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    small mercy
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To Dance On Your Fingertips - 2. Chapter 2

The ruling class loved their pleasure gardens.

Somesh eventually awoke when dawn was peeking out from the horizon. They’d gained quite a bit of elevation and he could see the ocean far in the distance through the carriage window, dark and deceptively tranquil. His travelling companions were asleep, and there were no sounds aside from their gentle snores, the crunch of wheels on the stone road, and the chirps of birds overhead.

The carriage was transiting through a vast garden, neatly manicured and astoundingly clean. The morning fog left a wet sheen on the surrounding foliage and the earth smelled headily of dewy grass, jasmine, hibiscus, and frangipani. A bright green parrot cawed at him from a neem tree. Peacocks strutted about everywhere, shedding their iridescent feathers on the short grass. As the carriage drew closer to the palace, he heard the shouts and idle chatter of labourers going about their work, and the sound of gentle splashing from some of the dozens of fountains spanning the grounds.

He removed a shawl from his sack and bundled it around himself. The morning air was cool, and the breeze from the ocean cooled it further. He tried not to think about what just happened mere hours earlier. Leaving Anju behind, that man Bismil’s blood on Lila’s table, those words—if you wish to use him—and his sudden promotion from a slum-dwelling wretch to a... some new kind of wretch. He wasn’t sure yet. What if the prince grew tired of him? Did he often take home strays on a whim? Prince Salim seemed kind enough, if a bit of a hedonist, but what of the others in the palace? Would other servants see him as an outsider?

The carriage halted and he unlatched the door and stepped out before his companions even had a chance to awake.

The palace before him was built of reddish stone and gleaming white marble, its tall spires stretching up into the grey-purple sky and round domes capped them off, their tips glistening with gold. Parallel pools interspersed with fountains ran along the length of the walkway up to the main gates. Fruit trees shaded the path.

The tall man who hadn’t bothered to give Somesh his name was at his side again. “First, you’ll need a bath,” he said. “Then I’ll send you off to the servants’ quarters and get you settled into your duties. As the servant master, I should only hear your name spoken by others in praise—don’t cause me embarrassment.”

“Who’s he, Hamid-sir?” a passing labourer asked.

“Another nobody,” the man—Hamid—said. Somesh supposed that was true enough.

The servants’ quarters were about 500 metres away from the palace gates, a short walk each morning and evening. Hamid ushered Somesh along, walking at an astoundingly brisk pace, so fast that Somesh had to attempt to conceal his rapid breathing, and hastily wipe the sweat from his brow. Hamid’s legs were very long and his gait reminded Somesh of a peacock, torso tilted slightly forward.

He found that he’d be allotted a cot in a room shared with several other boys and men. The women’s quarters were nearby, just over a small hill and behind a copse of trees. There was a small bathhouse adjacent to the quarters, to which Somesh was escorted by Hamid, and handed a fresh set of cotton clothes: a long kurta and some pants.

The bath was a fry cry from the bucket he used to douse himself at the brothel. It was indoors for one thing, and it was actually clean, lined with off-white porcelain tile, and set into the ground. He ran a hand through the clear water; it was lukewarm, which was better than he was expecting. He quickly shed his clothes and sunk in, grateful that no one else was in the room.

He wasn’t given soap but it was no matter; he rubbed vigorously at himself until he could see the grime float away in the water, until his skin felt prickly and raw. If he focused on stinging of his flesh, he didn’t have to think about the fact that his life was upturned in an evening, that he’d left behind Anju to god-knows-what fate, that he could be fired and sent away from the palace in disgrace, that he’d have nowhere to go, he’d be left alone in this big city, miles and miles away from Gutarpur, from that loathsome but comfortable brothel called Haveli.

Squashing down the panic that was starting to bubble in his stomach, he held his breath and submerged his head underwater, giving his hair and scalp the same treatment as his skin, before climbing out and drying off with one of the threadbare towels hanging nearby. His uniform felt stiff and starchy but the material was thick enough to block out most of the morning chill. Idly, he admired its colour: a soft, tranquil blue like the summer sky or the skin of a god.

