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    small mercy
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To Dance On Your Fingertips - 3. Chapter 3

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“Say, do you know whatever happened to Bismil? Al-Jafari was his name, I think. He was part of Prince Salim’s entourage.”

Somesh spoke in a hushed tone, not wanting their supervisor to overhear. Today they were tasked to clean a guest room currently occupied by one of Prince Salim’s most unmannered friends. The man, Kasim, had sat himself down on a chaise by the fireplace and hadn’t budged for nearly a half-hour now, ostensibly reading a book—but Somesh could feel his eyes on the back of his head. The man likely thought he and Abdul couldn’t be trusted not to steal.

Abdul frowned, clearly thinking hard about his question. “Bismil, Bismil,” he whispered. “I don’t remember anyone by that name...”

His stomach churned. “He was caught playing with loaded dice. And then he was—”

“Oh, him!” Abdul said, too loudly. He cringed, immediately glancing over Somesh’s shoulder, but no reprimand came from Kasim. “His father is close to the king,” he whispered. “That’s the only thing that saved him from death. He got flogged and exiled. Idiot deserved worse—don’t you think so?”

He nodded hurriedly. A boulder had lifted off his chest and he thanked the gods above that Abdul was friends with a couple of guards; he’d have to try befriending a guard himself, for they were bottomless pits of information—especially the eunuchs, who carried gossip back from the courtyards and kitchens and bazaars into the harems. Although the gossip was mangled, chewed up and regurgitated by the time it finally reacher the ladies’ ears, Somesh supposed it hardly mattered as long as it served its ultimate purpose: to entertain and titillate.

He decided he would choose to believe that the second-hand information about Bismil was absolute fact. To think otherwise caused hazy guilt to creep into the corners of his mind.

He tucked the silk sheets under the mat and then put his hands on his hips, looking around the suite and admiring their finished work. Kasim was not a clean man: the room had clothes and half-eaten food and drink scattered around every available surface; unidentifiable stains had marked the old sheets; and oil and wax from tipped over lamps and candles had to be vigorously scraped off wood and marble. Haveli was cleaner than this. The Gutarpur hovels made from scraps cemented together with mud and dung were cleaner than this.

“We’re finished here, sir,” Abdul said. Somesh removed any hints of contempt from his face and turned to face Kasim.

“Empty your pockets,” Kasim said from his spot by the hearth and the two men turned their empty pockets inside-out without hesitance.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough to satisfy the man’s suspicions. He got up from the chaise and made his way over them and Somesh fought the urge to step back. Abdul stood rigid next to him.

Kasim patted Abdul down as Somesh watched in stunned silence. And then did the same to Somesh, hands rough and heavy against his chest, hips, thighs. He looked over at Abdul in confusion and budding panic but the other man wasn’t looking at him, just frowning at the far wall.

“Prince Salim expects us back now,” Somesh blurted, not knowing where the words were coming from or why he was speaking at all.

Kasim shifted his hand from Somesh’s thigh up to his hip and left it there and Somesh found himself continuing in a hurry, “He’ll be angry if we’re late. We’d have to tell him why.”

The man stepped away but didn’t remove his hand and then Abdul was leading him out of the suite by his hand. Somesh hadn’t known he’d been holding his breath until they were both outside and down the hall. Kasim watched them go and made no move to follow them.

After they’d left that wing of the palace entirely, Abdul finally spoke: “You lived in a brothel, right?” He didn’t wait for Somesh to answer. “You’ll find this place is no different. Men here have too much leisure time. They have nothing else to do but eat and drink and fuck.” He paused. “You ever been fucked?”

God,” Somesh whined miserably, covering his mouth with his hands.

Abdul was glaring at him now. “Why do you always get embarrassed like that? You lived in a whorehouse. In the shittiest slum in the empire. Grow up, you literal son of a whore.”

There was no sense in getting offended by the truth so he didn’t. “Sorry,” he said instead, removing his hands from his mouth.

Abdul lifted his hands and made a motion like he wanted to strangle him. “Don’t be sorry! Just stop doing it! Stop acting shy or nervous! Men like Kasim like that too much. My advice? Look surly all the time and make yourself ugly.”

“Do you make yourself ugly?”

“Luckily, I’m naturally ugly.”

