It was the voice that first drew the attention of Shabal.
The trading caravan had broken camp before dawn, and had followed the road running alongside the river, down out of the foothills. Under the half-clouded, half-starry shroud of cool darkness, the harbor town had lain silently at the inlet, its various buildings running together into one solid mass of shadow; a few lamps glimmered in windows and wide streets and aboard the boats anchored out in the bay, but the light did not reach far from its sources. As they slowly made their way eastward, a faint twilight began to bloom out on the ocean, and Shabal could make out the silhouettes of individual buildings. There, shoved away in a southern corner of the town, sat the mission church of the Order with its signature steeple — Shabal had seen enough of these on the roads to recognize the outline instantly. No great basilica here, though, not this far to the southeast; aside from the bell tower itself, the church seemed hardly more than a chapel. He supposed it would look bigger if he were standing directly before it, but his eyes passed off it uninterested.
The moment of dawn approached as the carts and wagons moved forward; the sky lightened from a dull purple to a deep orange. The clouds above their heads began to gleam with a hundred shades of orange, pink, and lavender. Shabal heard snatches of small talk and laughter among the men of the caravan (and one or two women) who were awake — then squinted as a splinter of light forced itself over the rim of the horizon, directly into his eyes. He raised a hand to shield his sight from the glare, as did the cart driver next to whom he was seated. “I feel like we ought to applaud,” said a woman’s voice, and another chuckled.
Then another female voice entered Shabal’s ear, one that did not come from the line of travelers before him. Faintly, above the rumble of wagon wheels, he heard the high, thin and ethereal sound of singing. He did not recognize the melody, at least at such a seeming distance, and he felt sure the words were not in a language he knew… but the voice was uncommonly beautiful.
Straining with his ears, he tried to discover its source. It did not take long; the sound seemed to emanate from an old granite temple atop a small mound or hill just outside the town’s north gate. Curiously, there was a small brook running out of the temple, down the hillside, and terminating at the bay shore; Shabal wondered at this, but his eyes could not be mistaken — the running water shimmered in the dawn light. He could almost hear the sound it made, beyond the rushing of the larger river.
The distant song went on, rising and falling with the wind off the bay. Closing his eyes and concentrating, he thought he could detect — just at the edge of hearing — a rhythmic metallic accompaniment, like the chiming of small cymbals or the jingle of a tambourine… Then the boy’s trance was shattered by a tremendous noise from the other end of the town. The Order church was ringing the bell for matins, and its hectoring, echoing clangor drowned out the other song past all recovery.
Shabal frowned. It had been an orphanage of the Order that had taken him in as a youth, and likely saved him from a life of dishonorable and illiterate street crime; for that he was grateful, but there was something stuck-up about the way the church went about its spiritual business that made him distrust it. If he had known the word “sanctimonious”, he would have seized upon it.
The caravan passed below the shadow of the town’s outer wall, and the piercing rays of the sunrise were mercifully blocked; the travelers’ eyes had begun to water. As they rolled up to the western gate, the hill and its shrine disappeared from sight behind the curve of the wall, and it passed from Shabal’s mind for the moment. The great gate opened just wide enough to admit two spear-carrying guards, and closed behind them. From his cart, the boy watched them speaking to the leaders of the caravan, then saw one of the guards turn and wave upwards; Shabal looked up in time to see the shape of another guard behind the battlements, passing the signal down to someone below his wall-walk. There came a loud creaking of wood and chains, and the gate gradually slid open, revealing an avenue wide enough for three wagons leading toward the heart of the town.
The caravan leaders gave a signal to the rest of the train, and the drivers set their oxen and horses into motion. Somebody on a cart behind Shabal’s struck up a quiet melody on a lute as they passed under the arch and into the awakening town; Shabal picked up the reed flute lying across his lap and began to play along, softly.
Not far from the docks lay a massive open square; it took no deep thought to see that this was where the village’s markets were held, on the days when traders were in town. One of the guards had gone off to awaken the mayor, and he was there — a bit bleary-eyed — to shake the caravan leader’s hand, greet him in the common speech (though differently accented), and invite the wagons to park wherever they could. “Just don’t take up too much space, if you please,” he said. “There are some orchards a few miles down the coast, and the fruiterers will be coming in this week as well.”
“That won’t be any difficulty,” said the caravan leader. He was a dignified looking man, heavyset but not short, wearing a sky-blue cloak over darker robes; he wore a round cap of a deeper blue, and silver rings sparkled on his fingers. “May I presume you still have stabling available for our draft animals?”
“Always,” said the mayor. He made an odd contrast as he stood with the wagon master — hair and beard jet black and bushy where the other man’s were a neat gray, short and reedy where the outsider was tall and broad, and darker-skinned — a deep brown against the other man’s olive complexion. “My assistant will show you the way, if you don’t recall it.”
“Excellent,” boomed the wagon master. He turned toward the group of merchants and menials gathering in the square, snapped his fingers, and gestured imperiously. “Harun! Shabal! Idris! Get the horses and oxen together, and take them where these men lead you.”
“Yes, sir!” The boy and two men hurried into action, unyoking the animals from their carts and assembling the small procession in the square. Another short, dark-skinned man, wearing a kind of turban Shabal had never seen before, stepped forward and spoke to them. “I’m Satinder. If you’re ready, I will show you the way.”
The hooves kicked up two blocks’ worth of dust before turning aside into a spacious warehouse. While Idris and Harun saw to the stalling and watering of the animals inside, Shabal stood in the shadow of the doorway with Satinder. The older man turned and spoke thoughtfully to the boy. “Shabal, is it? Not a name I recall hearing before… You lads are new, aren’t you?”
“Me and Idris,” the boy responded. “Harun’s been out this way before.”
“Your first ride east, eh?”
“Yes. I’ve only been on a few short trips before this. The boss almost didn’t let me come this time, either.”
“But you wanted to.”
“Sure. Always wanted to come out here, dunno why.” Shabal shrugged and looked away, toward the interior of the stable. “Better than staying home and rooming with the Order again.”
Satinder winced sympathetically. “Don’t care much for the churches, I take it?”
Shabal made a noncommittal noise, then looked back up at the taller man. “Hey, um… Speaking of churches, what’s that building on the hill outside the wall? It looked like some kind of temple.”
“Oh, that?” Satinder said, and laughed. “It’s a temple all right, a very old one. A shrine to Eros.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Eros? Does she even have temples this far south? I’ve never seen one in my life.”
“Well, it was abandoned long ago,” said Satinder, leaning against the doorframe. “In my grandfather’s time — and probably long before it — the place was a ruin; nobody lived there, and the people had long stopped worshiping there. But when my father was still a young man, the town woke up one morning and found the temple repaired overnight, and the sacred stream running from its spring again.”
“A new caretaker moved in, a new servant of Eros. She reconsecrated the place.”
“A new priestess?” Shabal looked northward; the shrine was hidden from his sight by several buildings, but he could almost feel its presence there.
“More than that. A high servant — an apsara.”
Shabal did a double take — his eyes darted back to Satinder’s, then up toward the concealed hill. “There was a Mamono here?!”
Satinder raised an eyebrow. “She is here, still. Sometimes she comes into town and mingles with us; I suppose she gets bored every once in a while… Look,” he continued gently, noticing Shabal’s look of alarm, “she’s really not as bad as people think Mamono are. She’s been nothing but friendly and kind to everyone who’s met her. Even the priests of the Order have always told us she’s not evil, or even hostile… But they do say she’s dangerous.”
“Not evil, but dangerous. Right.” Shabal didn’t feel very reassured. “What’s that even supposed to mean?”
“If you meet her,” Satinder smiled, “you’ll know.”
The caravan hummed with activity that morning. Doors and hatches were flung open on the wagons; canopies were unrolled from their roofs and propped up, rugs and carpets laid out beneath them on the even stones of the plaza. Men and women bustled back and forth collecting and arranging their wares. Goods from all over, some brought all the way out of the west, some picked up on the way and ready to be traded again: rugs, bolts of fabric, beautifully glazed pottery, knives and cleavers of fine steel, implements and decorations of wrought iron and shining brass. Bales of tobacco, coils of hempen rope, balls of twine and spools of thread. By the time of the younger men’s return, Shabal’s employer had unloaded most of his stock himself — mostly musical instruments, of all kinds — and was stumbling down the steps of his wagon with a drum in each arm when the boy arrived. “You took your sweet time getting back,” he grumbled to his apprentice.
“I’m sorry, Master Sharif,” the boy replied, hastening to relieve him of half his burden. “It was taking a while for us to get all the horses settled in.”
“Well, if you say so,” Sharif shrugged. “Now hurry up and help me with the rest of these things. Our customers will be here soon.”
It was not summer, but on the edge of it; the sun did not yet beat down too harshly on the land, and just before the Order church rang the noonday bell, the townspeople began to drift into the square to examine the newcomers and the goods that lay under their canopies. Some drifted eastward to the docks to look over what the fishermen had brought in; Shabal thought of going with them, but Sharif warned him that they hadn’t come to sightsee. The boy sighed and went back to arranging their merchandise in neat order upon their carpet, gazing sullenly at the leather worker in the next stall over who was loudly advertising his ability to restore anyone’s boots or sandals to like-new condition.
Business was slow. In the first few hours Shabal and Sharif managed only to sell one wooden flute and restring a customer’s lute; the original strings had been frayed past mending. There was a hum of conversation all around the square, most of it in the foreign tongue but some in their unfamiliar dialect of the common; many of the locals seemed to have come to the plaza solely to refill their waterskins and canteens at the shallow fountain in the center. A few men stopped to chat, and talk over the merits of this flute or that rain stick, but (to Sharif’s barely stifled displeasure) they persisted in not buying anything. Shabal was about ready to ask his employer for a thirty-minute respite in the wagon — even napping would be better than this — when one of the prospective customers glanced over his shoulder, stiffened, and let out a sharp oath in his native language.
“What is it?” another customer asked in Common.
The man looked back, and his face seemed more surprised than afraid to Shabal’s eyes. “See for yourself, Vivek,” he said, and jerked his head to the side as if pointing with the crown of his cap.
Vivek turned to see, and he too jolted in surprise. “Great gods,” he blurted, “Saraswati’s here. I hadn’t expected her today.”
Shabal leaned over, peering past them. For a second, he saw nothing through the crowds milling around the square, but then there was an opening… and he caught sight of something that struck him with all the intensity of a psychic revelation.
She moved differently; that was the first thing he saw. The rest of the people trod solidly on the ground, stirring up dust with their sandals and boots, but she walked barefoot and as lightly as if she were on a cloud. And her blue-silver hair and gossamer white garments seemed to be made of the same cloud as they ran down over her shoulders and around her graceful limbs… or were they garments at all? They had the semblance of a harem dancer’s diaphanous, draping pant legs and detached sleeves, but they couldn’t be made of any fabric he had ever known; they flowed through the air in the wake of her movements like some weightless liquid, slow and syrupy.
She navigated around the people with the near-impossible elegance of a well-trained dancer. No, the boy thought, that wasn’t quite it either: she moved as sinuously and agilely as though she actually were dancing at every moment, as if every step and casual gesture had been meticulously planned and choreographed in advance. He had never seen the like of it.
He didn’t know how her strange clothes didn’t simply fall off; they revealed far more than they concealed of her skin, which was a perfect and unblemished light coffee-brown. The pieces of jewelry that accented them were decorously simple: armlets and bracelets, anklets, a choker and a tiara, all of gold, inlaid with polished pale-pink stones that seemed chosen more for their aesthetic charm than any possible value. Clumps of what looked like heart-shaped rose or lotus petals hung at her hips, swaying as she walked. And even at a distance, he saw the glow of youth in her face; she may have come in the time of Satinder’s father and grandfather, but she had retained the look of a young woman, not a day over twenty-five at the eldest.
Shabal almost forgot where he was, losing track of himself as he watched this vision stroll around the plaza; she seemingly danced in and out of conversations, garnishing them with the crystalline tinkling of her laughter. The men of the town, he saw, watched her pass with both longing and great caution; the women’s eyes held a mix of envy and unconcealable admiration. Then a cuff on the back of his head, nearly knocking his own cap off, brought him to his senses. “Eyes on your work, kid,” Sharif warned, withdrawing his hand. ‘What work?!’ Shabal almost responded, but bit down on the words before they could get him in further trouble.
Vivek had seen him looking. “Yes, she’s quite the sight, ain’t she, boy?” he laughed. “We all love her.”
“Confidentially—” Vivek’s friend leaned in toward the two merchants — “she could have any man in this city she wanted, or any woman if it came to that… But she doesn’t bother. Says she’s waiting for just the right man to come along, and she loves couples too much to break them up.”
“Bet that earned her some respect,” said Sharif, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“Hell, weddings are practically her favorite thing,” Vivek interjected. “I remember last year, at Aravind and Sunitha’s wedding — I honestly thought she was even happier for the groom and the bride than they were themselves. There was this sappy, lovey-dovey grin on her face all night… She practically swooned for joy every time she saw them kiss.”
Sharif snorted. “What was she doing at a wedding?”
“Whenever there’s a wedding in the town, they invite her to come and bless the lucky couple. The Order don’t have any objections to it.”