Hamid popped his head in through the door, although Somesh couldn’t have been in there for more than five minutes. “I have other duties to attend to, you know. Are you done primping?”

Somesh attempted to smooth out the wrinkles in his kurta with his hands. “Yes, Hamid.”

Sir.”

“Yes, Hamid-sir.”

Hamid disappeared back outside, his voice trailing out, “Come along, then.”

He hastily re-wrapped his shawl around his shoulders and followed the man out past the women’s quarters and further beyond to the back of the palace grounds. He shivered as a slight breeze tangled itself in his damp hair, and hiked up his pants, to prevent the dew—which had already soaked his bare feet—from wetting the cuffs.

For all his obvious disgruntlement at having to babysit him, Hamid was kind enough to at least let Somesh know what, exactly, was going on. “Prince Salim can be... overly generous. He has no need for another attendant. So I will instead place you where you’ll be useful.” He glanced at Somesh without breaking stride, looking him over from head to foot and apparently finding him lacking in some way, based on the way his mouth curled. “Well. Let’s hope you will be useful.”

Hamid then came to a stop so abruptly, Somesh nearly collided with his back. “Here,” he said simply.

They’d stopped at the edge of a rose garden, clean and neat, just like the rest of the grounds. He saw all variety of petal colours, including some that he hadn’t known existed. Purple roses? Were they painted that way?

“Oh, dear!” a voice said. “Is this my helper?”

A woman was slowly approaching the two of them, an incredulous half-smile on her face. She wore a plain but bright yellow sari, and her greying hair was tided up in a loose bun. She appeared to be somewhere in her forties or fifties.

Hamid cleared his throat and Somesh noted that there was a very faint blush high on his cheeks. “Yes. This is...” Hamid looked over at him expectantly and Somesh realized he’d forgotten his name.

“Somesh Nanda,” Somesh said, trying to will a polite smile onto his face. He pressed his hands together and bowed.

“He’s cute!” the woman said to Hamid, laughing. “But he doesn’t look strong enough to do all the grunt work you promised I’d no longer have to do myself.”

Hamid offered a one-shouldered shrug. “He’s a young man, of course he’ll be strong enough. If he knows what’s good for him, he won’t give you any trouble at all.” This last part was said while glaring at Somesh, which Somesh felt was rather undeserved.

The woman laughed again. “Who am I to doubt you, Hamid?” Somesh noticed she didn’t have to say ‘sir.’ “Where’d you find this one anyway?”

“Another of Prince Salim’s charity cases. I’d figure he’d be more useful to you than to the prince.”

They made idle chit-chat for a while longer, with Somesh continuing to stand there awkwardly, still holding up his pant cuffs, his hair in disarray and wetly sticking to his forehead. He no doubt looked like a complete fool next to this tidy man and this carelessly elegant woman.

“Well, come along then,” the woman eventually said to him, beginning to walk away. Her gait was a bit unsteady, as she seemed to favour her left leg. Before Somesh could follow after her, Hamid gripped his upper arm, tight.

“You are to show her the utmost respect,” he said.

Somesh looked him in the eye. “Yes, Hamid-sir.”

Hamid let go and Somesh followed after the woman.

“Regardless of what Hamid thinks, you can still attend to Prince Salim when time allows,” she said. “He often gives away money when inebriated and I’d hate for you to miss out on that.” She gestured to the grounds around them. “These gardens are for the king’s harem—the women like to make their own rose water and syrups. It gives them something to do. When they’re out here, you are to make yourself scarce. You can attend to Prince Salim at those times.”

“Okay, ma’am.”

She laughed. She had a funny laugh, very sharp, and nearly a cackle. It almost didn’t suit her. “You can call me Simi.”

“Okay, Simi-ma’am.”

“Just Simi is fine.”

“I don’t think Hamid-sir would like that very much.”

Now, this really got her laughing. “Oh, don’t you worry about him! All bark and no bite. Now, what gardening experience do you have?”

He answered truthfully: “None, Simi-ma’am. I’m sorry.” Gutarpur didn’t have gardens and it was miles away from farmland. He was accustomed to brick and dust, not this sprawling greenery.

