shook her head. “Is that some sort of prison?”

“Some sort of prison, yes… You seem to have a fixation with prisons.”

The woman shrugged, causing the soft sunlight to dance in the folds of her gown. “It’s what my brothers told me could happen if I was stupid enough to lose my leaf.”

“Where did they hear this?”

“On Mehtar, I imagine. They’ve both been here several times.”

“Well, they were misinformed. We don’t imprison idless people on Mehtar. We have work-farms and kaladans and large houses like this one that need das to run them as their masters require.” His sarcasm was not lost on his guest.

“You mean domestics?” She jerked her head toward the house. “You have them. How can you sound so disapproving?”

“Ari and Heli are family das. I…” He hesitated. He’d been going to say, ‘I don’t have any,’ but that was no longer true. He wondered if Anala understood her position. “Do you have das on Avasa?” he asked.

“We don’t call them that, or consider them that. My family has a large compound, so we’ve had to hire domestics and hands. They do become like family after a while… How do you know I’m from Avasa?” She shifted in her seat to watch Helidasa emerge from the house with a food-laden tray.

“Where else? Thank you, Heli.” He accepted a bowl of sliced fruit with a nectar sauce glistening atop it. “You know very little about Kasi, you had no cree in your palm—you’d have to be from an extremely rural area at the very least. But then you refer to Mehtar as if you’ve never been here, so the only logical answer is Avasa. Besides, your…coloring is…unusual, as is your accent. Anything I missed?”

“I have an accent?” Anala paused in the act of biting into a fat, red berry. “You have an accent.” She bit into the berry and chewed it thoughtfully. “Is it unpleasant?” she asked after a moment.

“What?”

“This accent you say I have.”

He chuckled. “No, it’s very pleasant.”

She nodded. “Yours doesn’t grate the ears either.”

“Thank you.” He studied her, considering what tack to take. “Do you understand what happened today?”

She snorted. “I was robbed. I understand that perfectly well.”

“At the Bazaar?”

“No. Close, though. On the avenue that comes in from the spaceport.” She shook her head in disgust. “Stupid. I was so freighted down in that winter cloak—I was trying to juggle my pack and take the cloak off at the same time. I didn’t expect it to be so warm here.”

“It’s actually cool for Chaitra.”

“Cool is fine—our summers are cool—but I was wearing an insulsuit under that cloak. My brother said it was winter in Kasi this time of year. It’s more like late summer.”

“Well, that entirely depends on your point-of-view. I suppose compared to what you’re used to, Kasi winters might seem rather mild.”

“I should have expected that, of course, but I’d thought with the elliptical orbit…” She shrugged.

He was surprised she understood that sort of thing and let it show in his expression.

“We’re not savages on Avasa, despite what the Consortium wants everyone here to think.” She hesitated, giving him a measuring look. “You’d be surprised, Lord, at how civilized Avasa is. We are an honorable people-“

“And a rebellious people,” Jaya inserted for the sake of argument.

Anala flushed, ignoring the remark. “We have much to offer as an independent-“

“Mostly a lot of trouble to the Consortium, it appears.”

“Are we not justified?” She slammed her fist down on the table top, nearly upsetting a bowl of stewed nuts.

Jaya grabbed the bowl. “Eat the kuri, don’t bludgeon it.”

Surprisingly, she laughed, then returned to her story. “So, there I was, struggling to get out of this fleece cloak, when four men pounced on me and knocked me senseless. All I remember after that is trying to follow them. Falling down a hill. Everything is a blur. Even meeting you, the dalali…” She shook her head. “I’m not sure what I dreamed and what really happened. All I know is, my id is gone—which I suppose means I’ll have to leave Mehtar—and my money with it—which means I’ll leave empty-handed.” She was suddenly grim. “I’m ashamed to have to go back to father like this. After all his talk about how competent I am.”

“Competence or lack of it has nothing to do with what happened to you, Anala.” He avoided the issue of her return to Avasa for the moment and asked, “What were you to have brought home with you?”

“Mining equipment. Nandin drill bits. That new chemical spray that’s supposed to neutralize manda fumes. Protective gear.”

Jaya nodded. “How much money did you lose?”

“Twenty thousand dagam. Damn!” she added, feelingly.

“Why come all the way to Mehtar for mining equipment? Why not buy it on Avasa? Surely they sell it there after nearly two hundred years of mining.”

She gave him an odd look. “It was sold on Avasa, up until about six months ago. Then the Consortium stopped its import.”

“Just like that?” he asked. “They stopped it?”

“Yes.”

She was telling him the truth, he was convinced of it—or at least she believed it was the truth. It was an accusation that the Consortium was putting economic pressure on the Avasan colonies even as it worked to stall their independence through legal means. If that was true, it could mean an indictment for arbitration violation.

He suspected guiltily that if he’d half kept up with the briefs for the upcoming Council sessions, he’d have already known about the import situation.

He shrugged the niggle of concern away and realized he was staring at Anala’s hands. They were strong hands with short, neatly filed nails. Workers’ hands. Her arms were bare (surely proving that even hot and cold were relative concepts) and unusually muscular. He recalled that her legs were, as well.

“So,” she said, “when do I go back to Avasa?”

Jaya found meeting her eyes very difficult, but managed it. He ignored the tightening sensation under his breast bone and said the words bluntly: “You don’t.”

She was so still, she might have been part of the stone bench she sat on. “I don’t,” she repeated finally. “Can you explain that?”

“That’s difficult. The fact is, Anala, you’re now…part of my household.”

Her eyes dropped to her hands. Mouth grim, she turned the left one palm up and flexed the fingers back, exposing a faint golden design the shape of the Mehtaran river lotus—the saroj.

“I see. What you mean to say is—or perhaps what you’ve been trying not to say is—you own me.”

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“Do you? Do you see that it’s not something I wanted? Do you understand that I didn’t have a choice? I made a decision when I was of The Age not to own das-“

“What are they, then—peris?” she asked, jerking her head toward the house.

“They’re family das. Their family has served mine for centuries. To me, they…they are family.”

“If that’s true—that you want no slaves—then let me go.”

“I can’t, Anala.” He willed her to look at him, so she’d know the depth of truth in him. “With that mark in your hand, you can’t leave this planet unless you leave it at my side.”

The pale eyes lanced through him, almost making him catch his breath. “You could take me to Avasa, then.”

He shook his head. “Not now, I can’t. The Vrinda Varma is just beginning to hear petitions in the case between the Consortium and the Avasan Guild. You’re from a mining family, you know how important that consultation is. At this time of year the turnaround to Avasa takes the better part of a week. I can’t vacate my seat for a trip of that length.”

She snorted. “Least of all with the daughter of Rokh Nadim.”

He was stunned. He tried to hide it and failed.

“I see Father is a celebrity even on Mehtar.”

“You could say that.”

“So.” Anala folded her hands in front of her on the table.

There was an entire discourse on resignation in that one word—in that simple gesture. Jaya was almost awed by it. No tears, no histrionics, no anger. Just “so.”

She met his gaze again. “I am part of the household of Nathu Rai Jaya Sarojin. I thank you for helping me escape another fate. What now, mahesa? What will my duties be?”

She was steeling herself. He could see it in the slow straightening of her spine.