“The priest of the Order marries them in his ceremony, and then Saraswati does hers,” said Vivek’s friend. “It’s nothing so fancy… At the end of the night, everybody clears the floor; the bride and groom stand facing each other in the center, and she sings a sort of hymn and dances in a circle around them. At the end, she produces this cup out of nowhere — like a conjurer’s trick — and has them both drink from it… and then we all send them off to bed and clear out of the house.”
“What’s in the cup?” Shabal blurted out.
“It’s called amrita,” said Vivek. “I’ve never tasted it myself, but they say it tastes like milk and honey. Supposed to be an elixir of some sort. You’ve seen it; she carries whole clouds of it with her.”
Shabal gazed off thoughtfully. “So that’s what that stuff is…”
In between bouts of haggling and repair work, the boy kept a lookout on the plaza the rest of the day. He could always find Saraswati in among the rest of the milling people; between the way she moved, her shimmering blue-gray hair, and the long, pearlescent curtains of amrita that trailed behind her arms and legs, she stood out as clearly as a star against a velvet-black sky whenever his eyes sought her. She never seemed to approach his end of the square, however, and he found himself taken by a strange longing to see her at closer quarters.
Afternoon stretched out into evening. Their corner of the market was still sparsely visited, and for lack of anything better to do, they decided to play a little music. Sharif took up an oud from their rug, tested and tuned the strings, and started in on an old song that Shabal knew well. The boy took his reed flute from where it hung — the loop tied to his belt — and joined in after a verse or two. The melody floated mellowly over the square in the late sunlight; some of the market-goers stopped in their tracks to listen briefly before moving on.
City guards were moving about, bringing fuel for the few high lanterns that would illuminate the square after dark. One passed Shabal and Sharif’s wagon with a prematurely lit torch, and the brief flash of light dazzled the boy’s eyes. When his sight had readjusted, he almost dropped the flute from his lips: across the square, just beyond the small fountain that decorated its center, Saraswati was standing as if frozen — and staring straight in their direction.
Shabal’s heart leapt in his chest, though he did not know whether it was from panic or some other strong emotion. It seemed he had the apsara’s attention now, and the thought occurred to him that perhaps he had wanted it, ever since his first glimpse of her. He tried to focus on the song, and found doing so difficult: he knew it so well he could almost have played it in his sleep, but he felt himself beginning to falter each time his own attention drifted in her direction. No, there was no mistaking it, she was looking straight at him now — he could feel it. Her eyes were large like a child’s and luminous, the irises the vivid blue-green of shallow ocean waters, and when he met her gaze they looked back at him gently but piercingly, as if they were somehow seeing into him. As he watched, her face broke into a warm smile; it was, as far as he could remember, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his young life, and the idea that it was meant for him almost made him freeze up entirely.
What finally broke his concentration was the church bell, tolling the sunset prayer as the last scrap of sun sank behind the western mountains. It drowned the musicians out for a minute; as the reverberations died away, Sharif cursed and set his lute down. “Well, that does it. Might as well call it a night, eh kid?”
“Here, help me get this stuff back in for the night.”
“Right.” As Shabal began to pick up the instruments laid around him, he looked around one more time, but the apsara had vanished from sight.
Shabal was deputed to stay in the wagon that night, along with several other merchants’ assistants who did the same with their own carts; they would keep watch over the goods while their masters and mistresses slept in the inn that fronted on the square. Locking the door behind him, Shabal cracked open the window blinds, took off his sandals, and sat down upon the bed which his master used on the road (he himself usually slept wrapped in a rug on the floor, but was allowed this particular privilege in towns). He shrugged off the waistcoat he wore in lieu of a shirt, and doffed his round skullcap; a great mop of frizzy brown hair, with curious golden highlights, burst out and dangled over his face and neck, refusing to be disciplined any longer. For a moment he considered undoing his belt and trousers too, but decided against it; when Sharif came hammering on the door to wake him up in the morning, it would not do for him to answer the call in nothing but his loincloth.
Shabal lay back on the bed, cradling one of Sharif’s wineskins (another indulgence he was permitted here) in one arm; he stared at the familiar ceiling, taking occasional swallows of wine, and listened for a while as the sounds of a port town at night drifted in through the windows. The wash of waves along the shore, the far-off creak of ships at anchor in the bay, the low hiss of tree leaves in the wind, the noise of crickets in the warm air, the tinkle and splash of the plaza fountain, snatches of conversation and music…
He sat up. That music. He knew that voice… It wasn’t the same song he had heard in the early morning, but the clear, flawless voice was the same. It seemed as though the wind were carrying it to his ears from a considerable distance — and just at the rim of his hearing, he could detect the rhythmic accompaniment of a tambourine.
Shabal was hesitant to lie down for fear of losing track of the beautiful voice, but his worries were unfounded; as he slowly reclined on the mattress, the song remained in his ears. He drank another mouthful of wine, lay the wineskin aside, and stretched out on the bed — either the wine or the song was making him somewhat drowsy. The thought occurred to him that the voice he was hearing might be that of Saraswati herself; turning the idea over in his head, he was surprised to find how pleased he was by it. It would only be natural, he reflected, for a creature possessed of such beauty and grace to own a voice as beautiful and graceful as the rest of her.
Closing his eyes, he found himself imagining that the apsara, singing and dancing alone in her temple, was somehow singing a lullaby just for him. The thought made him smile; he had no memories of any lullabies ever being sung to him, from his infancy on up. He drifted off to sleep, still smiling, the song floating above him in the night air.
When Sharif banged on the wagon door the next morning, the boy leapt from bed and into action, as alert and refreshed as a night’s rest could ever hope to make him. He felt, donning his meager clothes, that he had rarely slept better.
There was a fire pit in the open space between the plaza and the docks; someone from the caravan had built a fire to take off the early morning chill, and the merchants were gathering with their kettles to boil water for their tea or coffee. Shabal set Sharif’s kettle on the rack with the rest and looked around sullenly. These were the people he’d been traveling with for so many weeks — a motley group, clad in robes and hoods and veils and cloaks and skullcaps and headscarves and baggy trousers like his own. Hair of black or grey or hennaed auburn; skin of every imaginable shade of brown, from sallow to mocha to the deep ruddy brown that comes of repeated sunburns. (It was the hair that set him apart, always the damned hair; no one else had these stupid patches of gold. It had invited frequent mirth at his expense and saddled him with the only name he’d ever had, and he was thoroughly tired of it.) Some had fingers or wrists that absolutely sparkled with gold and silver jewelry: others wore their arms modestly bare. And none of them, not one, had been more than politely civil to him on this entire journey.
To some of the merchants, their menials were invisible at best and the butt of jokes at worst; others would willingly speak with him, but they never had many words for him. He could not remember the last conversation he had had with any of them that delved any deeper than the technical matters of buying and selling, or the management of the caravan in general. Occasionally, when they were stopped in a town, a customer might give him more than the time of day, but chatting too long with them would inevitably earn him a smack from Sharif and a warning to stick to business — hadn’t the fat bearded bastard done it to him again just yesterday?
No, he felt no connection to anyone else in the group – even when he gathered to play his flute with the rest of the musical adepts in the caravan, there was always something missing. Despite his best (if tentative) efforts, he did not really know any of these people… not even Sharif, to whom he’d been right-hand boy for three years by now. No one tried to relate to him, no one asked how he was feeling, no one spoke of any more serious thoughts that might be on their minds, nobody would even give him the charity of a little small talk — it was business, business, and more business. There were days when Shabal barely felt like a human being; the sour-bitter tang of solitude never left his mouth, no matter how much wine Sharif would condescend to allow him.
He was alone, he told himself, wrapping a thick rag around his hand to protect it and picking the steaming kettle up by its wooden handle. He had always been alone, ever since his unknown parents had cast him away and he had fallen upon the dubious mercies of the Order. It always ached when he thought of it, so most of the time he strove not to think of it.
When his apprentice returned with the steaming kettle, Sharif set the rest of the morning’s work aside and focused on the task of brewing tea for himself and the boy. Hauling out the goods and setting them up on the carpet fell to Shabal to carry out; he took some small pleasure — one of the few in his life — in making sure everything was attractively arranged. This done, he sat down, accepted a cup of tea from his employer, and waited for the first customers of the day.
Now, the word of the market having spread, the square filled more quickly as the morning went on. Shabal and Sharif had plenty of eyes on their merchandise, even if few people were buying, and there was a look of vague relief on the older man’s face. Shabal, meanwhile, continued scanning the area with a careful eye; one customer in particular seemed to be missing, and he felt extremely anxious to see her — though he could not have said why.
The time dragged on toward noon; a breeze rolling in off the sea kept the worst of the heat at bay, but a corner of their canopy was blown over and the two hurried to fix it, with much cursing under his breath on Sharif’s part. A few bystanders laughed and offered assistance, but they declined them as politely as possible and went back to work — Sharif haggling over the price of a small zither, Shabal fastening a new drumhead on a hand drum that had been brought for repairs. The apprentice’s world was narrowed to the difficult task of ensuring an even tension on the drumhead, and he was paying no attention to the comings and goings of other customers — until he heard one of them say: “Why, you’re right, Raj! These look absolutely lovely!”
Shabal froze. Being clocked over the head with a cobblestone would have stunned him less. He knew the voice immediately, but he had never heard it at such close quarters… He was almost afraid to lift his head, but he finally raised it up and saw Saraswati leaning in through the patrons and browsers, looking over the instruments that lay in neat rows upon the carpet.
He tried not to stop and stare. He failed. He had never noticed the fin-like ridges that protruded from her ears; they were a darker shade of the same silvery blue as her hair. Her face was momentarily darkened by a shadow, but even when they were not in the light her teal eyes appeared to glow with some inner fire. It was a face beside which every other face he had seen fell short. He had been holding some nebulous ideal of female beauty in his mind most of his life and hardly noticed it until now, when he finally laid eyes on a face that almost exactly fulfilled it; everything was perfect, from her large, vibrant eyes to her small elegant nose, to the neat point of her chin, to her full lips and the dimples that appeared at the corners of her smile, to the absolute flawlessness of her caramel skin.
The row of people parted, and the apsara stepped forward into the open space. Shabal thought he heard a gentle sloshing sound, like water lapping against a dock, as the voluminous sleeves of pearly amrita around her arms and legs shifted with her movements; they shimmered with translucence, in a way that would have drawn his eyes if her angelic face hadn’t already captured them. She was thin but not emaciated — she had just enough weight on her body to accentuate her curves; her arms and legs, her breasts and hips, her flat smooth belly, all were shaped with such perfect grace they might have been drawn by a calligrapher, or carved out of marble.
Her eyes roamed over the array of goods on the carpet with every appearance of genuine delight. “That’s called a mandola, isn’t it?” she said, pointing to one of the stringed instruments with an elegant finger. “I haven’t seen one of those in ages.”
“Indeed it is, miss,” Sharif replied in his most cheerfully ingratiating tone. “You’ve got a sharp pair of eyes… Anything in particular you’re interested in?”
“Not at the moment, I must confess. But if something catches my eye, I’ll be sure to let you – well, there are these flutes…” The apsara sidled over to the other end of the booth, where the wind instruments were laid out in front of Shabal’s seat, and crouched down for a closer look. “These do look a little enticing.”
Her eyes slid over the array of flutes, taking them all in — then rose up and pinned Shabal to his seat. Their heads were dead level with each other, and her gaze pierced him like an arrow. “You play the flute, don’t you, boy?” she asked sweetly. “Which would you say is the best of them?”
Shabal’s mind spun in incoherent panic for a second or two; he wasn’t sure which had flustered him more, the Mamono’s close presence or her question to him. “I… I suppose it’s a matter of durability,” he sputtered at last. “And for that there’s nothing better than hardwood or bamboo, like this bunch here—” he indicated with one hand. “They’re heavier, but worth it for the fuller sound.”
Saraswati’s eyes moved downward. “And if one doesn’t wish to worry about the weight, there’s always reeds, yes? Like that one on your belt.”
“Y-yes,” stammered Shabal, fumbling for the reed flute and holding it up for her inspection, “we have plenty of these as well.”
“Hmm,” said the apsara, looking back and forth across the carpet. “How long will you be here?”
“Two nights more,” Sharif interjected. “Then we’re moving on.”
“Two nights?” repeated Saraswati, placing a finger thoughtfully to her chin. “Hmm… I’m afraid I haven’t brought enough money with me, but I’ll keep your lovely stall in mind. I like to consider my acquisitions carefully before I make them.” She turned to Shabal as she spoke, favoring him with a warm smile — and when nobody else could see it, dropped him a cryptic little wink as she turned away.
Shabal’s mind was a swirling haze of confusion, so much so that he was hardly aware of Saraswati’s departure. What had that wink meant, or the words that accompanied it? Being so close to her had derailed his ability to think coherently, but he tried to assess several different possibilities, and wound up dismissing them all as equally foolish. There was one thing, certainly, that apsaras — like all Mamono-kind — were infamous for offering, but he doubted he’d be a candidate for that. He wasn’t grown enough or strong enough or handsome enough to attract the attention of any woman, he thought, let alone a woman who was really several hundred years old and had surely seen better prospects in all that time. On the other hand, though, apsaras were among those varieties of Mamono who were known to be more selective than the norm, given the opportunity… No, never mind. He was better off not thinking about it; he would forget that wink, instead of tying his brain in knots around it.