That startled a nervous laugh out of him and Abdul offered a brief smirk in return. “Listen,” Abdul continued, his serious tone returning as quickly as it left. “You might’ve had people looking out for you in Gutarpur, I don’t know. But here, if some fat pervert who can’t or won’t differentiate between a man and a woman wants to fuck you, he will. If he wants to beat you, he will. If that beating kills you, then oh well. You’d be lucky if they even bother burning your corpse and don’t just dump it in the river as-is.”

Somesh idly wondered if Simi would be upset if any of that happened. Could he count on her to let Anju know? More likely than not, if he was caned to death or if he slipped and cracked his head or even if he simply just caught a fever and wasted away, he’d simply be forgotten here.

But he would’ve been forgotten in Haveli, too. Anju hadn’t written back.

Abdul was looking at him curiously, like he was expecting a certain response. When none came, he sighed. “Whatever. I don’t need you anymore today—go find Hamid and ask him for work.”

“Thanks, Abdul.”

“Fuck off, Somesh.”

 

Hamid immediately yelled at him for even asking him what to do and told him to report immediately to Simi and assist her in any way he could. Simi told him there was no point in working in the rain and to just hide.

“Take breaks whenever and wherever you can,” she said. “Working nonstop won’t increase your respect or your pay, but it might give you a busted-up knee and an uncomely gait.”

“Do you think my gait is comely, ma’am?” he tried to joke.

“The comeliest,” she said.

Thankfully, he knew where to hide. The women of the harem were out in the garden collecting rosebuds, with their eunuch guards shielding them from the downpour with comically large umbrellas. The fact that the women were outside meant the gardens were off-limits to all men but the king—but there were areas which the harem didn’t frequent, little alcoves in the palace walls behind trees and bushes that he could easily slip into and be seen by no one.

This alcove was the most perfect spot in the entire garden because Simi allowed the plants to grow unencumbered. There was no tidiness here; vines climbed up the walls, overgrown trees slumped against each other, roses of different varieties were tangled up in each other like clumps of matted hair. It was all hidden from view, and Simi had told him that that was the only reason she allowed the plants here to do as they pleased.

He slipped into the spacious and dry alcove, removing the shawl he’d used to protect against the downpour. He did his best to wash off his muddied feet with the water that streamed down from the gutters above and offered a wordless prayer to Indra for the beauty of the monsoon. The rain had beat down the usual near-pungent fragrance of the roses and the air smelled of soil and stone and ozone. He let his eyes slip shut and allowed the warm, wet air fill his lungs until they were nearly bursting with it, suddenly so at peace in that dim, damp place behind the banyans, ready to fall asleep at any moment...

He eventually awoke slumped against the wall and with a terrible crick in his neck. He stretched luxuriously, moaning as it released the pain in his spine.

“It seems we have too many servants and too little actual work.”

Holy shit!” Somesh yelled, nearly choking on the yawn that was halfway down his throat.

Sitting cross-legged next to him was Prince Feroz, looking at him with the same bored expression he wore when Somesh last saw him. A steaming meal of something meaty and rich sat in his lap and a book and umbrella were placed off to his side.

His heart was a hummingbird. So many apologies and excuses were crowding Somesh’s head that they got crammed up somewhere before they could leave his mouth, which left him gaping like an idiot. This was it. He’d get flogged and beaten and exiled and he’d have to find some way back to Gutarpur and beg Lila Bai to take him back and she would likely spit in his face and leave him to starve to death in a ditch—

The prince picked up a hefty piece of meat with his fingers and popped it in his mouth. After chewing thoroughly—leaving Somesh to sit there staring in frightened anticipation—he said, “This is my spot. It’s always been my spot.”

He finally found his voice and bowed his head. “I’m so sorry, your highness.”

“The harem is out,” Feroz said. “Did you come here to peek?”

No! No, no, no! “Of course not, I—no, your highness. Never. I can’t even see them from here.” He would know that if this were his spot.

“Do you want to take a peek? Be truthful.”

Somesh had the distinct feeling that he was watching an animal play with its food. “No, your highness. Not at all. I’m not—I’m not interested.”

A ghost of a smile played at the corners of Feroz’s mouth. Somesh felt like he should apologize some more and then find some way to politely dismiss himself.

“Would you like some?” Feroz asked nodding his head down at his lap.

Somesh couldn’t even tell what kind of meat it was, but the spicy iron smell of it turned his stomach. “Thank you, but no. Please enjoy your meal.”

The man seemed to be in a talkative mood. “Why not?” he asked.