“Your first duty,” he said, “will be to take twenty thousand dagam into Kasi, buy the mining equipment you were sent to get, and ship it to Avasa on the next freight shuttle.”

Clearly it was not what she’d expected to hear. “What? Why?”

“Because…because your family needs it.”

“Nathu Rai-“

“Kasi stole your money—and more. You didn’t gamble it away or lose it carelessly. Kasi is my city. I am only returning a small part of what it took. I can’t return the greater part. It’s not in my power. I can only apologize…for everything.”

“I’m…more than grateful, mahesa. You seem to have saved me twice today.”

Jaya grimaced. “Hardly. All I’ve done is contrived to make the disastrous merely intolerable… Anala, would your family be able to produce duplicate leaf for you?”

“I should think so.”

“Then, we can send a message over with the equipment asking your mother and father to appear with it. The Inner Circle should be able to declare your freedom on the strength of that. And your father will very likely be appearing before the Vrinda Varma to argue AGIM’s case-“

Anala was shaking her head. “Father’s position is very much like yours, mahesa. He can’t leave Avasa right now. He won’t leave unless he’s ordered to testify before the Vrinda Varma. The Guild needs him at home now, and there’s every chance, if he did come, that his life would be endangered. The same is true for my brothers. They’re too well known. Why do you think they sent me for equipment? No one knows me in Kasi and father said Mehtarans underestimate women. I’d be just another young dustbrain coming to Kasi for fun and pretty clothes.”

Jaya had missed half of what she’d said. “What do you mean, your father’s life would be endangered?”

She lowered her eyes to her lap. “He’s received threats.”

“From whom?”

She glanced up. “The Consortium, of course. Who else?”

“Anala, you know I sit on the Vrinda Varma. Are you sure you’re not-“

Her eyebrows rose. “Exaggerating? No, mahesa, I’m not. My father and the other Guild officers have all received threats. They’re also under surveillance. As I said, I was able to come only because I’m female. My father will send one of his officers to speak for him.”

“How do you know the threats are from the Consortium?”

“Who else would they be from? Who else would want to keep us in thrall to Kasi-Nawahr?”

“I don’t know and I’m not going to conjecture. Now about your leaf-“

“Could they send it by packet?”

He shook his head. “Bad idea,” he said. “Any mail coming from an Avasan Independent to me or any other Varmana would be intercepted and checked.”

“If the Consortium learns of the position I’m in on Mehtar, they’ll jump to use it to their advantage.”

“Then they’d best not learn. We’ll make sure your message to your father is well hidden among your drill bits.”

“And what will my message say?”

Jaya stood as the house lamps came on in the purple twilight. “That you’re safe, but unable to return because you lack id. That you’re under the protection of a Lord who will return you when he can. Shall we go in? I’d like you to meet my Jivinta, Mina Sarojin. I think you’ll find her a friend.”

“Two new friends in one day. I am blessed, mahesa.” She rose, pressed her palms together again, bowed and smiled.

He grimaced. “I’d rather you not call me that.”

She looked at him quizzically. “What should I call you then, Nathu Rai Sarojin, that won’t scandalize your family?”

“Jaya?” he suggested.

She looked at him doubtfully.

“Jaya,” he repeated.

“It seems disrespectful for a slave to address her lord-“

“Let’s not dwell on that shall we?” He moved toward the house, pausing when she didn’t move with him. Annoyance pricked him. “You don’t have to walk three paces behind me,” he said, without looking at her, and continued toward the house.

She was beside him when they reached the sliding glass panels that opened into the solarium, and gave him an odd look when he held them open for her. He led her through the core of the palace toward the wing occupied by Jivinta Mina. On the second floor she nodded at one of the uniquely decorated doorways.

“That’s the room I woke up in.” She hesitated a moment, then asked, “Is yours in this part of the house?”

“Yes,” he said, and gestured at the one next to it. “That one.”

A look at her very expressive face told him she hadn’t asked the question with the intent of offering to share her bed; a disappointment. Now she appeared to be rummaging through an obviously troubled mind for something to say.

“What, Anala?” he asked. “Speak plainly.”

“Nathu Rai,” she said, “I realize that as my…lord you can command me as you wish. But, I would beg you-“

“You don’t need to beg, Anala. Your honor is as sacred to me as it is to you.” It was an ambiguous statement, but it seemed to satisfy her. He’d be a liar to deny the kinetic attraction he felt to her, a hypocrite to protest that he would not act on it if the opportunity presented itself. That oath left the sacredness of her honor entirely up to her.

o0o

Mina Sarojin was enjoying a light supper when Jaya brought Anala into her suite. He hadn’t gotten a word out before her bright, raptor eyes found and fixed on the Avasan.

“Ah! You are right, Gauri, she is stunning. Such coloring!” She swung aside the carved wooden tray that held the remains of her meal and sat eagerly forward in her cup chair. “What’s your name, child?”

Anala, immediately impressed with the Jivinta, presented her with the respectful greeting—palms out, palms together, a slight bowing of the forehead to her fingertips. “It’s Anala, Rani.”

“Anala.” The old woman nodded as if she liked the feel of the name on her tongue.

Anala had the sudden impression that if her name had not met with the Jivinta’s approval she would have simply changed it on the spot. Everything about her spoke of royalty, from the erect posture to the long hair she wore like a silver diadem.

“And you will call me Jivinta Mina,” the old woman decided. “The distinction of Rani in this household goes to my bonddaughter. Unlike her, I prefer names to titles. So, what is the story of Anala? Are you to be a guest of the House Sarojin?”

Anala shot Jaya a fleeting glance. “A while, I think,” she said. “It much depends on the Nathu Rai’s kindness.”

“Well, he’s long on that quality. Your while here should be pleasant if it’s his kindness you depend on.”

Jaya smiled at his Jivinta. “Ah, and this is where I jump in with a proof of my kindness. Jivinta, could I impose on you to take Anala into Kasi tomorrow for some shopping? She needs to purchase some mining equipment and some new clothes. That dress and a torn insulsuit is all she’s got at the moment.”

Mina’s sculptured silver brows ascended delicately. “Mining equipment and new clothes? An interesting combination. Well, I’d be very happy to take our new friend shopping.”

Anala stirred uneasily. “Nathu Rai, please don’t trouble your Jivinta to buy me a new wardrobe. If I could have my insulsuit mended I’d be more than grateful. And I’m sure I can find the equipment broker on my own.”

Jaya’s reply was blunt. “Anala, I’m going to be honest with you. I know your desire to get home is fierce. I don’t want you to be tempted to try to return on your own. You simply wouldn’t make it. Not with that dascree in your palm.”

Ana felt her face suffuse with heat. “You don’t know me, so I won’t take that as an insult. I couldn’t possibly leave Mehtar with your money in hand. Besides which, I’m honor bound to repay your kindness to me. If I left without doing that, I couldn’t face myself, let alone my family.”

The Nathu Rai flushed and opened his mouth. Whether he meant to equivocate or apologize, Ana was not to know; chimes sounded from the com-unit at Jivinta Mina’s elbow.

The old woman glanced at it only briefly before returning her eyes to Jaya’s flushed face. “Yes, Ari. What is it?”

“Some visitors for the Saroj, Jivinta. The Vadin Bel Adivaram and the Lord Kreti Twapar. They say it is urgent.”