He failed to forget it. He sat there on his low stool and kept on thinking, only half-aware of how quickly the day was ticking by, rushing like a river around him. The woman who had given them the drum to repair came by, inspected the work, and accepted it with a generous payment; Shabal barely noticed the drum and the silver pieces changing hands, and his master had to tap him on the shoulder to remind him to put the money away in their cash box. Another came up with a cracked bamboo flute and asked about having it mended; Shabal warned him that it would only be a temporary repair and that it would be better in the long run simply to buy a new one, but he spoke mechanically and without the hard-selling enthusiasm he would ordinarily bring to his pitch. Fortunately, he managed to convince the customer and earn his master’s approval, rather than his ire.
The fall of evening took Shabal by surprise. Before he knew it, the stalls of the market were beginning to close up shop, and the town guards were milling about with their torches and lamp-feeders. He finally emerged from his daze when Sharif barked at him to help move the goods back into the wagon; having shifted their wares off the carpet and rolled it up, the older man brusquely ordered him to finish the job, then stomped off in the direction of the inn. Shabal sighed and went to work.
He was taking down the canopy beneath which they had sat and folding it up against the side of the wagon when a voice suddenly spoke from behind him: “He pushes you pretty hard, doesn’t he?”
Shabal dropped what he was holding and spun around; behind him, unnoticed, the canopy fell against the side of the wagon and the two attached tentpoles clattered against the cobblestones.
Leaning against the nearest lamppost, Saraswati put a hand to her mouth and chuckled. “Goodness, I didn’t realize I would startle you so. I’m sorry.”
“What…” stammered Shabal. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I was planning on doing business with you,” Saraswati shrugged, stepping away from the lamppost; Shabal noticed again that her feet were bare, and realized he must not have heard her approach for that reason. “I think I know what I want to buy, but from the looks of things, your master’s already closed shop for the night… and something tells me he wouldn’t approve of you doing trade behind his back.”
“He… no, he wouldn’t.” Shabal looked nervously toward the door and lighted windows of the inn. “If I did sell you anything, he’d probably get annoyed and say I didn’t get the right price for it.”
“Well, it’s no problem. I’ll just be sure to come back tomorrow, good and early — just to be sure I can actually get the things I’m looking for.” The apsara smiled as she came closer to him, close enough that he could detect an unmistakable scent of lotus. “By the way, boy, what are you called? I know your master’s name’s Sharif, but I don’t think I caught yours…”
Shabal felt an inward wince and hesitated, but he answered. “…It’s Shabal. Shabal al’Asad.”
“Shabal al’Asad,” she repeated contemplatively, as if testing the feeling of the name on her tongue. One of her graceful eyebrows rose. “Doesn’t that mean ‘lion cub’ in your tongue? How did you come by it?”
“It’s the hair,” Shabal grumbled, taking off his cap and shaking his hair free. “I think they were mocking me. As if a few blond spots were enough to make me look like a lion…”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Saraswati said blithely.
“Nothing?” Shabal muttered. He looked up and gave her an angry glare. “You try going around and hearing people constantly snicker about it behind your back, or call you Patchwork Head to your face, or ask you whether you were blind when you stole your hair extensions or which alchemist it was that spilled his chemicals on your scalp…”
Saraswati looked back dismayed. “Is that the only kind of attention it draws? Oh, Shabal, you poor thing — that’s not fair in the least.”
In spite of the burning in his cheeks at hearing those lips pronounce his name, he was about to lose his temper at being condescended to — but he looked carefully, and seemed to detect an honest pity in her eyes. If it had come from anyone else, it would have humiliated him; the pity of others always seemed to sting him like a lash. But there was no sting in her gaze. It fell upon him with a sympathy that he felt to be unfeigned; he had seen people counterfeiting concern often enough to recognize the signs when someone was faking it, and he saw nothing fake in her. “Fair or unfair,” he said, “it’s what happens.”
The pity on the apsara’s face turned to a pout of indignation, and she crossed her arms; the huge globs of amrita around her forearms bulged and swirled as they were pushed together, but whatever membrane was holding them in place did not break. “Good Goddess… People can be so awful sometimes. You shouldn’t care what fools like that say, Shabal. And for whatever it’s worth, I personally happen to think it’s beautiful, so there!”
The burning was no longer in his cheeks; he abruptly felt it spread across his entire face and partway down his neck. “Don’t be absurd,” he said, still half-convinced he was being strung along.
“I’m not being absurd. Your blond streaks are part of what makes you unique — what makes you You. They’re beautiful, and you ought to be proud of them no matter what anyone says — no matter how anyone, even your master, looks down on them.”
“What was that about my master?” he said, fiddling nervously with his cap.
“Don’t try to hide it, boy. Your master has little more than contempt for you, and you know it. Some people might not be able to see it, and most of those who do would be hesitant to speak up — but I see it, and I speak it.” Saraswati sighed, and her eyes filled with sympathy again. “You’re lonely, aren’t you?”
Shabal could not be more surprised if he had been punched in the face. No one had ever broached the subject with him before. “How can you tell?”
“It’s all over your face. It’s in the way you hold yourself, the way you look at people, the way you walk, the way you talk,” Saraswati said sadly, making a vague gesture that encompassed Shabal’s head and most of his body. “The way I am, I can’t help but notice it…”
Shabal promptly turned away from her and resumed the work of packing the canopy, desperately trying not to notice the burning sensation in his eyes. Saraswati did not move, but nor did she press the point any harder; she remained silent until his task was finished, then said in a quieter voice: “Perhaps, I think, you need to talk to someone about it.”
The stinging, wet heat in his eyes finally overflowed; pressing his hands and forehead against the side of the wagon, Shabal began to weep silently. There came a few quiet footsteps behind, accompanied by the sound of a gentle swash as of water, and a soft reassuring hand was laid on his shoulder.
They sat on the steps of Sharif’s wagon and talked. Shabal wiped his eyes with the tail of his waistcoat and went on speaking, pouring out the ugly thoughts of his long, awful solitude. He told Saraswati of his orphanhood, his mercifully short period as a street-running thief, the Order home that took him in, his education under the gentle but heavy hand of the Order themselves, and his apprenticeship under Sharif. “But I don’t think he wants me to finish it out,” he muttered. “I think he just wants me to go on being his assistant forever, just so he can have two extra hands and someone to take his orders.”
“And you don’t see any way out of it?” she asked him.
Had she been anyone else, Shabal would have lost his temper, but he simply gave her a morose look. “Of course I don’t. Do you? I mean — what else is there for me?”
“I wouldn’t be discouraged,” Saraswati said. “After all, you aren’t lacking in advantages; you’re still young, intelligent, strong, and handsome. Something’s bound to turn up, if you just persevere. Keep hope alive, that’s what matters.” She looked down and away. “It’s certainly what keeps me going.”
Shabal was caught between astonishment that she had called him handsome and astonishment that she seemed to be admitting a weakness; it was the latter that won out. “Wait. What do you need hope for?”
“You’re far from the only lonely person in the world, my lion cub.” She smiled, but the smile was wistful rather than happy. “I am proud to serve my Goddess in my own small ways, and I am absolutely overjoyed when I see two people marrying and putting each other’s loneliness to death, but — since you were so honest with me, I’ll not lie to you — the joy is like a knife in my heart, too. It reminds me that I remain alone, that I’m still waiting for my fulfillment.”
Shabal nodded sympathetically, his own problems forgotten. “Someone said you’d told them that you were waiting for the right man to come along.”
“I am. I was given a promise by Eros Herself.” Saraswati looked up into the night. “In my dreams, She prophesied to me that I would come to a town by the sea, where there was a temple of Hers that had fallen into disrepair. I was to restore the place and act as Her priestess there, and if it were done, She would see to it that I met my ideal man… my future husband, if you like.”
“But you’ve been waiting a long time…”
She shrugged. “Well, She did counsel patience. And at any rate, I have always believed that patience is among the highest virtues.”
“So you really do think you’ll find him,” Shabal said. “You think you’ll know him by his face?”
“Oh, I have no doubt I’ll know him somehow. Do you think he’ll know me by my face?”
“If he doesn’t,” Shabal blurted, “he’s a fool. It’s a damned attractive face.”
Saraswati turned back to him in a flash. “Is that your opinion? I know that my Goddess blessed me and all my sisters, but I sometimes think half my looks must be due to the glamour She granted us…”
Shabal couldn’t believe his ears. An apsara secretly doubting her own attractiveness? He shook his head almost furiously. “That’s ridiculous,” he said flatly. “Magic or no magic, I think yours must be the most beautiful face in the world.”
“Flatterer!” Saraswati guffawed, surprised into laughter — but it was a remarkably bashful and self-conscious laugh, and an unmistakable blush began to spread on her cheeks.
“It’s true!” Shabal insisted, feeling rather cross. “It’s what I think, anyway… It’s the most beautiful part of you.”
Saraswati giggled behind her hand. “Don’t misunderstand, my young lion. You honor me, truly you do.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek.
The contact was gentle and momentary, less than a second, but in that moment Shabal lost his ability to think or reason. He could not remember the last time he had been kissed — perhaps never. For an instant he thought he felt electricity leaping between her soft lips and the skin of his cheek.
She withdrew smiling, meeting his gaze winsomely with her own. Her eyes, seen at close range, were clear and deep, and he could distinctly imagine falling into them and being lost; he stared into them, stunned, until her smile began to falter. “Too much?” she asked uncertainly.
“What? No, not at all!” he stammered. An idea occurred to him, and he found himself repeating her words: “You honor me, truly you do.” She replied with laughter, in which he detected a sense of relief.
Saraswati looked toward the sky again. “The night’s still young, but it grows older by the second, and I have yet to carry out my evening devotions.” She rose from her seat on the steps. “I’m afraid I must be going, but I’ll be back tomorrow. We have some business to conduct, after all.”
“Of course,” Shabal replied.
“And thank you for the conversation, before I forget.”
“You’re welcome… I have one more question, though.”
Shabal anxiously turned his cap over in his hands. “Why me? I mean — you could have spoken to just about anyone. You could’ve had news from the outside world, or conversation about music; there are people we travel with who’ve forgotten more about music and dance than I’ll ever know… So why pick me to talk to? What makes me so special?”
The apsara’s smile turned sad and pensive again. “Because when I saw the loneliness in your eyes, I recognized it immediately, and it made my soul ache on your behalf. My Goddess says that it isn’t good for anyone to be alone; even the Chief God of the Order agrees with Her on that.”
“I hope your loneliness doesn’t last,” Shabal offered gamely.
Cheer returned to Saraswati’s face. “I hope the same for you, Shabal al’Asad.” She kissed the pad of her index finger, pressed it delicately to his lips, and turned to leave. “Good night, my young lion.”
Shabal thought he had said “Good night” as well, but he couldn’t be sure — he was too busy watching the apsara walk away. Every stride of her statuesque legs, every swing of her comely arms and shapely rear, every toss of her long silver-blue hair, was a dance step in itself; it seemed she really couldn’t turn it off, not entirely. To think that that vision had just been sitting beside him for the last hour, draping him in the odor of lotus blossoms, listening patiently and without judgment while he bared a raw and aching piece of his heart… and in turn baring hers, if only for a minute! His hand came up and felt at the places on his cheek and lips where she had left her kisses.
Slowly, he rose, turned, and went up into the wagon, bolting the door behind him. A meager meal lay under a towel on the minuscule table before the slatted window — a few slices of venison jerky, a half-full wineskin, and the remaining portion of the bread Sharif had sent him to buy just before lunchtime, during a lull in foot traffic. The bread was strange to his sight; it hadn’t come in loaves, but in flat sheets the baker had called “roti.” Sharif had eaten the lion’s share during his own lunch, and advised Shabal to save it for later.
Shabal opened the window slats, sat down, and pensively ate his dinner. A cool wind began to blow in off the sea, and he leaned back, shut his eyes, and gave a sigh of relief. His thoughts tonight were not as troubled as he’d expected them to be; after all, he’d just had an hourlong talk with a woman — a Mamono woman, moreover — and not embarrassed himself too badly… but then he remembered he had started the whole thing by breaking down in tears when she had pierced him with that question about loneliness, and went back glumly to his meal.
His repast complete, he decided to turn in earlier than usual; soon enough he was lying on Sharif’s mattress, the wineskin close to hand, his hat, vest, and sandals discarded in a pile on the floor. He dug himself more deeply into the stuffed cushion and looked up at the ceiling, letting the sounds of wind and sea wash over him and soothe his mind.
And sure enough, cutting through the background noise, there came the sound of distant song and the tinny rattle of a tambourine. He smiled, sure now that the voice must be Saraswati’s, and wondered idly how her voice could reach so far. The wind rose and dropped; the waves went on breaking in the harbor, some loud, some nearly silent. Sometimes they nearly drowned out the song, and sometimes it carried right over them into Shabal’s hearing.
He was beginning to drift off to sleep when he heard something that rendered him wide awake — the wind had carried to him an echo that sounded like his name. He sat up, now listening intently. There it was again: Shabal al’Asad… or at least something very close to it, sung or chanted by the priestess in the distant temple. He didn’t know for what purpose Saraswati might pray to her Goddess on his behalf; a few possibilities occurred to him, but he couldn’t be sure which was the most likely. It had been a long day, though, and he was too tired to be curious — certainly too tired to go and ask questions.
