By L.E. Bryce
The sequel to Concubinage. A courtesan of Tajhaan, Inandré finds his life tainted by scandal in the wake of a vicious assault. Admirers and friends desert him, leaving him without hope for the future until he finds a soul mate in one unlikely man.
Inandré took another sip of wine to steady his nerves. For all he knew, this might be the last time he ever saw Shapur ked Khaturin, the last time he ever entertained an admirer, or tasted such a fine vintage. “You do not need me, Shapur, and I am not what you think I am. Yes, I am an akharu who was once owned by a kinsman of the High Prince. I was made for love and pleasure, and I gave that, but all that is gone now. You are not the only one who grieves. Everything that I was or believed is gone, turned to ashes, and each day I wake thinking my sorrow is going to choke me.” Crumpling his linen napkin in his fist, he rose. “I am a terrible host for saying so. Believe me when I say I am sorry I cannot give you what you want, or deserve.”
Where he would have withdrawn, Shapur reached for him, closing a firm hand around his wrist to prevent his escape. “Inandré, do not go.”
“I cannot bring Ashara back for you.”
“I do not expect you to.”
Shapur gently took the napkin from him and tossed it amid the ruins of their picnic. Then, still clasping his wrist, the merchant rose and led him to a bench under the shade of an orange tree. “Sit with me for a while. I will not talk about Ashara, or my children. I should have known how rude it was to impose like this upon you.”
Inandré felt the pressure of his fingers, gently squeezing, yet could not look at him. “No, I should not have—”
“Hush, now. You were right to say something. Had you not, I think I would have gone on for weeks as I have been, all to avoid the things I want to say.” Shapur’s voice was low and soothing; he must have spoken to his wife in exactly this way. “I have been told a great many things about you—no, I will not repeat those slanders. I merely want to know how much is true.”
Inandré pulled his hand free; he buried it in his lap, twisting his fingers together. Never before had Shapur turned the topic of conversation to him. Is this not what I wanted? No, not quite like this, not where he, ashamed and tongue-tied, could barely find the words to answer.
When he did, his response spilled out in an unseemly jumble. “You mean, did a prince whose name I will not mention hound me for months before bribing my servants to gain entry to my house? Did he rape me in my salon, then lie about it in court? Yes, that is all true. Was I stupid enough to try to sue him? Yes, I was. Was I naïve enough to believe I had any hope of being believed or receiving justice? Yes, I was.”
Shapur remained silent so long it seemed he would never answer. It disgusts him. He thinks I am a whore, just like all the others. “I had no idea.”
He sounded so sad, so strained, that Inandré let some of the bitterness drain from his voice. “What did you think I would say?”
“I do not know,” admitted Shapur, “only that I do not like to pass judgment based on rumor and speculation. I would be a very poor businessman if I did that.”
Inandré glanced meaningfully toward the foyer. “I suppose you wish to leave now?”
No akharu worth his or her breeding would suggest such a thing so bluntly. Inandré marked the slip, yet did not apologize. Too many would-be admirers had extricated themselves from his company in the last eight months, leaving behind them a trail of lame excuses and canceled engagements; he no longer had the will to be gracious.
If Shapur noticed, he made no comment. “I would like to stay,” he answered. “That is, unless you wish to kick me to the curb. I should have asked you sooner what took place, but from what little I have heard it seemed rude to pry into such an intimate matter.” Turning his palms up, he spread his hands. “So you see, all these many months I have wasted your time with my babbling.”
“I do not think you considered it so,” Inandré said quietly.
Shapur nodded. “There are few these days in whom I can confide. As my relatives and associates see it, the forty days of mourning have passed. Most of them would prefer I find a new, young wife to help me forget about Ashara, or a fresh business venture. They certainly have no interest in hearing about a dead woman. So when your friend Hanithi introduced us and dropped the hint that you were a good listener, well-bred, and not at all in a hurry, of course I came to you. Until today, I thought it an ideal arrangement.”
Those last words set Inandré’s teeth on edge. For all his soft talk, he means to walk out of here and forget me, and I have no one else. Had he been shrewd, he would have clung to Shapur’s arm and murmured honeyed assurances, but those familiar phrases tasted too sour to utter. “Because you had no thought at all for anything but your loss,” Inandré replied. “No, do not look at me like that—let me speak my mind. It is a rare privilege for me.”
“Do you think you are the only one who is consumed with agony over something forever lost? Do you think just because I smile so prettily and make such vapid conversation that I feel nothing? I lie awake at night choked by uncertainty and loneliness, bleeding inside because my heart has been torn in two, just as surely as my body was violated.
“I want to love. I would like nothing better than to bestow my affection on you or some other worthy man, but I am afraid. I used to be utterly wanton, afraid of nothing, but that was before, when I still believed in a thing called love. Now I do not think it even exists.”
Once again, Shapur reached across and took his hand. “You are too young to be so disillusioned.”
“I am old by the standards of my profession.”
Shapur’s fingers squeezed his. “Old or young, love does exist for those who can find it.”
“For you, perhaps.”
“Why should I be any different?”
Only an ignorant man would ask. “Because you were not taken as a child from whatever home you knew, from parents you no longer remember, and sold to a school where your sole purpose was to learn how to please others,” explained Inandré. “Your head was not stuffed with poetry, and you were not taught to hide your true longings behind a veil of desire. Love for an akesh or an akharu is very different than for a man who loved his first wife so much that he took no others. For you, it is about sentiment and passion. For me, it is about opportunity. There is only one reason an akharu receives admirers in his salon, and it is not for love.”
Shapur’s grip tightened, but he did not pull away. “And yet, you have never pressed me on the subject. Either you do not care for me or…”
“I preferred not to frighten you away.”