“I can’t eat meat, your highness.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

He frowned. Surely this man wasn’t such a fool that he couldn’t tell he was talking to a Hindu. One that clearly wasn’t a Kshatriya at that, despite the false surname his mother had bestowed on him. “I don’t know, sir. Both, I suppose.”

“You’re short because you don’t eat meat,” he said matter-of-factly. He chewed some more—was it mutton?—and Somesh looked out beyond the alcove into the pouring rain, fantasizing about making a run for it. But before he could gather the courage to inch his way away from the other man, he spoke again. “Do you, like others of your kind, posit that animals are equal to humans?”

Why did these innocuous questions feel so dangerous? He felt like he was treading on crumbling, uneven ground. “I...” He hesitated.

It was Feroz's turn to frown now. “Don’t be boring.” Abdul was right, what an asshole. “You have my permission to speak freely.”

Speak freely until I say something you don’t like, you mean? Those words stuck to the back of his teeth. “Whether or not they’re equal to us—that, I don’t know. Maybe they aren’t. But, um, they all feel pain. Like us.” He pressed his lips together, hating himself immensely in that moment. He sounded like an idiot child.

Feroz snorted. He obviously thought Somesh was a fool and Somesh couldn’t blame him. “Would you begrudge the tiger for tearing apart the antelope?”

“A tiger can’t help what it is.”

Feroz half-smiled in a way that revealed a single glinting canine. “Neither can I,” he said.

Silence sat heavy between them. Somesh felt oddly exposed. He thought back to his earlier uncomfortable moment with Kasim; but at least Feroz didn’t touch him this time. He was just talking.

Feroz stuck his hands out beyond the lip of the alcove and Somesh watched the rain wash away the blood and grease from his fingertips. His hands look unfairly strong for someone who hadn’t done real work ever in his life. “The only thing I miss about this place when I’m in Rehgistan is the rains,” he said. He wiped his hands dry on the shawl lying between them—Somesh’s shawl—and picked up the book at his side. “Do you like poetry?”

“Sometimes, your highness.”

“Whose?”

He only knew one poet. His mother had known her poems by heart and she’d recited them to him and to the tiny idol of Krishna he now kept under his cot. “Meera Bai,” he said.

“A woman poet? Can’t say I’ve heard of her. What did she write about?”

Maybe if he continued to be boring, he’d be dismissed. “Love,” he said.

“Don’t they all.” He opened the book in his lap. “It’s too bad you don’t understand Persian. It’s the language of poetry.”

I can’t even spell my own name, he wanted to say. Maybe it was the earlier incident with Kasim still preying on his mind, but an ember of pure anger was set aglow in the darkest pit of his mind. Are we equal to animals?

...Yes! He was surrounded by animals, Somesh himself was an animal. At least the animals of Haveli hadn’t tried to hide their naked animalness behind tomes of poetry and fine fabrics and pretty Persian words. At least they knew they were as low as the lowliest of creatures. The only men here with some semblance of honour were the pious ones, like Hamid and the eldest prince, who at least stuck to the principles of their holy book and didn’t drink and gamble and commit adultery by night and then pray facing Mecca during the light of day.

Somesh,” Somesh said.

“Hm?” the prince asked, his tone absent but his gaze intent.

“My name. Just in case you were wondering.” A beat. “Your highness.”

Feroz was silent for a while, the only sound between them was the pounding of the rain. The shadows played against his face and caught in his beard and the ridges of his cheeks ways that were almost mesmerizing. Eventually, Feroz spoke. “If you wish to return to your nap, you can. I won’t tell your master.”

Finally, an escape route. “Thank you for your kindness, but I should be off now. I'd meant to just rest my eyes for a moment.”

Feroz stared at him, expression blank, before nodding once and turning his eyes to his book, a clear dismissal. Relieved, Somesh wrapped his sodden shawl over his head and hopped down from the alcove and into the garden, wondering if he'd just dreamt that entire stilted conversation. What the hell he should do now? Maybe he should find Abdul; he knew everything, he’d be able to tell him more about Feroz and exactly how cautious Somesh should be around him if he were to run into him again.

As he slipped into the men’s quarters he mourned the loss of his spot behind the banyans. He’d have to wait until Feroz returned to the desert before he could enjoy the solitude of that overgrown place again. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, seeing the twisting vines crowding against the stone walls in his mind’s eye. He also saw Feroz, looking at him with those green-brown eyes and that strange half-bored, half-curious expression of his. He was haloed by roses, their thorns long and sharp.