He descended, uneasily and somewhat bewildered, into sleep, but his rest was not uneasy; he awoke just at daybreak feeling as though he had slept twelve hours rather than eight, and in an extraordinarily good mood. He had dreamed, but could not recall the substance of his dreams. He remembered only details: teal eyes, mischievously glinting; gracefully sweeping arms and legs, trails of white floating in their wake; a rush of long glittering blue hair, a warm and welcoming smile… no, Shabal did not know of what he had dreamed, but he knew who. When Sharif came to wake him, he was already dressed — and smiling.
As the traders out of the west began to open their stalls for one more day, another group arrived and began to fill the empty spaces. Word of mouth went the rounds of the stalls: these were the fruiterers the caravan leader had been told of, up from the orchards to the south. The members of Shabal’s caravan first watched the newcomers setting up, then — as a faint odor of citrus wafted through the square — began glancing speculatively into their own wallets, coin purses, and cash boxes.
For their part, the members of the orchard caravan were excited to see that there were outland traders in town. Sharif, sitting and observing them with a practiced eye, chuckled to himself as he rubbed his hands together against the morning chill. Shabal knew that sound well; it was his master’s acquisitive chuckle. “What is it, sir?” he asked innocently.
The older man laughed and picked up his coffee cup. “Customers, son. Potential customers by the bucketload. Make sure everything’s laid out neatly — we may be moving quite a bit of it today. And now that I think of it…” He flipped open the cash box by his side and counted out a few silvers. “I’ll handle the merchandise. You run over there, before there’s a crowd, and bring us back something that’ll keep for lunch.”
Shabal went, a basket in one hand and the coins jingling in the other, hoping that they grew dates out here. In that, he was disappointed, but the orchard people were happy to make suggestions from their stock; a few were magnanimous enough to let him try one piece and see what he thought. In a few short minutes he had spent all the money.given him, but his basket was full — he had bananas, mangoes (a rarity back home), grapes, and quite a few handfuls of something he had never seen before but liked on the first taste, called lychee. Sharif was pleased when the apprentice returned with the basket, and had the courtesy not to look too disappointed when Shabal confessed that he had also seen olives on sale but had insufficient funds to buy them; he selected a banana, peeled it, casually tossed the skin under the wagon, and chewed meditatively as he settled back into his seat.
As the morning grew older, the other traders began returning the interest; men, women, and their young assistants began to mingle around the plaza and examine the goods brought out from the west. A few stopped to look over Sharif and Shabal’s wares. Sharif was especially pleased when, upon being told they could also repair or do maintenance on some instruments, one man hurried off and returned with a zither in need of restringing. The duty fell to Shabal, who did the job competently but absently, wondering when Saraswati would show up. His eyes scanned the market at every moment he could spare, and yet she was nowhere to be seen — or heard, for that matter. Besides, after a few hours there was a great crush of people browsing or just passing by the stall; his eyes had no hope of penetrating very far into that busy crowd.
They disposed of a few drums, flutes, and pipes before the morning was out, and repaired a few things as well. At some point, while Shabal was working on repairing a scratch on the varnish of someone’s lute, he became aware that two of the newcomers, a woman and her young daughter, were closely examining the reed flutes laid out at his feet. “See anything you like?” he asked, hoping Sharif would applaud his industriousness.
The girl glanced up at her mother, received a nod of approval, then bent and picked up a flute. “I think I’d like this one,” she said.
When he saw the unknotted piece of twine wrapped loosely in the notch around the flute’s neck, Shabal could actually feel himself go pale; his hand groped at his belt and, sure enough, found nothing. His flute had come untied and fallen from his belt, and now one of his customers was holding it. “Oh, er… that’s mine,” he began. “I’m afraid you can’t—”
There was a loud thwack and a burst of pain as Sharif cuffed him over the back of the head. “Don’t be ridiculous, boy! Everything’s for sale here. What would you like to give us for it?” he added, turning to the girl’s mother.
As the mother withdrew a few pieces of silver and copper and began to haggle with Sharif over the prices, his young assistant sat staring at the flute in the girl’s hands, unable to stop a blush of shame from rising to his cheek. Here was life, throwing yet another humiliation in his face on top of all the others; he’d grown used to ugly surprises like this, but that didn’t take the sting out of them. His eyes swung toward Sharif’s smug face, and his brain burned with uncharitable thoughts: Fat old fucking prick! If it was YOUR flute and not mine, you wouldn’t have let it go!
Sharif was pocketing the money when a long thin finger tapped the mother on the shoulder. “I’ll buy that from you,” a voice said, and Shabal was bewildered.
The crowd around the stall parted (Shabal dumbly noticing that the newcomers from the south cleared away much faster than the locals), revealing Saraswati standing behind the woman. “How much did you pay for it?” she asked kindly.
“Ten coppers,” the mother said, looking faintly alarmed at the Mamono’s presence.
“Here’s seven silvers, then,” Saraswati replied, holding one hand out. The ballooning sleeve of amrita around her forearm surged forward over her hand, then retreated — and from nowhere, the coins appeared in her palm. Squatting down, she offered them to the daughter, saying, “Here. Take these and buy yourself something even better.” The girl hesitated a moment, staring uneasily into the apsara’s eyes, before taking the money and proffering the flute.
Accepting the flute, Saraswati rose to her feet. She turned it over in her hands for a moment, as if curious, then bowed and held it out to Shabal. “And now,” she said, “I make a present of it to you. It’s yours beyond all doubt now.” Numb and undisguisedly gaping at her, he took the flute and tied it securely to his belt; he was unsure what to think or what to feel — there was gratitude, certainly, but it must be more than mere gratitude that made his heart leap at the charitable smile she was giving him.
“And now, Master Sharif—” Saraswati turned to the nonplussed man, who had also unabashedly stared at the apsara’s transactions. “Now to the business I wished to conduct with you. What would you be willing to barter with me in trade for this?” The amrita performed its mysterious trick again, but with her other arm; when it withdrew, her hand was grasping a tambourine of some dark wood, intricately carved, with a yellowed tanned hide stretched across the frame.
Sharif stepped up to examine it more closely; his apprentice saw his eyes widen in wonder. “If this is as old as I think it is,” he said slowly, “I could give you any item here. Any of them at all… Was there anything in particular you had in mind?”
“There was a certain item or two I had my heart set on, yes.” Saraswati’s gaze briefly met Shabal’s (and did he detect a twinkle in those sea-green eyes?), then traveled across the carpet to where the percussion instruments had been neatly set out. Her expression lit up, and she sidled over in that direction, remarking, “Ah, good, they’re not gone.” Her elegant forefinger pointed down to four small objects lying at Sharif’s right foot; he quickly drew the foot back and looked down. Four small, curved discs of bronze, etched (at least on the upside) with a filigree of complex tracery, and bearing loopholes through which straps of leather were laced.
“Those zills?” Shabal put in, trying to be helpful.
“Is that what you call these finger-cymbal things? Then yes, those zills. If you’ll accept the trade, of course…”
“Oh, no, I’ve no objections,” Sharif said hurriedly, taking the tambourine. He turned and held it out to Shabal. “Stow that in the wagon, boy.”
Shabal did so, with such alacrity that by the time he came back out his master had only just handed over the little cymbals. Saraswati was looking down at them with a face the boy could only estimate as gleeful. “I think I’ll try them out,” she said, as if on a sudden impulse. “I forget, how do you put these on? Is it the thumb and forefinger, or—”
Sharif was shaking his head, but Shabal broke in first: “Middle finger. Right at the first joint.” He indicated with his own hands.
“Thank you,” the apsara responded, and gave him a sweet smile. She slipped her fingers and thumbs correctly through the loops, and Shabal was not the least surprised to see that they fit perfectly, as though they had been custom-made for her. She made a few adjustments to line the cymbals up properly and tentatively tested the sound, opening and closing her hands like the claws of a crab: a resonant ring as she tapped the cymbals together, a flat clacking sound as she clapped them shut. Ring… CLACK. Ring, DING… clack.
Then without warning, she burst into a perfect fusillade of rhythmic chiming: CLACK! Ring-a-clack! Ring-a-clack! Ring-a-dingading! CLACK! Ring-a-clack! Ring-a-clack-CLACK! Ringading! She turned a pirouette and began to dance in the space that had opened in front of the stall — not just to move in ways that looked like dancing, as she always did, but to seriously dance.
If Shabal had been entranced last night by the way Saraswati walked, then now he was almost hypnotized. Every step, every shake of her hips, every gesture was imbued with a purpose that drew on more than mere natural grace (although Saraswati, in his estimation, had enough grace for two dozen women). No other dancer he had seen could compare to the apsara, and he vaguely recalled dim rumors of myth, legends of how the races loyal to Eros were first born from the dancing, singing, and music of the goddess herself; he thought he could see, must be seeing, echoes of Eros’s own dance in the movements of Saraswati.
She was playing on her new zills a percussive pattern Shabal recognized; he knew many songs that could be played over it. Hardly knowing what he was doing, he removed his flute from his belt, lifted it to his lips, and began to play. Saraswati spun around to look at him; she never stopped dancing, nor so much as missed a beat, but her face was beaming with delight. Sharif stood looking back and forth between the two, uncertain of how to react to this, but on impulse he picked up a lute sitting close by and began to play along.
Saraswati reacted with even greater glee and redoubled her own efforts; there was no hint to Shabal of her simply showing off — she was putting her heart fully into it. One or two of the onlookers were clapping to the beat of the song, while the rest watched the dancer with admiration. Shabal found the music flowing from himself into the flute with greater ease — as if driven by sheer determination not to fuck a song up now, of all times. He felt as if the song were playing itself, and he himself only riding the crest of the wave; his attention was fixed not upon his flute but upon the beautiful figure twisting, writhing, and leaping before him.
All three brought the song to a close with one great flourish, and the crowd broke into applause. Saraswati laughed, gave a little bow, and turned to Sharif. “I like these. I’m definitely keeping them; you can have the tambourine.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, milady,” nodded Sharif.
“Likewise… Say, this may be something of an awkward question, but—” she placed a forefinger pensively on her chin, and her eyes darted sideways to Shabal — “would you mind if I borrowed the services of your assistant for an hour or two?”
Shabal gaped. Sharif looked confused: “Why, whatever for?”
“I was hoping, if it’s not presuming too much,” Saraswati replied, “that we might stroll about the market and make a little music together, just for an hour or two. Not a big deal… if you can spare him, that is.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Sharif dismayed. “I need his hands, especially if we’re to be selling and repairing at the same time.” His apprentice noticed that this didn’t seem to be an immediate danger; most of their audience was dispersing, though not without a few long looks over their shoulders.
“I won’t keep him long, I assure you,” the apsara replied, raising her hands in a conciliatory pose. “And if it’s your business you’re worried about, I can make it worth your while.” The blob of amrita on her forearm did its trick again, and when it withdrew there was a flash of gold between her fingers. “Perhaps I could hire him for the time being — would that be acceptable to you?”
The money decided it, Shabal noticed cynically; as soon as Sharif saw the glint of coinage in her hand, his opinion swung the other way. “No, I wouldn’t object to that at all. Boy! Care to go with her?”
“Y-yes, sir!” Shabal stammered, jumping to his feet. He carefully stepped around the wind instruments lying at his feet and joined the apsara.
“What of the money?” Sharif persisted.
“I’ll send it back with him when we’re finished,” Saraswati said. “Come, my boy. Play me some other song you know and let’s go for a promenade.”
She turned and led Shabal effortlessly through a few of the gaps she always seemed to find in the milling mass of market-day shoppers. Shabal put the end of the reed between his teeth and began to play; it was another lively tune, at an appropriate tempo for dancing, and almost instantly the priestess picked up its intricate rhythm and added the percussion of her zills.
For a period of time which Shabal failed to measure, Saraswati danced a joyous circuit around the market plaza, with him following in her wake. The crowd moved aside whichever direction she went, and closed ranks behind him as he passed by. He was hardly aware that adoring eyes other than his were fixed from all sides upon the dancer in their midst, hardly aware that one song from his flute had flowed into the next, and another and then another, until he had begun — without even realizing what he was doing — to improvise new melodies to match the cheerful cadences of Saraswati’s zills. Every once in a while they passed Sharif’s stall; while he did not seem to be closing a great many sales, he had a steady flow of new and curious customers. At one point, Shabal was amused to see him fixing a broken tambourine.
Shabal began to see smiles appearing on the faces of everyone he walked by — townsfolk, orchard traders, and members of his own caravan alike. Something of a festive mood appeared to be setting in; once or twice he saw a few people breaking into a few spontaneous dance steps of their own, although their movements seemed clumsy and lumbering next to the Mamono whom he was accompanying. The denizens of the inn on the edge of the plaza spilled out into the street, surveying the scene jovially from the steps with cups of wine or tankards of beer in hand.
Word began to spread; just beyond the sounds of the flute and the little cymbals, he heard it. Townspeople and traders alike were talking. Certain words were heard again and again, and he finally got an accurate impression: almost as one, the entire market square had decided that there was to be a festive occasion of some sort in the evening, after business closed. The townsfolk would build a bonfire in the fire pit; there would be music, dancing, and no doubt a good deal of drinking. Anyone who could sing, dance, or play was invited. Saraswati danced into the middle of several conversations, invariably received shouted invitations to the party, and just as invariably responded with an enthusiastic affirmative; every time she did so, she would drop another wink in Shabal’s direction.