“I’ll be right down,” Jaya said and threw Anala a rueful grimace. “While I’m closeted with my guests, try to think of something I can do to merit forgiveness for that ignorant remark.”

“So, Anala,” said Mina Sarojin when her grandson had left her rooms, “Come, sit. Tell me about Avasa. Is the air as dry and sweet as I’ve heard?”

o0o

Jaya wasn’t particularly pleased to have government business brought into his private quarters, but turning away Adivaram and Twapar would be considered an extreme rudeness. To them the governing of the Mehtaran Commonwealth and the concomitant political existence was the center of their universe. To one who didn’t even want a political existence it was at best a duty, and at worst an imposition.

By the time Jaya reached the Court Salon reserved for the reception of Mehtar’s elite, Aridas had already provided his guests with refreshment and was standing by to hear his Nathu Rai’s pleasure.

“Channa please, Ari,” Jaya told him, and did not miss the oblique glances of his fellow Varmana. Their raised brows marked his indiscretion silently. He ignored them and followed a perverse urge to compound the social gaffe. “Oh, and Ari, you can just leave the carafes. I’ll serve.”

Aridas bowed slightly, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, then went to the kitchen to fetch his master’s channa.

“I wish, Nathu Rai, you would not amuse yourself at our expense.” Vadin Bel Adivaram studied the fluted stem of his wine goblet distractedly.

“At your expense?” Jaya asked, seating himself beside the opulent hearth. He chose a low, comfortable chair and chuckled inwardly when his guests both glanced toward the ornate and infinitely less comfortable throne he was expected to use on such occasions. “I fail to understand how Ari’s humor cost you anything.”

“Then you fail to understand much,” mumbled Kreti Twapar. “Every time you elevate a das, by neglecting to use his varnal name, for example, you demean yourself in his estimation. When you make it a joke between you, you demean yourself even more—impair your dignity, impair the dignity of your station. In this instance, you have included us in the joke.”

“I’ve impaired your dignity?” Jaya asked. His answer came in the form of two eloquent glances. “Well then, aren’t I demeaning myself even more by allowing you two to lecture me—a Sarojin?”

Vadin Adivaram set down his goblet with a distinct click. “Nathu Rai, demeaning you was not our intention. Think of us merely as a couple of fond old uncles bent on imparting their wisdom to a favorite nephew.”

“I’ll do that,” Jaya promised. “Now what brings my two fond old uncles out this evening?”

“You’ve read the petitions?” Bel Adivaram came right to the point.

“Yes.” That wasn’t quite true, and Jaya felt just a little guilty in professing that it was. He had read the Focus Document and scanned the individual petitions tendered by the several chapters of the Avasan Guild. Of the Consortium’s counter-petition he’d read only the synopsis.

“And have you formed an opinion?”

“Not one I should discuss.”

“I’m not asking you to discuss your opinion,” returned Adivaram mildly, “just to comment on whether you’ve formed one.”

Aridas’ return with his channa gave Jaya a moment to ponder his reply. Opinions, he didn’t have. He hadn’t read the petitions well enough for that, nor had he paid strict attention to their presentation in Assembly. He had leanings—an instinctual belief that if the Avasan miners thought they’d be better off without the over-lordship of a Mehtaran corporation, they were probably right—but nothing more solid than that. However, if the Consortium’s methods of dissuasion were what Anala claimed…

“Thank you, Ari. This is excellent, as always. No, I don’t have any opinions. I haven’t heard both sides in Session yet.”

“Well,” drawled Lord Twapar, “I’d say we’ve all heard the Consortium side often enough. It’s rather hard to avoid it when every social event seems to center around bringing Kasi-Nawahr officers and stockholders together with Varmana. The Consortium, understandably, does not want the competition. Independents are one thing, united Independents are quite another.”

“What do you think Kasi-Nawahr would do if the Vrinda Varma grants AGIM some form of legal status?” asked Jaya.

“Obviously, they’re hoping it won’t,” returned the Vadin.

Jaya glanced at him. “Obviously, but would they do more than hope, do you think?”

Kreti Twapar sat forward in his chair, clasping veined hands before him. “What do you mean by that?”

Jaya shrugged. “They have a lot to lose. I wonder what they might do to protect their interests on Avasa.”

“Are you suggesting something less subtle than lobbying?” queried Bel Adivaram.

“Subtle? I’ve had to avoid too many growling, whining KasiNawahr associates at social gatherings to call it subtle. Although, very few of them go far enough to warrant a sanction being placed on them. I was thinking of something more secretive …and more serious.”

The two guests shared a significant sidelong glance before putting down their glasses in near unison.

“I think it’s time to come to the point,” said Adivaram. “The Consortium, as you suggest, is more than eager to maintain its hold on Avasa. But it is not the Consortium we come to speak of. We come with a warning, Nathu Rai. You may well be approached by…a group of people who are willing to do a bit more than whine.”

After a moment of silence, Jaya prompted him. “Approached?”

The two older men continued to gaze at him without replying.

“Am I to construe from that an unlawful query as to my opinions, or something else?”

He glanced from one closed, watchful face to the other, hearing only Kreti Twapar’s raspy breathing, the snap of flame from the hearth and the tell-tale click, click, click of Bel Adivaram’s fingernails against the arm of his chair.

What in the name of Sanat-Ram were they trying to do, frighten him?

“What is it we’re not discussing, uncles?” he asked. “Bribery? Threats?” He gestured around the room. “Bribery hardly seems likely, considering my circumstances. Promises of political promotion are equally ludicrous. Threats, then? Is that this evening’s purport of the word ‘approached?’”

Bel Adivaram cleared his throat. “I’m not sure how much we dare say.”

“Were you approached?”

“Possibly.” Adivaram glanced sideways at Twapar.

“You couldn’t tell?”

“We’re not certain what to do. It was so vague, so nebulous.” Twapar made a fluttering gesture of helplessness and trained sorrowful eyes on his Nathu Rai. “Nothing, you understand, that could be pinned down…quite. We wondered, Nathu Rai, what you would do in such circumstances.”

“I can’t tell you. I don’t know what the circumstances were. Were you threatened or not?” Jaya felt a tickle of irritation. What did these two think—that he had the Jadu and could read minds?

“Not threatened, precisely,” said Adivaram. “It was suggested that there are advantages to deeming the Avasan position unlawful.”

“Unlawful?” Jaya got up and moved away from the hearth, putting his back to them. “That suggests that the Vrinda Varma should declare the Avasan Guild asat.”

“That was what I inferred also,” admitted the Vadin. “Apparently, the Consortium is preparing an addendum to their counter petition that demands AGIM be declared a subversive organization and officially disbanded. And, of course, if AGIM is asat, it would keep the issue of their independence from ever being raised again.”

“Leaving all AGIM mining interests open for KNC appropriation,” murmured Jaya. How amazing are the workings of the political mind, he thought, and was grateful he didn’t have one.

“Excuse me, Nathu Rai?”

“Never mind.” He turned back to face them. “Who approached you?”

“They called themselves WoCoa—the Workers’ Coalition,” said Twapar. “They indicated they felt that any decision favoring AGIM threatened their jobs and incomes. They suggested that supporting the Consortium’s counter petition is the best thing for all concerned. They were quite vehement.”

“Vehement, but nebulous, eh?”

Adivaram scowled. “As I said, we were unsure of how much we should say.”