“Well,” she said. “Good thing any idiot can weed and move soil. Let’s get you started on that.”

So that was exactly what he did until sundown. He carried buckets upon buckets of soil from one place to another and he got down on his hands and knees and pulled at prickly weeds until his hands were scratched and blistered. At midday, he and Simi retreated into a banyan’s shade and ate lentil curry, rice, and curd brought over to them by a servant who couldn’t have been older than ten years. Then they resumed their work. Every so often, Simi would break away from him and elevate her right leg on a mound of earth or whatever else she could find, her face set in a tight grimace. When Somesh inquired if she was okay, she would wave him away and tell him to get back to work.

When purple twilight graced the sky, Somesh was aching and dirty, his nice new clothes covered in sweat and dirt. His forearms were pock-marked with mosquito bites.

“Your blood must be very sweet,” Simi said, admiring the multitude of bites. “I only got a few.”

Judging by her continued friendly demeanour, Somesh felt relieved that he had indeed proven himself useful in some way, and the ache in his muscles and in his chest seemed to ease a little. He ate another meal of curried rice and curd in the servants’ quarters and then took another bath under the glow of oil lamps. This time the bathhouse was filled with at least a dozen others, and he was able to ask someone for soap.

As he lay in that cot, moonlight streaming in through the windows, the air around him hot and dense, he felt a desperate sort of loneliness attach itself to his heart. He thought about throwing off the thin sheet that covered him and running—god knows where he would run, back home, or maybe into the ocean. He focused on the warmth of the sleeping bodies around him and the sound of their snoring until the urge passed. It would take hours for sleep to come to him.

Tomorrow, his routine was much the same, as was the next day’s, and the next. At the end of each week, he was given a small pouch full of coins. The loneliness eased the more he talked to Simi and the other boys.

A few times, he was called to fetch some food for Prince Salim, or to clean his quarters, and once even to help dress him. He was surprised and pleased to find Salim remembered him (although he didn’t appear to remember his name).

“This boy saved me from losing Toofan to that disgraceful Bismil al-Jafari!” Salim told the small crowd seated around him, setting a meaty hand on Somesh’s head. “Boy, I’ve just won a game of cards—come sweeten your mouth!” He then pressed a piece of mango against Somesh’s lips. Somesh opened his mouth reflexively; it tasted heavenly. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten mango.

(Five months later, Salim lost his horse Toofan in another game of cards.)

One day, Somesh was tasked with delivering a letter to the postmaster. Salim handed it to him and simply said: Meenaxshi, Haveli, Gutarpur. The prince was corresponding with one of the courtesans at Haveli, the postmaster must know the address, Somesh could...

He asked one of the other servants—Abdul, who occupied the cot next to him—if he could find him a pen and some scraps of paper.

“You know how to write?” Abdul asked, eyes narrowed.

“No,” Somesh admitted.

Abdul found him a pen and paper anyway and Somesh set to work. None of the servants he’d befriended could write, not even Simi, and it hardly mattered anyway: Anju couldn’t read. Lila Bai was the only one he knew at Haveli who could read and write and he doubted she’d take precious time out of her day to read aloud for Anju.

He drew the palace. His artistry was juvenile, at best, but he persisted, drawing himself serving chai, or fanning the prince, or on his knees pulling out weeds.

He drew himself surrounded by roses.

He handed the letter to the postmaster and ignored his sneer when he asked that it be addressed to Anju at Haveli brothel. He paid the tiny fee and could not stop himself from smiling for the rest of the day. He doubted Anju would write back; she wasn’t sentimental and didn’t seem to experience loss in the same way as others, completely immune to grief through practice. Despite this, it felt good to think that the drawings might cause her to smile.

His eighteenth birthday came and passed without a word from him to anyone else about it, and the monsoons soon set upon the country. Work in the gardens was done for now, and he spent less and less time with Simi and more time attending to the prince. Salim had so many attendants, all of whom vied for his attention and favour. The others looked upon Somesh with unguarded disdain. It irritated him deeply; couldn’t they see they were the same as him, his peers, forever entwined with him by virtue of their inalienable class?