They got back to the stall and found Sharif suddenly swamped with customers, some wishing to buy from his stock, but most wanting their instruments repaired, or tuned by an expert ear. Saraswati returned his apprentice to him, and gave him a gold piece for his troubles. “This get-together tonight…” he asked before the apsara left. “Will you be there?”
“Oh, without a doubt,” she laughed in reply. “Will you?”
“Yes,” the merchant and his apprentice said simultaneously, each thinking the inquiry was meant for him. Saraswati laughed again and was gone.
A couple of town guards took it upon themselves to build, light, and stoke the bonfire. As the sun declined in the west, the mellowness of evening twilight settled over the plaza, and Shabal stopped loading their unsold wares back into the wagon to watch the guards at their work — a loose circle of people was forming around the fire pit. Dallying in his own duties would ordinarily have earned him a smack or a lecture from Sharif, but Sharif was fairly mellow himself this evening after having looked into their cash box and marveled at the profits he’d made in the afternoon: “That damned Mamono was the best advertisement I’ve ever had,” he had mused.
More people began to drift over; the owner of the inn was setting up a small pavilion — really just a hardwood-and-bamboo frame with a fabric canopy draped over and behind it— for the use of the musicians. And the musicians were coming, some of them from the caravan, some from the orchards, and a few locals carrying exotic instruments Shabal had never seen. One man had, in a fishing net slung over his shoulder, five hand drums with odd black patches on the heads; a woman carried another kind of drum in the shape of a large clay pot (Sharif had bought one from a man who told them it was called a ghatam); and although Shabal had never encountered a sitar, he knew enough about them to instantly identify the long lute-like thing another man brought with him. That extraordinary long zither next to him, though, was unfamiliar, as was the smaller violin-like thing someone else carried under one arm. A woman from the caravan was already seated under the pavilion with her doumbek on her knee, warming up with a few practice patterns; the sharp dum-tek-dum-tek of her drum sailed high over the square, but not too high to be caught by Shabal’s ears as he turned and bore another load of paraphernalia into the wagon.
They came down out of the wagon and bolted it securely; Sharif, who wore the key on a necklace, replaced it inside the neck of his shirt and picked up the oud he’d chosen for the occasion. “All right, my lad, let’s get going.” He swaggered off toward the fire pit, as well as one could hope to swagger while carrying a lute. Shabal sighed, adjusted his cap, and followed.
A group was beginning to gather around the fire. There were slightly more than a dozen people when Shabal and Sharif arrived, half of them sitting under the canopy tuning their instruments and warming up. Before long, though, that number swelled to two dozen, then three. Some were carrying flasks and wineskins, and others kept off the late-spring chill with the help of a samovar of tea that the inn owner had thoughtfully placed on the front steps; someone brought clay mugs of tea to the musicians under their tent, and Shabal found the taste of sweetness and spice unfamiliar but instantly attractive.
There was no official announcement that the evening’s entertainment had begun. Two of the town musicians looked at each other, nodded, and began to play, one running his fingers straight up the strings of his zither and producing a loud but harmonious glissando, the other beginning to tap out a rhythm on the row of drums that lay before him. Another struck up on a long, hollow instrument that was like and yet unlike a sitar; instead of a melody, the strings produced a droning sound that was somehow hypnotic. One by one, others joined in, and at last the native portion of the ensemble was playing as one, while the foreigners sat and listened.
The songs they played seemed to share a distant kinship with the music of Shabal’s homeland, but there was something different about the underlying structure — something he couldn’t quite name or quantify, although he felt its presence. The plucked strings made a strange, pointed twanging that was unfamiliar to him, while the bowed instruments moaned with almost human voices, rising and falling in the melody. Every so often, the rest would drop to a quiet background noise as one of the players took a solo. Shabal had had no idea one could get so many different sounds from, say, slapping a clay jar; he also paid careful attention when a woman with a bamboo flute took a turn. Another man played an absolute frenzy of a solo on a tambourine-like instrument that was of the same basic design as the one Saraswati had bartered to Sharif, though much less intricately worked.
The song picked up speed toward the end — the tempo remained the same, but the notes came shorter and quicker. It rose to an overwhelming sonorous crash, and abruptly died away into echoes. The audience applauded, either clapping hands or raising their drinking vessels and cheering; the song had been a marathon piece, lasting something like a quarter of an hour. The caravan musicians looked at each other, smiling; they could play that game as well.
Their first song was equally intricate — speeding up, slowing down, playing two complementary melodies over each other. Some of the group took no solo, but others did: Sharif with a frenetic run of notes on his oud, an equally rapid drum solo from the woman with the doumbek. Shabal was nudged into improvising as well; for lack of any better ideas, he started weaving in melodic lines from other tunes he knew, drawing appreciative laughter from his fellow traders.
Near the end of the song, however, a missing guest arrived: Saraswati appeared through the crowd, twirled over to the pavilion while keeping to the beat with her finger cymbals, and upon the final note sank to her knees in an empty space at the front of the pavilion… right next to Shabal. He could not stop his eyes from roaming over to the apsara, who appeared to be using the two large globules of amrita around her shins as cushions to sit upon. Catching his eye with hers, she grinned and gave him another wink.
Other people began to step up, some to sing, others to dance. The impromptu ensemble backed them as best they could, although in some cases members of the group didn’t know the songs and had to learn them on the fly to be capable of following. Saraswati seemed to be the only one present who had no troubles of this sort; she would almost instantly catch the beat of every song and accent it with her zills. Many who danced were from the caravan, and their routines were those Shabal had seen before and could play to easily; when the locals got up to perform, though, he was more interested to see the difference in their movements, and was fascinated by the flashing, flying drapery of the women’s saris.
When the locals played a song, Saraswati always seemed to know the lyrics, and sang them louder than anyone else in her high, clear voice. The surprising thing was that she knew many of the songs Shabal’s people played, and she sang and played along with those as well. As the evening wore on toward night, a pale yellow moon arose from the eastern horizon; looking out at it, the young flute-player received what felt like a premonition. The party, performance, gathering, call it what you will, seemed to be building up to something.
What exactly it was building up to eluded him, until he noticed the way Saraswati was swaying to the music — as if there were some urge to move that she was keeping under tight control. Finally, in the space between two songs, she stepped up and asked the town musicians something in the local tongue. They replied in the affirmative, and got prepared to play whatever it was she had requested.
The apsara rose to her feet and stepped forward. Facing the fire, she held one hand daintily over her head and stood still. The murmur of the audience died down, until the only sounds audible were the waves in the bay, the crackling of the fire, and a few crickets somewhere far off. The silence lasted a few seconds, and then Saraswati took a breath and began to sing unaccompanied. Her voice was clear like crystal, but strong; it rose and fell, as powerful at the low end of her range as the high end. There was hardly any structure to the song at first, her voice navigating a series of long and difficult melismas, but finally a tune entered and she dropped back into her lower register. The drummers joined in, placing a rhythm behind her voice; Saraswati, still singing, began to dance as the ensemble came in behind her.
It was a mesmerizing performance. Her movements, as she circled the fire pit, bore a passing resemblance to the stylized moves the dancers earlier had exhibited, but there was nothing stylized about this dance; the moves and gestures seemed to come naturally. Shabal reached for, and finally recalled, a line from a book he had discovered in the library of the Order school that had taken him under their wing: The scholar’s soul dwells in his head, the poet’s in his heart, the singer’s in the throat, but the soul of the dancer abides in all her body. He was seeing, he felt, the proof of that statement; it was a soul that was dancing before him now.
She made two circuits of the space around the fire pit, the drapery of amrita flowing around her like a robe made of some viscous liquid; her dancing didn’t interfere with her singing — her voice was as steady throughout as though she had been sitting still. Shabal was still unused to the different structure of this music — except for a few repeated phrases that would occasionally show up, he couldn’t detect a verse anywhere — but he was too entranced by Saraswati’s body and Saraswati’s voice to care about his incomprehension. To watch her made his heart ache in a way that was wholly new to him, but at the same time he didn’t especially mind it; it seemed to be akin to the sensation of cold that rushed up his spine whenever he heard and admired a particularly beautiful piece of music, or when upon turning a corner he was struck by the sight of some monumental achievement in art or sculpture or architecture. Such moments held a curious power for him, and this moment was similar — but where was the difference?
The end of the song and the subsequent applause shook him out of his reverie. The night had closed in and the moon was higher; a pale bluish light illuminated the plaza, and Saraswati’s hair shimmered as she bowed to the audience. “Another dance, milady?” someone inside the pavilion called out. Onlookers took up the cry: “Yes, one more! Just one more!”
Saraswati smiled, but Shabal thought he also saw a blush coming into her face. She turned to face the pavilion directly, and her eyes ran over the rows of seated musicians. When they stopped and rested on Shabal, her smile widened into a mischievous grin that made him feel faintly alarmed. “Maybe if I’m allowed to perform with the other ensemble…”
The musicians had no objections, it appeared. Without warning, she slipped into the caravan traders’ native tongue, taking them by surprise. “There was a specific song I had in mind, though. Do you all know ‘Eashiqi ladayh alshier al’bani’?” This was a tune that had not been played, a slowish, contemplative love song that had been previously excluded as unbecoming the rather festive atmosphere. The musicians confirmed that they knew it, though they were surprised to hear that she knew it too. “Should I not know it? An old song can travel as far as an old story,” she replied.
Shabal was nervous, and not without reason. All arrangements of the song included a prominent descant for flute, serving as a counterpoint to the vocal line — but that wasn’t his main concern; he hadn’t missed a note all night, after all, and he wasn’t going to start now. But the lyrics were in the person of a woman speaking of the traits of her lover, and every verse began with a reference to the lover’s brown hair… and Shabal was the only musician from the caravan whose hair was not black or grey.
Saraswati counted them in with clicks of her zills, and began to dance as the instruments fell in behind her. The lady playing doumbek began to sing the first verse, but Saraswati’s own voice overpowered hers by the second line, and she resigned herself to the drum while the apsara sang and danced alone. The dance had a strange look to it, but Shabal soon figured out what it was: Saraswati was not performing another native dance like the ones she and the other locals had demonstrated this evening; this was the pure raks sharqi of his own homeland. Of course, he reflected in a brief pause between two phrases, she was an apsara — she probably knew every dance performed on the continent.
But as the song went on, verse after verse about the brown-haired lover, another feeling began to creep in. Saraswati’s attention was fixed, he was sure, on the pavilion as her body sinuously wound and twisted; she had cast aside all thoughts of an audience and was playing to the musicians. He could swear he felt her attention narrowing, intensifying as it continued to fixate on them.
But her steps guided her closer and closer, and finally, in the space between two verses, she dropped to her knees upon the pavement directly in front of him — side-on, rather than facing him squarely. She went on singing in this new position, rolling her hips and snaking her arms before her as though she were still standing, her zills never ceasing to tap out the slow pulsing rhythm of the song. Her eyes closed briefly as she bent backward; her back curved into a crescent shape as her arms made mystical passes in the air, her rear resting on the cushions of amrita around her legs again, the ends of her long hair brushing against the ground, her breasts thrust skyward, her belly pulled taut so that the shapes of her ribs showed through at one end and her hip bones poked out at the other. She sang the entire rest of the verse from this position; just before she uprighted herself again, her eyes opened and looked straight into Shabal’s.
He was lucky he didn’t drop the flute, let alone play a flat note. He could feel himself at the center of her concentration. It was as if all the charm and allure she naturally gave off had been focused on him like sunlight through a crystal ball or a magnifying lens. He read an invitation in her sultry gaze: closeness, companionship, an end to loneliness, perhaps even love… all desires fulfilled.
Upright but still kneeling, still looking at him, she executed a complex move that took in most of her body; a wave began in her hands, traveled up her arms to her shoulders… her head slid side to side, her ribcage scribed a horizontal circle in the air… the wave traveled down through her abdominal muscles, and her hips circled as well… and then the wave immediately reversed itself — hips, belly, chest, head and shoulders. It was a move he knew few dancers could pull off so fluidly and effortlessly. In the back of his mind, he was dimly aware that no one else could possibly know what he was experiencing; from the outside it would look like just a bit of harmless teasing of the young flutist. They had no way of understanding what it meant to have an apsara’s undivided attention.
At the beginning of the next verse, she stood up and backed away toward the pit, facing Shabal head-on; the fire illuminated her from behind, a pair of street lamps from one side, and the moon from above and to the other side, creating an eerie effect as if she were glowing from within. The apsara’s arms went on with their sinuous gestures, moving from her sides to above her head and finally forward, reaching out to Shabal with a semblance of yearning; her hips rocked side to side with aching slowness. But the thing that captivated him most — and he was now sure she knew this and was playing it up — was her belly. Her stomach muscles rippled, rolled, and trembled with a level of fine control even the best dancers back home would have killed for. Back home, he had often had occasion to pass through the disheveled pleasure district of the town — it had been one of his regular haunts in the benighted days when he was still a juvenile cutpurse — and many were the lascivious propositions from beauteous but questionable women in the doors of taverns, hookah rooms, hashish and opium dens, and inns of ill repute; women who told the authorities they were dancers or serving-girls, but whose work clearly extended beyond dancing. Saraswati’s creativity outpaced theirs; for all the batted eyes, blown kisses, waves, and crooked-forefinger signals he had received, he had never before seen a woman make a come-hither gesture with her navel.