“Well, what did you say to these suggestions?”

“We didn’t know what to say to them,” protested Adivaram. “What would you have said?”

Jaya shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe I would have thrown the suggestion-makers out of my house. Then again, maybe I would’ve asked to hear more.”

They stared at him and he chuckled. “Did I shock you? Sorry. Just consider it a function of my infamous eccentricity.”

Kreti Twapar’s stare twisted into a grimace. “Your eccentricity, Lord Prince Sarojin, is sometimes inappropriate.”

Jaya raised his eyebrows in amusement, but the Vadin Adivaram misread him. “Forgive our irascible old Lord, mahesa. He’s becoming cranky with his years.” He shot his confederate a withering glance.

“Yes, Nathu Rai,” mumbled Twapar, with about as much contrition as Jaya felt for being eccentric. “Please, don’t take offense. I forgot myself.”

“No offense taken,” said Jaya blandly. “You see? My eccentricity can also be a blessing. I’ve forgotten you, too.”

For a moment Kreti Twapar’s face drained of all color—lacking even its natural yellowish tinge. Jaya’s pleasant laughter seemed to restore it somewhat, and he laughed, as well.

“Why haven’t you reported this to the Inner Circle? You are members, after all.”

“We…didn’t want to muddy the waters with mention of this WoCoa matter. If you’ve read the petitions, you’ve no doubt realized how complex this situation has already become.”

“Very complex.” You have no idea.

“So,” said Bel Adivaram finally, “you would advise us to say nothing of this before the Vrinda Varma? Or should we register a complaint?”

“I wouldn’t presume to advise you,” returned Jaya. “But I do see the point of not lodging a formal report. If I were ‘approached’ by anyone, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to complain to the Vrinda Varma right away. Silence can give instruction even to the wise.” He’d heard his father say that often enough. He could only assume he’d gotten it from Jivinta Mina.

The two old ones nodded and hummed and then excused themselves, leaving Jaya alone in the Court Salon. He wasn’t alone long—a grinning Aridas joined him, chuckling as he collected the glasses and cups from the room.

“Ari, you’ll burst if you don’t share that grin with me. What did my two ‘old uncles’ do to amuse you?”

“’Ay! Silence can give instruction even to the wise, he says!’” The imitation of Kreti Twapar’s gritty, wheezy voice was eerily accurate. “’How dare that insolent young whelp sound so damn sage? Nathu Rai he may be, Sarojin he may be, but he’s got a head full of air and ego!’”

Jaya laughed. “Air? Something as benign as that? I’m amazed. I would’ve expected they thought it was full of something else.”

Ari shook his head. “Someday, Jaya Rai, you should land upon those two old scoffers with talons. You tolerate them so well, they’re getting bold and toothy.”

“Why should I do that? I don’t care how toothy they get.”

“But I do,” chided Ari. “Their das know what disrespect they feel for you, mahesa. Heli and I have to put up with their foolish mockery, you know. It’s not easy.”

“Ah, and of course you defend me loyally.”

“Of course,” Ari assured him. “It’s our duty and privilege. But you could help by quashing them occasionally.” His reproachful expression twisted into a leer. “It’d scare them to eternity, mahesa.”

“And you’d like to be there to see it, of course.”

The leer was still hanging in the air when Aridas was halfway back to the kitchen with his tray.

o0o

The Rani Melantha Sarojin was curious about her son’s visitors. She made an abortive attempt to pump Helidasa for information, but got absolutely nowhere with the woman. She should have known better than to waste her time trying, she realized, pulling off her gloves in the front hall. Her late husband’s das were fiercely loyal to his son and imagined that loyalty extended to keeping all his affairs secret from even his own mother.

She paused to study the closed doors of the Court Salon, considered stepping closer to listen to the conversation she could just barely make out, then saw Aridas coming down the corridor with a carafe-laden tray.

She collected herself and headed for the grand staircase, hoping the das hadn’t seen her lingering there like a common snoop. It occurred to her, as she mounted the stairs, that her bond-mother might know why there were Varmana sitting in their Court Salon—Varmana who were also of the Inner Nine. She hoped Mina Sarojin would be in one of her chatty moods. With that in mind, she turned right at the top of the stairs and passed down the central corridor to the dowager Sarojin’s quarters.

The Rani was surprised to find that the old woman also had a visitor. The young woman was quite beautiful in a wild, vivid and somewhat alien way. Her dress was exotic but tasteful and made the most of her rather pale skin. She remembered Bel Adivaram’s seemingly endless supply of young female “relations” and wondered if this was one of them.

She was faintly amused by the two pairs of eyes that stared at her as she stood in the doorway of her bond-mother’s suite. They could have belonged to children caught whispering in the Asra during prayers.

“Pardon my intrusion, Mata,” she said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your visit. May I be introduced?”

Mina Sarojin collected herself and fixed the Rani with a brittle smile. Her veined hands, still strong and supple, caught the young woman’s possessively between their palms. “Of course. Melantha, this…” Her smile swung to her young companion, warming. “This is Ana Sadira, a new, but already dear friend of mine. Ana, I present the Rani Melantha Sarojin.”

The younger woman made a visible attempt to free her hands from Mina’s to offer the respectful greeting, but Mina held them immobile, a frozen smile aimed at the Rani.

Ana Sadira nodded, embarrassed, and said, “I am honored, Rani Sarojin. The hospitality of your House is as the kindness of Tara-Rama.”

Melantha accepted the greeting and compliment with a slight raising of artfully painted brows and an even slighter nod. “You are related to one of my son’s guests?”

“No, Rani, I am not.”

“She’s a friend of Jaya’s,” said Mina. “That should please you.”

“Yes, it should.”

The Rani studied her bond-mother’s guest a moment more, then smiled briefly and left them. On the opposite side of the translucent curtains that separated her bond-mother’s sitting room from the anteroom, Melantha turned for a last look at the pair. The vivid young woman was staring into her palm, while Mina Sarojin remonstrated with her.

Odd. The Rani wondered if it had anything to do with Mina’s refusal to allow her guest to offer the respectful greeting. Bemused, she turned away and left the suite.

o0o

“Jivinta, may I speak with you for a moment?” Jaya stood just inside the curtained door of her bedroom, his eyes on the pool of light that washed the shallow bowl of velvet padding she slept in.

She laid aside her book and shifted to face him more directly. “Of course, Gauri. Come.” She patted the lip of the bed.

As if I were still a small boy with bad dreams, thought Jaya, and moved to her side.

“I like her very much,” answered Mina, before he could phrase the question. “She is not prim about spiritual things. You know how I loathe religious primness. And I think she is to be trusted. I should mention that your mother has met her.”

A terrifying thought. “How?”

“She paid me a visit this evening—I can’t imagine why, unless it was to see if I knew anything about the business downstairs. Naturally, she was fascinated by Anala.”

Jaya shifted uneasily. “What did you tell her?”

Mina chuckled. “The Rani is under the impression that our young friend is also a Rani—of the family Sadira.”

Jaya was not certain whether to be relieved or worried. “Not my cunnidasa?”

“I refused to let Anala offer her the respectful greeting.”

“That was wise.”

“I thought so.”

“So, she’s Anala Sadira, now.”