He opened his eyes and was met with the sight of grey walls and grey floors and rows and rows of stiff, hard cots.

He felt the drip-drip-drip of water against his head. A leak.

He sighed. Perhaps he could use the puddled water to scrub the floors.

 

The morning saw a break in the clouds, and Somesh felt the warmth of the sun against his skin for the first time in weeks, which meant he could spend the entire day working with Simi and hopefully avoid lecherous or talkative nobles.

Breakfast consisted of a banana, stale roti with pickled mango, and a glass of lukewarm, sugarless chai that was a little too generous with the cardamom, to the point that that was all Somesh could taste. He sucked the pickle grease off his fingers before washing up and hurrying to the gardens, wanting nothing more than to submerge himself in the soil and force melancholic thoughts away by focusing on growth and life.

He couldn’t find Simi but it hardly mattered: by now he knew what tasks had to be done. There was an infestation of aphids and the neem trees needed their insecticidal oil harvested. He spent the morning gathering the neem seeds and letting them dry out in the mist-dulled sun.

When Simi still hadn’t appeared by early afternoon he began to worry. She would definitely want to take advantage of a break in the weather, so something was keeping her.

Hamid found him when the sun was directly overhead.

“Is Simi-ma’am okay?” he asked.

Hamid nodded. “Her leg is troubling her today. I told her to rest. I ordered her to rest, god knows that woman wouldn’t stay down otherwise.” He shook his head. “But that’s not your business. I only came here to tell you Prince Salim has decided to travel to Mirzabad to stay with a friend.” That last part was said with such disdain that Somesh immediately understood what kind of friend this was. “And Simran—Simi—is on bed rest until I say she isn’t.”

Somesh knew he didn’t have the gift of prophecy, but he somehow knew exactly what Hamid was about to say next.

“So,” Hamid continued, “You need someone to answer to, and luckily, Prince Feroz has asked to borrow you in the elder prince’s absence. Finish your work here and then be at his quarters by this evening. Abdul can escort you there.”

He knew better than the convey any kind of upset or irritation in front of Hamid so he nodded once and said, “Okay, Hamid-sir.”

Hamid turned and left without another word and Somesh allowed his face to twist into a grimace, wondering what further indignities awaited him now.

Copyright © 2021 small mercy; All Rights Reserved.
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I have a bad feeling about this...

The description in this chapter is as lush as the gardens. I like the way you are introducing us to the characters and intrigues of the palace, in the same gradual way Somesh learns about them.

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I'm not necessarily sold that Prince Feroz is necessarily a bad guy, he may possibly bat for the same team, but appears to be nothing like that pig Kasim.

And, does Bismil harbor a dangerous grudge from exile???

Edited by drsawzall
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55 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

I'm not necessarily sold that Prince Feroz is necessarily a bad guy, he may possibly bat for the same team, but appears to be nothing like that pig Kasim.

I agree.  I don't really think Prince Feroz is a bad guy.  He's definitely intrigued by Somesh and I hope he doesn't make him do anything he doesn't want to or isn't ready for.  Hopefully we're right about him not being a bad guy. 

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On 12/5/2021 at 2:18 PM, Mawgrim said:

I have a bad feeling about this...

The description in this chapter is as lush as the gardens. I like the way you are introducing us to the characters and intrigues of the palace, in the same gradual way Somesh learns about them.

Thank you so much! We’ve all been cooped up due to the pandemic for the last 2 years, at least I can imagine I’m in a far-off lush pleasure garden as I write this. 😆

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On 12/5/2021 at 3:40 PM, drsawzall said:

I'm not necessarily sold that Prince Feroz is necessarily a bad guy, he may possibly bat for the same team, but appears to be nothing like that pig Kasim.

And, does Bismil harbor a dangerous grudge from exile???

🤐 It’s so hard to respond without spoiling anything so I’ll just respond with a great big  thank you for reading! 

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On 12/5/2021 at 4:41 PM, Valkyrie said:

I agree.  I don't really think Prince Feroz is a bad guy.  He's definitely intrigued by Somesh and I hope he doesn't make him do anything he doesn't want to or isn't ready for.  Hopefully we're right about him not being a bad guy. 

Trust your gut! Or don’t. Or do! Maybe half trust it? 🤐

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On 12/5/2021 at 11:18 PM, Mawgrim said:

The description in this chapter is as lush as the gardens.

and I could hear and almost feel the monsoon rain... what a wonderful journey you are taking us on.

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