As she sang, contorted, and undulated, Saraswati’s eyes kept wandering back to his. With the full force of her seductive power unleashed on him, he was overwhelmed and barely able to think coherently. The best he was capable of was simply being in the moment — feeling the flute against his lips and fingertips, watching this vision leap and sway before him, playing the counterpoint to her voice.
She turned a circle, one hip rising and falling to the beat, reaching her arms out to the rest of the audience as if she had only just remembered they were there, the zills glittering between her fingers and the amrita leaving hypnotic S-curves in the air behind her hands. Mercifully, the song was reaching its last verse, and Shabal thought that his torments were soon to be over, but he was wrong. Still facing the audience, she backed toward the pavilion, her hips and rear beginning to shimmy rapidly. As she approached him rump-first, he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He could not even hear himself; the only thing his ears could take in was her voice, steady and crystal-clear.
He opened his eyes as the final notes sounded, just in time to see Saraswati’s final flourish. She dropped to her knees and into another backbend. Her hair pooled into a silver-blue puddle of moonlight on the ground, one of her arms was flung out in Shabal’s direction, and she looked at him upside-down and smiled, a flush of exertion on her cheeks.
That was the last straw. While everyone was still cheering and applauding Saraswati, he stood up, unable to look at her. Like a zombie, he walked out of the pavilion and edged through a hole in the crowd. A few cries of dismay followed him: “Hey, kid, wait!” “Where are you going?!” He thought he heard someone say something along the lines of “You shouldn’t have teased him like that!”
Saraswati replied archly: “Who says I was teasing?” This was greeted with a rumble of laughter, clearly being taken for a joke.
It was the last straw. With the laughter at his back, Shabal broke into a dead run. His mind spun madly, and his feet moved with no real sense of direction; he turned a corner, then another corner, all blindly. He knew only that he was moving away from the blaze of light in the plaza. Every so often he would pass the glow of a streetlight or an oil lamp placed by a window, but the rest of the city was in darkness.
He had never wanted a woman so badly. Sometimes he would be pierced in the heart by an instance of female beauty that passed him in the street; sometimes, when he was sitting in one of the low bars Sharif occasionally dragged him to, he would watch the dancing girls cavorting on the stage in the middle of the room, under the cloud of sweet resinous hashish smoke that clung to the ceiling, and feel the first faint stirrings of arousal. But Saraswati’s performance, enacted for him alone despite the presence of so many others, played out over and over in his mind’s eye, propelling him onward. Had she been trying to excite lust for her in his heart? If so, she’d succeeded, judging from the uncomfortable sensations under his trousers.
His feet led him down a dark alleyway; there were no windows, and no light shone but the stars. He flung himself to one side, bracing his back against the wall; he was vaguely aware that he had dropped his flute and lost his hat at some point, but both seemed unimportant. Images floated unbidden through his head: flying silver hair, intense sea-green eyes gazing at him, pearly sheets of liquid floating in the air, a flawless caramel-brown body swaying between him and the fire, on her knees before him, sending a message meant for him alone, reaching out to him, beckoning to him, offering something to him, almost begging for him…
Wonder, panic, and arousal fought for control of his body. Arousal won.
With a snarl of animal frustration, he undid his belt, threw down his baggy trousers, and yanked his loincloth to one side. Good gods, he thought, taking himself in his hand, it’s like a fucking iron bar, I’ve never been this hard in my life! But the thought passed in a split second and was gone as he began to stroke himself. The images poured in, even more relentless: those deep green eyes… those long arms and graceful shoulders… those perfect sculpted legs… those heaving breasts… that shimmying rear… those swaying, rocking hips… that tight, rolling, undulating belly—
It didn’t even take ten seconds. He put his other arm up to his mouth to stifle a scream as he exploded. The pleasure was so intense he momentarily wondered if he might be dying; with every spasm, it felt as if his entire soul was blasting out of him through his cock.
He stood braced against the wall for half a minute or so, feeling the energy run out of him; every so often his whole body would twitch as an aftershock ran through it. Eventually, he was able to open his eyes, and the first thing he saw — though he could barely see it by the starlight — was a glistening stain on the opposite wall. He had come so hard, it had shot all the way across the alley; if it hadn’t just happened to him, he would never have believed it.
The intensity of the images was fading, but Saraswati was all that occupied his thoughts. He had heard her say she wasn’t teasing, and it hadn’t sounded like a joke or a lie — but what could she possibly mean? Was she trying to seduce him? What on earth had made her choose him, of all people? What did he have that she wanted?
He tottered to his feet, tucked his rapidly withering dick back into his underclothes, pulled up his trousers and cinched the belt; glumly, he assessed the odds of having visibly stained his pants, and considered the unappealing prospect of retracing his steps to find his flute or his hat — he had immediately written off the idea of finding them both. His knees felt weak and trembly, and he was unsure how long it would take him to regain firm footing so that he could set about the task of flute-hunting.
And then the worst happened. A voice just down the street, floating over the distant din of the gathering in the square, called to him: “Shabal? Shabal al’Asad, where are you?” It was not the identity of the voice that struck him most painfully, but the note of distress he heard in its timbre. He heard very soft footsteps and a slosh of something liquid, coming closer to him as the voice continued to call out. Like a man going to be hanged or beheaded, he paced slowly back up the alley, unable to raise his eyes.
When he emerged from between the two buildings, he saw in his peripheral vision Saraswati walking slowly up the street. Her shoulders were slumped, and even the blobs of amrita around her limbs hung there listlessly and morosely; the look of embarrassment and guilt on her face mirrored what he felt happening on his own face. She stopped a few yards from where Shabal stood, stared at him for a second or two, then sighed. “I suppose,” she said despondently, “that if we’re to have this conversation, I should start it by apologizing to you.”
That tripped him up. “You, apologizing? What for? I’m the one who made a scene out of—”
“No, I’m the one who started it,” she interrupted. Shame was written on every curve, every angle, of her face and figure. “It’s my fault; I came on too strong, and it scared you off. That wasn’t what I meant to do, but it is what happened, and I’m sorry for doing that to you.”
Shabal mulled this over for a few seconds, then made his choice. “Apology accepted.”
Saraswati straightened up somewhat, and he saw a sad little grin on her face. “At least that’s behind us… Oh. By the way, you dropped these.” She held out a hand, and Shabal realized she was holding both his cap and his flute.
He gaped for a few seconds, then accepted his belongings. “Thank you,” he said, replacing the hat over his patchwork hair “That was thoughtful of you. Kind, really… What favor do I owe you for this?”
“What? No! You don’t owe me anything!” Saraswati said, waving her hands in a frantic gesture of negation. “It’s just the sort of thing one does for a friend.”
“Oh, so we’re friends now,” said Shabal, more in curiosity than in malice.
“After that talk we had last night?” Saraswati replied. “If that wasn’t enough to make us friends, I don’t know what would be.”
“Sure, but what about tonight? What was that all about?” Shabal demanded. “Were you seriously trying to hypnotize me?”
The apsara gave a single unsteady laugh. “No, I wasn’t hypnotizing you. I was trying to seduce you. There’s a difference.”
Shabal noticed, for the first time, the sweat running down his temples. “I knew it… So why me? What could you possibly want from me?”
Saraswati looked almost shy. “Well, isn’t it obvious? I told you before that we had something in common, that I could tell we both knew the taste of loneliness, and that was what drew me to you… I was thinking — I was hoping — that you would agree to come back to my place, and even if it were just for one night, we could assuage each other’s solitude.”
As she spoke, he became aware of the careful, controlled way she was holding herself; she could have deployed her whole array of supernatural wiles to ensnare him now (and after what had just happened in the alleyway, it very well might have worked), but she was just letting her words pull what weight they could by themselves. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You really mean all of it — you’re offering yourself to me.”
“Indeed I am,” she said simply.
The straining, agonized hope he detected in her eyes was what convinced him. “All right, then,” he said, standing as straight as he could. “I’d hate to leave such a generous offer unanswered… If we’ve got to be lonely, I guess tonight we could be lonely together.” As the light began to come back into her eyes, he carefully knotted the flute’s loop back in its usual place on his belt. “So… which way is it to your temple?”
Saraswati let out what sounded like a completely involuntary squeak of joy, and was not able to stop herself from leaping excitedly into the air or turning two pirouettes in the street as she came up to him. When she wrapped her arm around his own and took his hand, his forearm was submerged in her sleeve of amrita; he marveled that the liquid held its shape and did not break — it was like plunging your hand into warm water and finding an impossible pocket of air underneath it, so that only your wrist was wet. “Come with me, my young lion,” she said, and began to lead him through the deserted streets; Shabal could not avoid observing that the spring had come back into her step, every movement a dance once again, and he found himself slightly sad that he had had to see her without it.
The north gate of the town was closed, but a door had been cut in it, with its own separate bolt; Saraswati unlocked this, led Shabal through, and locked it again behind them with a key she drew as if from nowhere. The main road was easily seen in the bright, cold moonlight, and it was no trouble at all to find the place where a path split off from one side, in the direction of the hill and the temple. As they reached the foot of the hill, Shabal could hear the gurgling of the stream that ran out of the temple and down its channel in the hillside.
Saraswati’s temple was built in the fashion of the churches of Eros far to the northwest, rather than the eastern style that predominated in this region, but it was made of the same warm sandstone and durable granite as the buildings within the town gates. If it had ever been a ruin, as he had been told in the stables, Shabal could not see where the new construction met the original stone. From this side, the only light emitted from the temple came through a series of high windows or openings just under the roofline.
They ascended a series of long flat steps leading up to a pillared portico, supporting a pediment decorated with abstract designs. The entrance was through two huge, heavy bronze doors; they were shut tightly, but when Saraswati placed a hand against them and spoke a word in a language Shabal did not know, they swung open with all the weight of a feather, as noiselessly as if they had been freshly oiled. As the apsara brought him in, she closed the doors behind them and spoke a different word.
Shabal was briefly astounded by the interior decorations. Most of the floor in the main chamber was taken up by an intricate mosaic of chips of colored glass in an abstract pattern, glittering in the light of a dozen braziers that stood around the edges of the room. Against the far wall was a tall white marble statue of Eros herself, with a cluster of votive lamps, candles, and cones of incense burning at the foot of its pedestal. He looked up into the face of the goddess and felt his mind reel slightly; Saraswati noticed the change in his expression and asked: “What is it?”
“Is that a good likeness?” he responded, his eyes still fixed on the face. “Of Eros, I mean.”
“It is. I made especially sure of that.”
“She looks like… she could be your mother.”
“Of course!” Saraswati said, and laughed. “We apsaras are all Her daughters; that there is a family resemblance should be no great surprise.” She took his hand in hers again. “Come. This is only where I worship; I’ll show you where I live.”
The statue was not actually against the back wall; as one moved to either side, it became clear that the center section of the wall was actually a separate slab of the same stone set a few yards forward, concealing a gap in the middle of the wall opening into the rear chamber. Saraswati led Shabal through this passage and into her inner sanctum, and what met his eyes there indeed looked like a comfortable place. The floor was cold smooth granite, but much of it was covered with luxurious, intricately woven carpets of unfamiliar designs and unknown origin. The lighting was dark and intimate — two braziers and a few oil lamps set on low tables, casting a warm flickering light. Half-consumed sticks of incense lay smoking in three wooden holders, filling the air with exotic scent. In one corner, under a purple canopy, lay a large piece of upholstered furniture that looked halfway between a bed and a couch, with pillows and a thick blanket scattered across it as if someone had spent a sleepless night on it. In the middle of the room was a circular pool filled with roiling water — the source of the stream. The water ran through a deep channel across the room and out at its eastern end; there was no eastern wall, only a pair of balustrades and columns either side of the channel. The open space looked out over the ocean, and the star-filled night. “My humble abode,” chuckled Saraswati, and beckoned the boy toward the bed/couch in the corner.
Shabal followed and stood beside her. Self-doubt surged within him again, and he couldn’t help asking again: “Do you really mean it? Are you sure that this is… that I’m what you want?”
Saraswati looked steadily at him. That look he’d seen last night came over her face again, that look of sad sympathy, of pity without condescension. She leaned in and placed a hand gently upon his chest, over his heart. “My poor Shabal. Good fortune drops right into your lap, and your instinct says to mistrust it… Listen to me now,” she said firmly, grasping his shoulder with her other hand. “You have never been wanted by anyone, never accepted in the way you wished to be. I know it; I can feel it radiating from you every moment. But I tell you this, boy, and I mean every word: From the bottom of my heart, I want you. To the depths of your soul, I accept you.” She leaned even closer, until he could feel her breath on his cheek. “Tonight, I’ll hold nothing back from you. Tonight, I freely give to you all my love.” And she closed her eyes, closed the final gap and put her soft, silky lips to his.
Shabal’s eyes widened in shock, then shut tight. The sensation was electric — as if there were a current jumping between his own lips and hers — and he was addicted to it from the first moment. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to him, belly to belly, her breasts squashed up against his chest. He was rewarded by a low but excited moan from Saraswati, and the tip of her tongue poked shyly into his mouth. He returned the favor, and their tongues began to dance a slow duet; her arms changed positions, wrapping around him and running with gentle reassurance up and down his back. They kissed and kissed, lost in the sensation; it occurred to Shabal that Saraswati’s lips and mouth tasted as sweet as fresh honeycomb, but it was only a passing thought, disappearing quickly into the blank wordless pleasure of the moment.