Mina’s smile deepened. “Ana Sadira. Ana of the Lotus Tree. I thought it was appropriate. I hope your mother doesn’t take it into her head to check up on her.”

“Why should she?”

“Maybe she suspects a wedding is being plotted behind her back.” The look she gave him was coy.

“I’m ignoring you, Grandmother.”

“Mmmm. But can you ignore Ana?”

“Grandmother, you are an incorrigible match-maker! The woman is Avasan—the daughter of a miner.”

“So?”

“So where’s your Mehtaran pride? Aren’t you supposed to be bringing me quality Taj-daughters of Mehtar? Dark-skinned Ranis, Devas-“

Mina made a rude noise. “That’s your mother’s job. Quality doesn’t come with breeding, titles, citizenship…or racial heritage. It comes with character. The daughter of an Avasan miner is just as likely to have that as any woman on Mehtar, regardless of her rank.”

“Her father is Rokh Nadim.” Jaya watched his Jivinta’s expression. It didn’t change.

“Yes, I know.”

“She told you?”

“She told me many things.” She paused, assessing him. “Did you know she was Rohin—a bhakta?”

Jaya was surprised. That explained why, despite her apparent acceptance of her situation, she’d dared to let him know his sexual advances would not be welcomed. He was relieved that he hadn’t pressed the issue. Even a member of a Taj House generally watched his manners with a devotee of the Upward Path.

Mina was watching his face with raptor gaze. “I hope you didn’t embarrass yourself, Grandson.”

He smiled. “Only slightly.”

“What do you think the Rani would make of all this…if she knew?”

Jaya could just imagine. The knowledge that the daughter of Rokh Nadim had come into the possession of the youngest member of the Vrinda Varma would probably be the most important piece of gossip Melantha Sarojin could ever hope to pass along. Since her current male companion was Kasi-Nawahr’s Legal Representative, and since that particular gossip would have the greatest impact in his quarter, she would pass it along to him.

“You were wise to give her a new name.”

“I try to make a habit of wisdom,” said Jivinta Mina. “What will you do if the Rani presses the issue? Who is Ana Sadira that she should suddenly be living under your roof?”

“Why should I have to comment? If it pleases me to suddenly invite a beautiful woman into my house-“ He shrugged.

“But not into your bed? Highly suspicious.”

“She’s in the adjoining suite. I can make sure the door is unlocked in case the Rani or one of her das should wander into my quarters.”

Mina nodded. “And if the Rani sees the palm of her hand?”

“That’s more difficult. I can’t, in good conscience, pass her off as a cunnidasa, knowing she’s Rohin… We could fake an injury to her hand.”

“And when that wears thin?”

Jaya opened his left hand and studied the palm thoughtfully. “With a little alteration, the dascree could be made to look like a raicree. Change the color, a line here and there….” He illustrated, tracing the faint scarlet imprint in his own palm.

“An unknown branch of the House Sarojin? From where?”

Jaya shrugged. “Darupur?” He named a city halfway across the continent. “The Saroj is a far-flung clan.”

Mina was skeptical. “Darupur? With her coloring?”

“Ah…one of our distant relations moved his family to Avasa.”

“I will relish watching you come up with a credible reason as to why any sane man would do such a thing. Just how do you propose to get this cree ‘fixed?’ Who do you know that owns the proper machinery…that you can trust?”

“Badan-Devaki?”

Mina snorted. “Those maggots! I said, ‘that you can trust.’”

Jaya feigned shock. “Jivinta! Such language!”

“Such people! Do you think either of them would keep that damaging knowledge to themselves? They’d sell it, just as they sell the poor creatures who have the misfortune of coming into their possession.”

“There’s a cree imprinter at the Asra.”

Jivinta Mina was amused. “Do you think the Deva will be persuaded to let you use it? What will you do, pose as God?”

Jaya was cornered and knew it. “The Deva Radha is not as legalistic as some of the Rohin.”

Mina didn’t say anything, but merely quirked an eyebrow at him. He knew the look well after over two decades of these sparring matches. She was giving him a second chance to make a better parry.

“If the situation gets desperate,” he said, “I can always take her to the Inner Circle for sanctuary. They could make her their ward. No one would dare touch her then.”

“True. They would likely give her sanctuary. They know the sanctity of a covenant.”

“So, who is Ana Sadira?” asked Jaya, wondering how many points he’d made.

Mina shrugged. “She’s a Sarojin cousin whose grandmother, a native of Avasa, moved to Mehtar for reasons of health and married a member of the Saroj from Darupur. He returned the family to Avasa when…his bond-father died, leaving an estate to his only daughter. Ana is in Kasi for a holiday.”

“And her hand?”

“Ah, leave that to me. Helidasa can do wonderful things with her herbs and dyes.”

Jaya kissed his Jivinta lightly on the cheek, then rose to leave. “Well, this story at least saves the Rani Sadira having to leave her bedroom door open at night. She wouldn’t like that.”

“No, she wouldn’t.”

She said it with such vehemence that he had to laugh. “Am I that repulsive?”

“Repulsive? You?” She scanned his face, her eyes mocking him. “Your father was called ‘the Golden Lotus,’ and you are your father’s son. You know this—you’ve heard it often enough. But Anala is Rohin. That is something you may not be able to understand, even if you try.”

Jaya smiled wryly. “You’re being mystical and sage, Jivinta. I hate it when you’re mystical and sage.”

“Phht! You love it, and have since you were a boy. When you’re my age, you’ll be mystical and sage too. Then you’ll see the other side of things.”

“I hope I enjoy it as much as you do.”

“You will,” she assured him. “Especially if your audience stands raptly in wide-eyed wonder, never doubting a word you say.”

“I doubt,” said Jaya. “I am simply too polite to say so.”

That was a lie, he thought, as the door of her suite closed behind him. He’d never doubted Mina Sarojin for a moment.

o0o

The room was dark, lit only by a fire in the hearth and the light that breached the vast expanse of windows and squeezed through the brocaded drapes from outside.

Anala parted them and caught her breath. From the second floor she overlooked the walls at the front of the palace—now a line of indistinct black—and saw the broad avenue beyond sweep away downhill, ablaze with street lamps. At its end, Kasi spread before the House Sarojin like a litter of vari-colored gems on black velvet—a tribute. Or like a jewel-bedecked pet tethered to its master by a chain of light.

Tethered, as she was tethered.

A smoky curl of anger roiled for a moment in her heart. She took a deep breath and blew the fire out, unclenching her fists in a deliberate stretching of muscle and bone. She pulled the drapes fully open and knelt on the window seat.

She focused on the litter of light and kept her eyes there until they blurred. Then she closed them and began to pray.

“Sanat-ji, Tara-ji. Please visit this, Your daughter. You know, O my Lord, what has befallen me. I have been lost, but found; enslaved, yet freed; mistreated, but kindly. I am frightened, yet comforted; alone, yet among friends. I do not yet see Your purpose in these things, O Lord, so I await Your guidance. Do with me as befits Your grace, O Most Gracious One, and is worthy of Your glory, O Most Glorious One.”

She was silent for a moment, listening; and still, waiting. Waiting for the Sign that her prayer had been heard. There… within three heartbeats, the warmth of certainty blushed outward from heart to hands and up into the very roots of her hair. She couldn’t recall a time the Sign, when asked, had not been given.

She lay down, then, to watch the lights of Kasi until sleep came.