Abdul met him outside Salim’s court day. The courtyard itself was covered, but the two of them stood right at the periphery, able to feel the warm, wet winds of the monsoon just graze their backs. The humidity caused Somesh’s hair to curl at his ears, and his clothes to cling to him.

Salim was in the middle of telling a joke: “So Heera says to Moti: it’s impossible. There’s no way a group of women could remain silent for so long.”

The crowd laughed, all except two. Zahid—the eldest legitimate prince—was talking to a man seated next to him in hushed, irritated tones. He’d heard the oldest was pious beyond measure, and Somesh noticed that Zahid was the only one in the assembled group who didn’t drink or gamble.

He didn’t recognize the other man. He was tall, with fair skin, and a strong, aquiline nose, and he was perhaps a handful of years older than Somesh. He looked bored.

Abdul tilted his chin at him. “That’s Feroz, the youngest son.”

“I’ve never seen him before. He must be quite busy.”

Abdul snorted. “He’s off galavanting to Morocco or Egypt or Greece. If not there, he’s vacationing at the desert palace in Rehgistan. He comes back here every once in a while when his wet nurse tells him to come show his face for diplomacy’s sake.”

Somesh couldn’t fathom why anyone would prefer the desert to the lushness that was all around them. This place might as well have been built on the bones of Dwarka, the ancient city of Krishna, magical but doomed, swallowed by the sea.

Feroz made eye contact with Somesh and snapped his fingers. He pointed down at his cup.

Somesh didn’t move immediately, so it was Abdul who rushed over to refill his wine.

Feroz looked back at Salim. “Your catamite over there seems a bit slow.”

Salim laughed. “You wish he were a catamite, you bastard!”

Zahid scowled fiercely.

Somesh wanted to disappear completely.

“What a bunch of assholes,” Abdul muttered after returning to his side.

Somesh thought about Anju and how she would have handled such blatant disrespect. She probably would’ve grit her teeth and done nothing, just as Somesh was doing now. If this were in Haveli, and if Feroz was of much lower social stature, Lila Bai would’ve walked over and upended the bottle of wine over his head.

The thought made him smile. The truth of the matter was, he didn’t warrant any kind of respect, not here nor anywhere else. He existed to serve food and drink and tend to roses.

Some of the men were starting to get up and leave, murmuring about an early day tomorrow or angry wives at home. Zahid had excused himself long ago, saying talking to drunkards was pointless. Feroz was still seated, nursing a drink. Somesh glanced over at him and found that Forez had been watching him.

Feroz didn’t seem bothered that he’d been caught staring and after a while, Somesh had to look away, feeling his face heat up. He wondered if he’d done something else to anger the man. Maybe he’d ask Salim to have him dismissed—all because he didn’t respond immediately to his request for more goddamn booze.

There were a few stragglers. One particularly paunchy man signalled for more drink. Somesh quickly made his way over to him and refilled his cup. On his way back to Abdul, he felt a hand grip his wrist, unsteadying him, causing him to nearly fall.

It was Feroz’s hand. He pulled him down so fast that Somesh nearly fell into his lap, their faces inches apart, and Feroz’s breath smelled sharp and metallic, stinking of drink. His fingers felt hot against Somesh’s racing pulse.

“I’m sorry for calling you slow,” Feroz said.

The man’s eyes were greenish-brown. Somesh wondered if there was a name for that colour. “I—okay? I mean, it’s okay, your highness.”

Feroz let go of his wrist and Somesh barely caught himself from falling onto the floor in an undignified heap. “Good,” he said.

Somesh made his way over to Abdul, feeling confused and tired and wanting nothing more than to press his face down against the rough surface of his cot.

“Again,” Abdul said, “what an asshole.”

Copyright © 2021 small mercy; All Rights Reserved.
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10 hours ago, Ashton said:

Looks like the protagonists are here. When will the antagonists present themselves? 😛👍🏼

Some antagonists might already be present 👀 👀 👀 

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