A brief time later — if several minutes may he called comparatively brief — they parted and pulled back, hungrily gazing at one another, trying to find words. “Whew!” said Saraswati at last, fanning herself with one hand and actually giggling; it startled Shabal to see her face red and flushed. “You’re a natural talent, my young lion. No study could have prepared me for that.”
“You… studied? I thought you were all naturals.”
“Every apsara seeks to improve herself. We were made by our Goddess to dance and sing and make love, but dancing and singing and lovemaking are all arts whose knowledge must be carefully cultivated if we’re to put our talents to full use. Which I most definitely will,” Saraswati added with a suggestive grin.
Shabal laughed, a bit nervously. “Well, then — what happens now?”
“Now?” Saraswati replied, a dangerous glint appearing in her eye to match the grin. “Now we do this.” One of her hands reached up and plucked his cap from his head, while the other took hold of his waistcoat collar and pulled it away toward his shoulder. She deftly shucked his vest off, then went to work on his trousers; he tried to assist her with the belt, but his hands were shaking slightly and hers proved far defter.
In a matter of seconds, she had stripped Shabal of everything but his loincloth. She slowly looked his bare body up and down, and he felt the first hints of humiliation oncoming; he’d always thought of himself as scrawny and undergrown, and no doubt she could see it too. “Not much of me, is there?” he faltered out.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Saraswati replied, raising one eyebrow. She extended one elegant index finger and ran it along his collarbone, then down the middle of his skinny chest. “There’s certainly enough of you for my tastes…” She traced his ribs with her fingertip, drew it along his abdomen and outlined a circle around his navel. “…And besides, my young lion, it’s all in how you use it.” This last was said as she moved her hand all the way down to the waistband of his loincloth and tugged at it teasingly with one fingernail.
All of a sudden, his only piece of clothing began to feel much tighter. “What’s there to like about me?”
“You mean, aside from this adorable face—” she pinched his chin between her thumbs and fingers — “and this beautiful hair?” She ruffled his patchwork locks, then stepped back to consider him more thoughtfully. “Well, for one thing, I definitely like these.” She brought her fingers to the two little bumps where his hips poked out of his skinny torso, then lovingly caressed them. “Don’t ask me why, but there’s just something about a nice pair of hipbones that drives some girls absolutely wild. Especially me.”
Her dainty touch was driving him wild; he was trembling with ticklishness, uttering little breathless laughs, but it was also an immense turn-on to have any part of him so worshipped… and then she dropped to her knees without warning and kissed one of his hipbones, and then she licked it, and all question of being ticklish disappeared. He wasn’t just attracted or aroused anymore, he was very definitely horny.
From her lower vantage point, Saraswati inevitably noticed the tent Shabal was putting up in his underwear; she let loose an endearing little giggle, then looked up at Shabal with an expression of intense adoration. “But that’s just my personal preference. The truth is, all of the body, all of your body, is beautiful. Every part is a gift from Above, a treasure beyond price to be cherished. And I cherish yours.” Before she stood up, she planted a quick kiss — just a little peck — on the tip of his cock through the loincloth, and it took a burst of frantic concentration and willpower for Shabal not to immediately leave a sticky stain in the front of his linens.
“There, I’ve answered your question now,” said Saraswati. “Therefore, you must answer mine: What do you like most about me?”
“Well, I told you last night, your face—”
“Aside from my face, then. What’s the most beautiful part of my body? No, no,” she spoke over him, placing a finger to his lips, “don’t tell me. Show me. Touch me.”
“Is it all right?”
“Of course. I give my body to you, my young lion,” Saraswati said; she spread her arms wide and began to turn a slow circle before him, the sacs of amrita on her limbs trailing by inertia. “Show me my most precious place. Touch me there. Caress it. Kiss it. Worship it. Do as you like, but show me where it is…”
As she turned, Shabal found memories of her dance drifting into his mind, the way she had used every part, every inch of herself to tantalize him. What could he pick? Nothing felt quite right, not the delicate arms nor the sculptured legs, nor her smoothly muscled back, nor her delectable neck and elegant feet, nor the full breasts straining against their silken imprisonment (or was that silk, exactly?), nor the tight perfect curves of her ass (and that fabric covering the inner half of her buttocks didn’t look like silk either)… then she faced him again, and he knew just what he wanted.
He stepped in and grabbed her hands to stop her, and gave her a naughty grin of his own: “I know exactly where it is.” His own hands lowered, and began to stroke the soft, smooth skin of her flat abdomen. He did not know what to expect, but Saraswati gave a little twitch and let loose — “Ooh…” — a tiny but unmistakable coo of pleasure.
She might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull. Shabal immediately sank to his knees in front of her and continued to lavish attention on her magnificent belly. “You’re flawless,” he said reverently, “but this is the most flawless part of all.” And he began to kiss her as he caressed her, even licking once or twice. The velvet surface was deceptive; his lips felt the firmness of well-trained muscle just underneath. Her skin bore, faintly, the earthy fragrance of lotus, and the sour taste and reek of sweat was nowhere to be found — all her skin was slightly sweet, even when he plunged his tongue into the sculpted curlicue of her navel as if it were another mouth to kiss.
“You chose well,” Saraswati replied. “The belly is the true seat of a woman’s power.” Her mock-lecturing tone was belied by the tremors of pleasure that ran through her voice (and her body) as he continued to lick and kiss; her hand came down and took hold of the back of his head. “A woman can do a thing no man can do. She — ah — holds the beginnings of life within her body. Her belly nurtures it, ch-cherishes it, grows and — mm — swells with it until it is r-ready to enter the world. (Oh, don’t stop…)Th-that is the ultimate reason why — oh yes — why the dances of your country’s women celebrate the belly, why th-the women of this land and the servants of Eros so often — nnh — go about with their midriffs bare, why the jinko of the Mist Continent a-and many other Mamono so delightedly boast of their s-strong and powerful bellies. It is the source — ahh — of a woman’s fertility and of a m-mother’s p-pride… yes…” Now her other hand came down to hold his head close, and she rolled her muscles beneath his questing tongue. “A-any man who ch-Ooh!-chooses to worship it is wise indeed.”
Shabal would have been happy to stay there and give this pleasure to her all night; kissing and fondling Saraswati’s perfect stomach as she slowly undulated it for him and shuddered with delight was far and away the most erotic experience of his life to date, although it didn’t have a lot of competition in that category. But finally Saraswati spluttered, “E-enough! Enough!” and reached down, pulling him back to his feet. She was blushing, sweating, and breathing heavily; she looked as agonizingly aroused as Shabal felt. “I can’t wait one minute longer, my lion,” she purred. “I must have you.“
She pushed him back, but not roughly; the backs of his knees hit the side of the lounge/bed thing, and he collapsed onto the upholstery. The fabric was firm and durable, but whatever was stuffed into it felt as soft and light as a captive cloud. He scooted back until he had room to get his legs up on the couch as well, and stared up as she loomed over him.
She made mystic gestures with her hands, passing one over her chest and the other over her crotch, and her garments suddenly turned milk-white and liquefied, running away down her arms and legs into her reservoirs of amrita. All that was left was the simple strap running across her hips that held in place the two bunches of lotus petals from which her diaphanous “pant legs” were suspended. It was a small change; her clothing had left little to the imagination as it was — but without it she was even more beautiful. Her areolae were a deep, enticing mocha-brown against the caramel brown of her skin, and he could see that her nipples were as hard as little pebbles; her mound was hairless except for one small furry tuft, lotus-petal-shaped and (of course) silver-blue, just above the beginning of her cleft.
“Oh, before I forget…” Saraswati bent over and picked up an empty pewter drinking cup that had been sitting beside the foot of the bed. She dipped it into the swirl of amrita around her arm; it came out brimming with the liquid, and she handed it to Shabal. “Take a sip of this, a good long one. You’ll need it if you want to keep up with an apsara.”
Shabal peered into the cup; its contents looked like regular milk, nothing more. “If you say so,” he replied, and put it to his lips. He intended to take one mouthful, no more, but he found the taste — like milk mixed with clover honey — to his liking, and before he knew it he had drained the whole thing. He was unsure what to expect at first, but almost immediately he began to feel some kind of effect: the air around him grew warmer, the smell of incense intensified, and in the flickering light of the lamps everything seemed to shine like gold; Saraswati shimmered like a living statue of polished bronze with pure silver hair, and her sleeves of amrita seemed to radiate their own pale luminescence.
“You’re ready,” said Saraswati. “I can feel it from here.” She took the cup back, bent down to place it on the floor, and instead of straightening up leaned predatorily over Shabal’s supine body. She gave him an ominous grin, then lowered her head toward his hips and began to tug at his loincloth with her teeth.
He raised his pelvis off the bed to make the task less difficult, and she placed a hand under his rump and grasped the rear part of his linens; once she had the thing pulled down off his ass and past his erection, she wasted no time drawing it down his legs and (with a quick flip of her head) casting it aside with the rest of his clothes. That done, she crawled up his body again, staring shamelessly; his penis stood arrow-straight, pointing toward the ceiling, and her hands creeped forward, encircling it and finally touching it. “Oh,” she whispered almost reverently. “Shabal, you’re beautiful.”
He watched in awe as she clambered onto the bed, threw a leg over his body and straddled him, kneeling upright. “I want you to see, my young lion,” she said, and lowered her fingers to her groin; pulling aside both sides of her cleft, she revealed a glistening pinkness that could only be the entrance to her vagina. “I’ve seen you, now you can see me,” she went on. “See how ready I am for you…”
“I… I see it,” said Shabal, entranced.
Saraswati’s knees gradually bent, carrying her down until she was seated on him, right beneath his crotch. She took his erection in one hand and ground herself against it, leaving a hot wet sticky sensation on the underside of his cock. “And can you feel this?” she crooned. “You’re the one who made it like this. Can you feel what you’ve done to me?”
“I can feel it,” he gasped.
“Are you ready?” Saraswati growled sultrily. “I won’t go ahead until you say go.”
Shabal nodded. “I think… yes, I think I’m ready.” He drew in a breath, then whispered: “Please, Saraswati. Take me in.”
“Gladly,” she whispered back.
Her hips rise, her hand guided him; for an endless moment she held stock-still, openly savoring the sensation of his tip against her entrance… and then began to let gravity do its work. He encountered some unexpected resistance as she sank down around him; for a few seconds they made no progress at all — but then there came a sharp cry from Saraswati’s lips and she suddenly dropped the rest of the way, engulfing him in one swift stroke.
Shabal could not describe the feeling of his cock in Saraswati’s pussy; nothing in his experience could have prepared him for this tightness, this wetness, this heat… He looked up at her, still awed — and what he saw shocked him enough that he almost forgot he had just lost his virginity. Saraswati had cried out and thrown her head back as she fell onto him, but now he could see her face again, and her eyes were unmistakably beginning to water. “Saraswati?” he asked uneasily. “What’s wrong?”
Saraswati’s voice shook, but her answer was clear: “Nothing’s wrong, Shabal. Everything’s right. There was a little pain, but if you bear with me a minute I think I’ll be over it…”
“Pain?” Now Shabal was getting beyond unease and into fright. “Great gods, what is it? Was it something I—”
“No, no, far from it. I think perhaps I’d better just show you.” She dipped a finger down into the minuscule space between them and moved it around a bit; when she brought it back up, he saw in the lamplight a reddish stain on her fingertip.
What? No. Impossible. She was an apsara, and probably hundreds of years old at that; there was no way she could be — “You’re a virgin?!” he almost shouted.
She beamed down at him through a fog of pain and joy. “Well, you know the stories about me, after all. I always said I was waiting for the right man to come along… And now I say he has come along. The right man to take my cherry.” Her smile was warm enough to melt ice, and the tears were slowly flowing. “I’ve been waiting two hundred and twenty-nine years for this moment, my young lion. And now that it’s here — I feel complete at last.” She bent over him, her long hair throwing a canopy over his head; a tear splashed on his neck. “I was afraid you had rejected me, but then I found you again, and that time you didn’t run. You said yes… Shabal, you’ve made me so happy.” She lowered herself onto his chest, pressing her breasts up against him once more, took hold of his cheeks in both hands and kissed him deep and long.
Shabal was reeling already, more ready to come than ever — but when, simultaneously with the kiss, her pussy squeezed down on him like a vise and then began to tremble around his cock, he could hold out no longer. “Saraswati! I can’t — I — aaAAHH—” He clutched her hips and let out a long groan that fell just short of being a scream, his own pelvis quaking, his cock pulsing and pounding as it loosed the long-delayed load inside of her.
Saraswati emitted a huge gasp, then a squeal of delight at the sensation, clamping her arms around his shoulders: “Oh yes, my lion! Fill me! Fill me!“
Shabal was lost to ecstasy for a good fifteen seconds, unable to think of anything but Saraswati’s pussy and the thick, sticky ropes of semen he was firing up into it. Stars exploded behind his closed eyelids, and when he finally reopened his eyes he had trouble focusing them on anything. At last the blur in the center of his sight resolved into Saraswati’s face, with a look on it of blissful contentment. “Congratulations, my young lion,” she said tenderly, running her fingers through his hair. “You’re a cub no more. Tonight, you are a man.”