— CHAPTER 3 —

In which Anala sees a familiar and unwelcome face in a crowd.

o0o

 

Morning brought sunlight and warmth. But the winds were capricious, gentle one moment, unkind the next. Sitting at the head of the breakfast table in the Morning Room, Jaya watched the tall evergreens in the garden shrug off the rough teasing, their topmost branches shying first one way, then the other.

He was alone, and Helidasa moved almost silently in and out of the room, laying out the meal. He smiled at the sheer amount of food she was assembling on the sideboard.

“Heli,” he said, when she appeared with a huge bowl of fruit, “are you planning to feed a team of rattle-ball players?”

“I am feeding three people,” she said, setting the bowl of fruit in the center of the arrangement. “Maybe four.” Catching his questioning glance, she continued, “The young lady will be down. Which means your mother will most certainly be at table. Jivinta Mina tells me she will be down as well.”

The soles of her soft shoes padded lightly across the tile floor of the solarium as she returned to the kitchen, disappearing through the broad, corner-cut doorway.

Jivinta at breakfast—now that was an event. She’d stopped coming down to breakfast months ago, claiming her leg was paining her. Jaya suspected that in reality, it was the Rani Melantha that was paining her. Conversations at breakfast didn’t always go pleasantly with Mother there—especially since she’d taken up with her newest beau. She tended to echo his philosophies and viewpoints, which was usually enough to send Jivinta into a temper and Jaya out of the room.

A soft cadence of footfalls told him Helidasa was returning. Something in the whisper of sound made every hair on his body rise up. He chuckled and turned to tell her she’d have to walk less like a cat, then froze in the torrent of electricity that poured through him.

Anala stared at him from the doorway, her cloud of blackcherry hair ablaze in the bold wash of sunlight from the tall solarium windows.

Were he a religious man, he might have claimed her as a vision of the Mother God. He wasn’t, but the name dropped from his lips before he realized it had slipped out. “Tara-ji.”

Anala shifted uneasily. “Mahesa?”

He felt immediately foolish. “Sorry, Anala, I wasn’t taking one of your God’s names in vain. There’s a painting of Her Holiness Tara-Rama in our family shrine—for a moment, you reminded me…with the light…” He gestured past her.

She turned her head, glancing at the sun-washed tiles. “Ah. I’m flattered, Nathu Rai. Thank you, but you do no honor to Tara-ji with the comparison.”

“That’s debatable.”

She blushed, averted her eyes and moved to take the seat he indicated. “Please, Nathu Rai. You’re making me uncomfortable. I’m unused to flattery.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

Anala’s eyebrows winged upward. “Nathu Rai, I don’t know what you imagine life in an Avasan mining community is like, but it doesn’t give one many opportunities to wear the sort of clothing that draws compliments.”

“I wasn’t complimenting the clothing, Ana.”

Anala stared at her empty plate. “Nathu Rai…”

“Jaya.”

She shrugged. “My life on Avasa hasn’t prepared me for any of this.” Her gesture took in both her surroundings and circumstances.

“You must tell us about your life on Avasa, my dear.”

Jaya’s eyes flew from Anala’s face to his mother’s and back again. He was torn between mirth and chagrin—compromised with a choking cough.

The Rani Melantha crossed from the doorway behind Ana’s chair and rounded the table to take a seat to her son’s right, her expression quizzical.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said, recovering himself. “You startled us.”

“Indeed,” said the Rani pleasantly, her eyes on Ana’s face. “I had not imagined anyone’s eyes could get that large. Yours are most unusually pale, as well. Almost…colorless, in fact. Have you ever considered…cosmetic coloration? I hear it is quite safe.”

“Oh, no, Rani. This eye color has been passed down through generations of the family Sadira,” returned Anala, glibly. “It allows more light to enter the eye, thus enhancing the sight. My father’s eyes are white as snow. They call him ‘the Bat.’ He can see well enough in the dark to shoot the petals off the black jambu on a moonless night.”

Jaya only just managed not to laugh. Quick. He wondered at how easily the story had fallen from her lips.

“That ought to answer your arrogance,” observed Jivinta Mina dryly. She entered the room on Helidasa’s arm, her ornately carved cane tapping firmly on the tiles of the floor. Taking her seat at the head of the table, she signaled Helidasa to serve.

“A moonless night?” murmured the Rani, her tawny skin flushing with rose. “Unimaginable. I’d heard Avasa was a dim world. But no moon?”

“On moonless nights, we have the Upala Ratri—the Night Jewel—to light the sky.”

“The Upala Ratri?” repeated Jaya.

“A colorful aurora caused by suspended ice crystals in the atmosphere. It’s quite beautiful. When I was a child I would pretend they were angels dancing for Tara-ji.”

That was truth, Jaya thought, but could not explain why he thought so.

The Rani cast her son a bemused glance. “Your coloring,” she commented after a moment, “is quite…striking. Is this to be blamed on the Avasan environment?”

Again, Anala failed to rise to the obvious insult. “It’s due mostly to the climate in the Kedar. It’s a mountainous place—thickly forested, most often snow-covered. There is little sun.”

“You were born on Avasa?”

“Yes, Rani.”

“But, Sadira…” She looked to Jaya. “I am not mistaken, Jaya. Isn’t that a distant branch of the Saroj clan?”

“It is, Mother. It seems Ana is a remote relation.”

The Rani’s lips curved in a bemused smile. “From Avasa?”

“Ana’s grandmother was from Avasa. She relocated here—to Darupur—for reasons of health, and there met the man she would marry. The family returned to Avasa when Ana’s great-grandfather died.” Jivinta Mina put another stitch into their fabrication.

Ana neatly tied it off. “My great-grandfather owned a number of prosperous businesses—lumber yards and paper factories. When he died, he bequeathed them to my grandmother. My grandparents refused to be absentee landlords, so they made their home in the Kedar.”

“I have considered a trip to Avasa myself, recently,” said Jivinta. “Ana says the air in the plains is quite dry and sweet. The air here is getting worse every day.” She gazed pointedly at her daughter-in-law.

The Rani wrinkled her perfect nose and glanced apologetically at Anala. “I hear it’s dry and sweet only when it’s not dry and dusty—and unbearably cold. You may have Avasa, my dear. I would be terrified of waking up one morning to find myself the color of cow’s milk.” She touched one flawless, tawny cheek.

“I think a little less sun would do you good, daughter,” said Mina, sugaring her tea. Her eyes lifted to the Rani’s face. “And I can’t believe all your dyes and tints are good for your skin.”

Melantha Sarojin did not offer a retort. “How do you come to be with us, Ana? I may call you ‘Ana?’”

“Of course, Rani Sarojin. I have just finished my schooling, so Mother and Father thought a holiday would be in order.”

“Your schooling?” repeated the Rani, glancing obliquely at her son. “What sort of schooling does a young woman obtain on Avasa that would extend beyond her fourteenth year?”

“I studied forestry, land management, and environmental law.”

It came off her tongue so readily, Jaya wondered if it was true.

The Rani’s expression said that she considered the idea preposterous. She did not, however, offer her opinions on the woman’s place in society. “So, was your visit to the Saroj unexpected, or did my son merely neglect to tell me you were coming?”

“A whim on God’s part, Rani. Nathu Rai Sarojin and I met quite by chance near the spaceport.”

The Rani’s neat brows ascended with bird-like grace. “Quite a chance, I must agree, that two so distant cousins should meet accidentally in such a large city as Kasi.”

Jaya studied his plate, teasing an innocent and unresisting melon with the tip of his knife. “One might almost think Ji had arranged it,” he said wryly.

“One might almost,” agreed the Rani, studying Anala again. “But to what purpose?” The question hung, full of innuendo, until the Rani asked: “So, your family has prospered on Avasa, then?”

Jaya could well imagine her thought process: Down and out tendril of the Saroj vine arranges chance meeting between lovely leaf and the Heart of the Lotus. A move calculated, of course, to infuse new life into the poor distant tendril.

“Father tells me he is the richest man on Avasa.”

“Really?”

Jaya put his cup down with a thud and coughed, trying to get Anala’s attention. What was she doing? Claiming not to be down and out was one thing, but this-

She was smiling. “You would have to understand my father, Rani. He has always said a man’s wealth is in his family.”

“Not in his forests?” The Rani shook her head and emitted a musical, shallow trill of laughter. “Pardon me, Ana, but I find the idea of a Sarojin in a lumber yard ludicrous.”

“He had an opportunity to go into government…or was it politics? I always get the two confused. I note that both are lucrative in the extreme. But my father is an honorable man and therefore felt it necessary to earn his bread in an honorable way.”

“How…noble of him,” said the Rani and withdrew into her bowl of fruit.

o0o

“Do you really think governance is a dishonorable means of earning one’s keep?” Jaya asked Anala later. They waited in the great Entrance Hall for Jivinta Mina to join Ana for their outing.

“Did I say that, mahesa?”

“Not directly, but you implied it. Also that the Vrinda Varma confuses politics and government. I assure you, it does not.”

“Forgive me then, mahesa.”

“Jaya. My name is Jaya. Not Mahesa or Nathu Rai or Master.”

“I would never call you ‘Master,’” said Anala. “Sanat-ji is my Master. My only Master…mahesa.”

She was being deliberately antagonistic and it annoyed him. “Please, call me by my name instead of a meaningless title.”

Anala’s vivid brows tilted slightly. “Your titles aren’t meaningless, you know. Being a Varmana is a sacred privilege… and a responsibility—one which has nothing to do with politics.”

“You are the second person to remind me of that in as many days.” Jaya was annoyed with the direction the conversation was taking. “I am not a political, Anala. I inherited my wealth and title in the same way I inherited my seat on the Vrinda Varma. I didn’t ask for either. But since I have them, I do try to give them the serious consideration they deserve.” That was so close to a lie, he was surprised he didn’t choke on it.

“You sound as if you would just as soon be an indolent beggar as the Lord Prince of Kasi.”

“No, but the responsibility of my position does sometimes…” He raised his eyes to the Sarojin crest, mounted in gleaming splendor at the head of the hall. “…weigh a lot.”

“I don’t see you trying to crawl out from under the weight.”

“Actually, that’s what I was doing when I met you—crawling away, escaping. For a while.”

“But not permanently?”

“If I escape this,”—he gestured at the grandeur of the sunstrewn hall—“I also escape my dignity, my family honor, my responsibility to my father’s household…my Jivinta. Can you honestly see me abandoning her? Or depriving myself of her?”

Anala sobered, lowering her eyes. “No, I can’t. Forgive me for making light of your honor. I misjudged you, Jaya Rai.”

Jaya Rai. He awarded himself an imaginary point.

She caught the expression on his face and said, “Well, your das call you that—your other das.”

“You aren’t-“ But she was. He started again. “You are the Rani Sadira, a distant cousin to the Saroj. Do you mind me calling you ‘Ana?’”

“My family calls me ‘Ana,’” she said.

“That’s nice, but that wasn’t the question. Do you mind me calling you that?”

“It seems that you are family now, too.”

Exasperation tickled his temper. “Is it a function of being Rohin that you answer every question indirectly?”

She seemed to consider the question seriously. “No. I think it is a function of being uncertain.”

He felt swift guilt, then brushed it aside with the reasonable argument that there was nothing else he could have done. Had the Sarngin reached her first, she would still be in that dalali, or worse.

Jivinta Mina chose that moment to appear at the head of the hall. She moved briskly, despite her cane, and swiftly herded Ana into her coach.

The shopping expedition dispatched, Jaya found Heli and Ari’s eldest son, Ravi, waiting for him in his study, his lord’s chamber robes—in the blaze and blood of the Sarojin colors—draped over one arm.

Jaya grimaced. “Am I going to be late again?”

Ravi smiled. “No, Jaya Rai. But I wanted to be sure you were not. The senior Varmana were a bit disgruntled the last time you took your seat in the middle of the invocation.”

“Took my seat? Fell into it, you mean.”

Ravi laughed. “Just as the Dandin said, ‘May the blessings of Sanat-ji descend upon you.”

“Damn robes will be the death of me, Ravi.” Jaya flicked a golden sleeve with one finger.

Ravi was immediately sober. “I suspect the robes had less to do with it than the wine, Jaya Rai.”

“I was feeling father’s passing rather acutely that day.“

“Understood, but it seemed to those who watched that you made light of the responsibilities that go with inheriting your father’s station.” He held the robes out for his lord to put on.

Jaya discovered, again, that there was an element of pain involved in allowing friendship to supplant ownership. “Ravi, you’re beginning to sound like your father.”

“If my father has told you that, then I’m happy to repeat him. He’s right…on occasion.” He fastened the closes on one crimson shoulder drape, then arranged his own matching cloak and waited.

Jaya looked at him a moment, his mind framing a sarcastic suggestion that they trade robes and position. The remark died before it reached his lips. This morning, he didn’t really mean it. This morning, he was anticipating the session. Between Anala’s accusation of Consortium foul play and Adivaram’s veiled suggestion of coercion by some mysterious coalition, Jaya Sarojin’s curiosity was kindling rapidly.

“You won’t believe me, but I’m actually looking forward to the assembly today.”

Ravi blinked. Of all the things his master might have said to him, that was possibly the least expected. Jaya scored for himself another imaginary point.

“Of course I believe you, Nathu Rai,” Ravi said finally. “You wouldn’t lie to me.” It was almost a question—suspecting, if not a lie, at least a jest.

Jaya chuckled, clapped a hand on Ravi’s shoulder and steered him out to the waiting coach.

o0o

The Sarojin box at the Kiritan was a second floor gallery, small enough to provide intimacy and warmth, and large enough to hold a good-sized party of guests. Anala and the Jivinta Mina entered it from a beautifully carved door of the same general proportions characteristic of those in the House Sarojin.

Anala smiled wryly. In her experience, one stooped to get through most doors. The small apertures, with their curved cowling and inner membranes and baffles shunted the stinging assault of the chill vayu winds. Only in the mild equatorial climes of the Sagara or the old-growth thickets of the Kedar did unprotected doorways exist. Her own home was in the rocky passes at the tree-line and just below the high Sita Plateau, so called because its barren earth was so bleached, it always seemed to be covered with snow.

She directed a smile at the servant who seated her at the large, graceful table, then almost gasped aloud when he drew the curtains that covered one wall, opening the box to the room below.

“Half-open please, Naru,” Mina told him. “We will have iced nectar to refresh ourselves before the meal.”

The man bowed and smiled, not insincerely, Anala decided. There was legitimate pleasure in his handsome face. Mina Sarojin was evidently a favorite patron.

“What do you think, Ana?” she asked when the server had disappeared to bring their drinks.

Anala’s eyes made a thorough assessment—the splendid box, the view of the beautifully laid-out restaurant with its fountains and greenery and statuary. What she had once taken as luxurious surroundings—the channara of the Hotel Gaesa in Raratok—seemed colorless in comparison. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

Mina quirked a silvery brow at her. “And extravagant?”

“The soul has as much need for beauty as the body does for food. What could be better than to feed both at the same time?”

“Well put. And,”—Mina glanced over the carved balustrade— “one can also feed one’s curiosity. Most of the crowns of Kasi society have boxes or booths or standing reservations at the Kiritan. Not to mention some from Nawahr and even Vatapur. From here, I can see much. Ah…Namun!”

Ana followed Mina Sarojin’s eyes as she sent a cheerful wave to someone below. A tall, slender gentleman with finely cut features and streaks of silver in his dark hair had just entered the main dining area from a side room and glanced up, smiling broadly in return. His somewhat mismatched clothing looked as if it had been an after-thought—careless enough that he looked as out-of-place as Ana felt. Mina beckoned to him and he began to move toward their balcony.

“Namun Vedda,” Jivinta Mina explained. The twinkle of her eyes told Anala that here was another of her favorites. “Jaya’s godfather. A delightful man. Very erudite. He once taught at the college here in Kasi, but he has left academic life to devote himself to research.”

“Research?” repeated Anala. “He’s a scientist?”

“Yes. He owns his own company, too. A company my son helped him start. They were like brothers. When Bhaktasu was killed, I think Namun nearly died with him. He’s unmarried.” She gave Ana a sly glance out of the tail of her eye. “Quite a catch for some intelligent and engaging woman. Oh-!”

The disappointment in Jivinta Mina’s face caused Anala to drop her gaze back to the floor below. Vedda-sama had been waylaid by another man—a handsome, impeccably dressed fellow with quick mannerisms and an air of great intensity. They were a study in contrasts; this newcomer was gesturing emphatically with his hands—Veddasama had stuffed his into the large pockets of his tunic. It was clear that this other demanded his attention and just as clear that he was much annoyed at the demand.

In the end, he waved his regrets to the Rani Mina and returned with his companion to the room he’d only just left.

Mina’s expression was one of barely veiled disdain. She made a clucking noise and shook her head.

“You don’t care much for Vedda-sama’s friend,” Anala guessed.

“An understatement. I despise him. He is my bond-daughter’s current…companion. I had thought better of her than that. I had, in fact, hoped she and Namun…” She shrugged eloquently and let the subject drop.

“I see our drinks hurrying this way,” observed Anala. “Should we order?”

In the end, the alieness of the dishes convinced Anala to have Mina order for her. It sounded like more than she could possibly eat, but Mina assured her that between the cook and the server, they would receive amounts proportioned to their respective appetites.

“A good server,” said Mina, “is a master at knowing his patrons’ preferences and appetites. This first time he serves you he has only your size, age and gender to go on, but as you return, he will note which are your favorite dishes and in what proportion.”

“Is he das?” asked Ana.

“Naru? Oh, no.” Jivinta Mina seemed almost scandalized at the thought. “The service people at the Kiritan are free—every one. Highly educated in the culinary arts as well as the spiritual disciplines. Giving pleasure is an art, Ana. But of course, your discipline as Rohin has taught you that.”

Anala discovered that one could, indeed, blush to the roots of one’s hair. “My bhakti is of the simplest kind, Jivinta,” she said. “I observe devotion to Sanatji, the pursuance of the Intellectual Arts. My knowledge of the Pleasure Arts is-“

“Ana,” interrupted the old woman, almost reproachfully, “I was not implying something about you I know is not true. I am aware that there are those who call themselves Rohin and are little more than glorified cunnidasa. I am also aware that you are not one of them. There is much of that on Mehtar,” she said thoughtfully, “but perhaps the Path is clearer on Avasa.”

“The Path is becoming unclear there, too. In the cities—even in a place as small and out-of-the-way as Onan—I’ve met bhakta who make a devotion of giving pleasure to male pilgrims in the Asra. The men joke and call it Josha—the Path of Satisfaction.” She looked away from Mina’s sharp gaze to the arcade below. Delicate sounds mingled with delicate perfumes rose upward to their aerie.

“Don’t concern yourself with them. Only your bhakti, Ana, concerns you. Not theirs… What’s wrong, child?”

Anala barely heard the question. Her entire attention was on a familiar face in the room below. Where had she seen that face, and why did it matter? His clothes didn’t seem right…

She nearly jumped out of her chair. “That man, Jivinta!” She pointed. “The one just crossing the room—no, he’s stopped again, near that small fountain.”

“I’ve never seen him before. What about him bothers you?”

“That’s one of the thieves who stole my father’s money.”

Mina didn’t ask if she was certain. Instead, she turned raptor eyes on the man as if to memorize him. “Shall we pursue him?” she asked. “Have him stopped?”

“On what charge, Jivinta? How can I stop him without revealing myself? Besides, who would believe that a man of such obvious means would steal money from someone like me?”

“What is he doing here, I wonder?”

“Could we find out?”

Mina smiled and rang the service bell.

Naru appeared almost immediately with a platter of breads, a slight frown in his eyes. “There is something wrong, Rani?”

“Not a thing, Naru,” Mina told him. “Your service is exemplary, as always. But I’ve seen someone I know I should recognize, but cannot match with a name. One of my grandson’s many friends. Is he still there, Ana, dear?”

“Just leaving, Jivinta.” Ana’s voice betrayed none of her desperation.

Naru took the cue and moved to stand behind Mina’s chair, his eyes on the premiere floor.

“There,” said Mina, “just passing the first table.”

Naru squinted, frowned and shook his head. “I’ve seen him before, but I know nothing about him.”

“He came out of that doorway over there.” Ana pointed to an elegantly decorated portal of only slightly less grandeur than the one they’d entered to reach the Sarojin box.

“He might be acquainted with someone who has a box in that section. Then again, he might just be a general patron.”

Anala sighed in frustration. Fate had granted her a gift and she had failed to accept it.

Naru’s face brightened. “I could give him a message, if I should see him again.”

“Oh, no,” said Mina, “that would never do. Then I should have to make the embarrassing admission that I’ve forgotten his name.”

“Well then, I shall ask the other servers if they know him.”

“If you would be so kind. If I’m going to put the man on my invitation list, I must have his name.” Mina smiled engagingly and Naru bowed his way back to the serving cart, clearly pleased to assist her.

The meal was wonderful and Anala managed to lose herself in enjoyment of it, though Naru didn’t discover anything about the Nathu Rai Sarojin’s mysterious “friend.” He promised continued attention to the matter as he escorted them to the Sarojin carriage.

“I will find out this man, Rani Sarojin,” he vowed. “You shall have him at your next dinner, I promise you.”

“Yes, as the main course,” murmured Mina.

Naru laughed and bowed as the carriage pulled away from the Kiritan’s front curbing.



Laldasa - Beloved Slave by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoffby Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9828440-8-3

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