“And tonight you’re a woman, too, aren’t you?” Shabal asked, surprised to find himself still able to speak. “We… took each other’s first time, didn’t we.”
“Indeed,” said Saraswati, and kissed him again. “Tonight was a gift from my Goddess, a gift to both of us.”
“Maybe,” said Shabal, a little shamefaced, “but I don’t think it was as good as it could have been. For you, that is.”
“What? Why?” The apsara looked confused.
“I mean — well, it was your first time, and you didn’t — I mean, I didn’t make you—”
Saraswati laughed. “Is that it? Oh, what a little gentleman!” She sat up and placed a hand over his heart. “My darling, it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. You did make me feel good, even if I didn’t come with you — we apsaras feel almost as good giving an orgasm as when we get one.”
“Even so…” Shabal gave a chuckle of embarrassment. “I’d still like to make you come.”
The apsara chuckled as well. “Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of chances yet. The night is still young.”
He shifted uncomfortably beneath her. “Yeah, but I think it’ll have to wait. I’m still recovering.”
“Not up to the task yet, are we?” said Saraswati, grinning. “Let’s see what I can do about that…” And she put her mouth close to his ear and quietly, seductively, began to sing “My Lover Has Brown Hair” again.
Shabal wasn’t sure what it was that first re-sparked his arousal — the huskier, steamier voice she sang with, the way she skipped right to the most risqué and innuendo-filled verses, or the way she began rocking her hips gently to the beat of the song, side to side, with his deflated cock still inside her — but something began to prime the pump, and he could feel himself beginning to harden. Apparently Saraswati felt it too, for she sat upright and, while continuing to sing to him, increased the movements of her hips; she wasn’t merely rocking or grinding, she was literally dancing on his cock, with movements of her chest and arms to match. He was approaching full readiness when she stopped between verses to ask him: “Can you feel this?” Then, instead of moving her hips, she began to roll her belly as she sang, creating an inner pulsation that he could feel inside her pussy, stroking and caressing him.
“Saraswati!” he shouted, a cry of full-steam-ahead lust; grabbing her by the hips, he began to thrust up into her with forceful movements of his own.
Saraswati’s singing stopped with a choke and a gasp. “Oh — Goddess, yes!” she finally wailed in elation. “Yes! Fuck me, Shabal!” She caught his rhythm and expertly moved her hips in concert with his as he drove himself into her, again and again.
The depths of her pussy were the most exquisite thing he had ever felt, but Shabal was determined not to lose control. This time I won’t, he told himself; no matter what happens I will NOT come until she does. He ignored, as best he could, the pleasures of her silken sheath, and focused solely on giving pleasure back to her; the panting, the moaning, and the look on her face — trembling smile, eyes glazing over in bliss — were all the encouragement he needed to go on.
“H-here,” Saraswati stammered, taking one of Shabal’s wrists and guiding his hand down between their bodies, to the place where she was grinding against him. “Touch me here.”
Shabal obeyed, not quite understanding, but understanding arrived when his fingers brushed against a tiny, hard nub of flesh between the lips of her cleft; the response was as violent as it was immediate — Saraswati threw her head back and shrieked, and her internal muscles pinched down on him so hard he feared (just for a split second) that her pussy was liable to rip his dick off. He shifted his hand to a more comfortable position — his fingertips resting on her mound just north of the little patch of blue hair, his thumb circling and stroking her clitoris.
“Right there!” she screamed, encouraging him on. She pulled his other hand away from her hips and forcibly pressed it to her right breast; he dug his fingers in, amazed at the springy, resilient texture (Saraswati’s tits would be, he was sure, the most comfortable pillow in the world to fall asleep on), and rubbed the little point of her swollen nipple under his palm. “So good,” she murmured in between heavy breaths. “So good… my lion… great Goddess… so good.”
He could feel his next orgasm beginning to coil up inside him like a snake preparing to strike. Not yet! Not yet! he mentally shouted at himself; aloud, he said: “Are you almost there? I think I’m about—”
“Yes,” she moaned. “Almost there… just a little more, just a little, please don’t stop, I’m going to—”
Somehow — perhaps it was from the taste of amrita she had given him — Shabal suddenly found the strength to redouble his efforts, pistoning his dick inside her; he teased her clit mercilessly with one hand, while the other roamed all over her body, toying with her nipples, her neck, her belly, her thighs. She was repeating his name: “Shabal… Shabal, yes… Shabal…” She went from whispering it to moaning it to almost screaming; her hips were grinding ever more frantically by the second. “Shabal! Yes! Almost there! Keep it up! Oh, great Goddess, yes, I’m going to, I’m — I—” Her cries were suddenly choked off in her throat, and for almost a full second she was frozen stiff as the dam finally began to break. Then it broke, and she threw her head back again, tossing her hair, her whole body shivering uncontrollably as rapture swept through her.
The sight of Saraswati thrashing helplessly in the throes of climax, combined with the thought that it was he who had taken her there with his hands and his cock, caused Shabal to lose control of himself at last. If anything, he came even harder this time, the apsara screaming enthusiastically, begging him for more as her hips quivered, her pussy pulsating and throbbing around him as if it were trying to suck his load out of him.
As their respective orgasms died down, both the merchant’s apprentice and the apsara priestess felt themselves going limp; Saraswati leaned forward again, collapsed boobs-first onto Shabal’s chest, and breathlessly kissed him. The boy struggled mentally, looking for words, but all that came out was: “…Wow.”
“Hardly even begins to describe it,” Saraswati mumbled, “but yes. Definitely wow.” Chuckling, she rolled off him and lay next to him on the bed, which was just wide enough to comfortably accommodate two people; her attitude reminded Shabal of the insouciant satisfaction of a cat that got into the cream. “This has been a marvelous night so far.”
“And it’s not over, is it?” Shabal replied hopefully.
“No, indeed. We have a lot of time left before morning comes.” Saraswati paused, and a melancholy look came over her. “Before you have to move on.”
“Ah, yes,” Shabal said, feeling as dispirited as Saraswati looked. The caravan had been the last thing on his mind, but it returned to the forefront of his thoughts now. The carts, the animals, the endless tiresome journeying, the coldness of Sharif, the unsympathetic treatment from everyone else, the solitude of lonely nights with nothing next to him but a bottle of wine… and once they’d gone as far as they could, what was there to do but turn westward, rattle and bump their way back up the same long road, and do it all again? He put a somber smile on his face. “Well, when I do go I’ll have something to take with me.”
“And what would that be?”
“The memory of this night,” he said. “The memory of my first. Even Master Sharif can’t sell that away from me.”
Saraswati sighed, a wistful and longing sigh. “The star-crossed romantic fling,” she said, “so beloved of the singers and poets of the world. The one special night that flits away into the land of memory, doomed never to be caught and repeated… I don’t know for the life of me how such a sad, disappointing thing can make so many women swoon.” She turned, and her eyes flashed as they caught the light from one lamp. “The Gods know it is not good to be alone. Personally, I suspect they prefer the stories where two people get together and stay that way.”
“You are right, my young lion. We both will carry happy memories of this night away with us. It’s the away part that frustrates me.” She sat up, supporting herself on an elbow. “Because as much as I’ll cherish the memory of being your first, what would make me even happier is the prospect of being your only.”
“What’s that mean?” Shabal asked, growing apprehensive.
“There is an option you’ve not seriously considered yet,” Saraswati answered. “You really could stay.”
A surge of startled hope rose in Shabal’s heart — then was pummeled back down by what he figured was his common sense. “No. No, I couldn’t do that. Master Sharif would never stand for it.”
“Does he own you, then? Are you a slave? Mere chattel, to come and go at his will and perform his bidding alone?”
That nettled him. “Absolutely not! Gods forbid I should be tied to him forever. But,” he went on in frustration, “I can’t see any other way.”
“There is another way, I can assure you.” Saraswati reached over and enfolded his penis — which was growing hard yet again — in her satin fingers, and spread her legs. “Right here. Come to me and we’ll see if we can make you forget him, at least for now if not for good.”
She continued to stroke him even as he began to sit up; he broke free of her at last, rolled over on top and looked down at her, supporting himself on his hands and knees. He lowered his hips until he was almost touching her, and she took his shaft in one hand and guided it to her entrance. He stared down at her, feeling some nameless emotion close to awe; she returned his gaze with a tender look and said, simply: “Yes.”
When he began to sink into her, letting gravity do most of the work, she repeated it in a low hiss of satisfaction: “Yesss.” She wrapped her arms around his neck; there was a sensation of wetness from the globules of amrita on her forearms, but yet their surface tension never broke — he was half-expecting them to break and run gallons of milk down his back, but it stubbornly refused to happen.
He began to thrust into her, working his hips slowly, beginning to lose himself in the sensation of plunging into that tight, wet warmth once again. Saraswati’s heavy breathing made sweet echoes in his ears. “Please,” she whispered.
“Please… give it to me good.” Her amrita-clad legs rose and locked together around his waist, and he felt more of that suspended moisture on his lower back. “Like you did last time. Dominate me, if you can. Show me what a good, strong, gorgeous, woman-pleasing man like you can do.”
Her challenge inspired Shabal. Very gently, he moved his hips upward, until he had withdrawn everything but the head of his dick — and slammed himself balls-deep back into her in an instant. The strangled little cry she gave was a promising reaction, and he promptly did it again, the long slow pull out and the sudden forceful thrust back in. Every time he rammed down into her, he could feel the jolt of the impact traveling through her body; when he pulled back she squeezed down on his cock, frantically clutching at it with her pussy muscles, struggling to keep all of him inside.
He picked up speed, and before long he had found a comfortable pace, fucking her with smooth, strong strokes. Saraswati’s whole body churned beneath his relentless assault; her hips rocking uselessly without leverage, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around his back, her head tossing side to side, her face — with its half-lidded, unfocusing eyes and quivering mouth — giving every evidence of dazed exhilaration. A litany of gasps, squeaks, and moans came from her mouth, invocations of Eros and other deities as well, exhortations to her lover to drive himself into her harder and faster and deeper… and when he could keep it up no longer and collapsed atop her, desperately kissing her lips as he fell into another orgasm, the sensations of his cock throbbing as it erupted within her and the searing heat of his spurting come against the walls of her pussy were sufficient to push her over the edge as well. Their bodies spasmed and shivered together for ten glorious seconds that felt like an eternity.
Saraswati’s limbs finally released him, and Shabal pulled out (both feeling a sad sense of loss at the cessation of contact) and fell on his side next to her. They lay together, almost wholly spent, for several minutes, unable to do more than breathe, watch the lamplight flicker in each other’s eyes, and wait for their heartbeats to slow back down.
Saraswati finally broke the silence. “I don’t want this to end.”
“Neither do I,” Shabal admitted ruefully; his hand moved to clasp hers, their fingers interlacing.
“Is he all that’s keeping you from staying?” Saraswati asked, guessing his thoughts accurately.
“I hate to think what he’ll say if I quit him. I can imagine the look on his face right now.” A furious visage, red and venomous, floated in his mind’s eye.
“Well, for one thing, once you do quit him I don’t think you’ll need to worry about his opinion anymore,” Saraswati pointed out. “And for another, the advantages of staying probably outweigh the disadvantages.” She rolled over on her side and rested a hand on his chest. “We talked about this just last night — it didn’t seem to me that you had so much to live for back in your hometown… Haven’t you been lonely, unfulfilled, seeking a purpose beyond what the traders or the Order could give you? You could leave it all behind, and find a purpose here.”
Shabal did recall having said something to her the previous evening about lacking a purpose, but the phrase had come out amid a long hour of venting, a cri-de-coeur years in the making. He looked up at the chamber’s dimly lit ceiling (decorated with a mosaic that seemed to depict a milky white sphere floating in a starlit sky), and began to smile. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “I could stay. Just disappear until the old man’s gone, and then hang on right here. I’d have to learn the local language, of course…”
“Don’t worry,” Saraswati smiled. “If you stick around long enough, you will — I’ll teach you myself, if it comes to that.”
“And I suppose I’d have to hunt up a job in the town, to support myself. Big fishing town like this, there’s probably always someone looking for an extra pair of hands…”
Saraswati raised an eyebrow. “That wouldn’t be necessary. When I spoke of finding a purpose here, I meant HERE. You could live with me in this temple, become my acolyte.”
Shabal’s eyes widened. “You mean that?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t be so crude as to suggest we live apart.”
“Oh, I can see that, sure. But what about food and drink? What about money? I’d hate to think of being a burden to you…”
“You wouldn’t even need food or drink,” Saraswati said, pushing herself upright and taking a kneeling position by his head. “Not if you accept my ultimate offer.”
“Ultimate offer?” Shabal repeated, his thoughts arrested by the part about needing no food.
Saraswati took a deep breath, then began to explain: “I could make you an incubus, Shabal. A true high priest of Eros.
“I know, I know,” she said, raising a hand to forestall his objections, “it’s said incubi are servants or even slaves of the Mamono who take them in. That’s not the case with my kind, however. No, I would raise you to my level, make you my equal. If you called me Mistress, I would call you Master. If you make me your goddess, I will worship you like a god. You’ll never want for food or drink or companionship or purpose, ever again.
“Give yourself to me, all of yourself, and I’ll give all of myself to you; my body, my soul, my heart will all be your playthings, just as yours will be mine. We will keep this temple holy with our songs, with your music and my dance; we will make sacred love in this place, every day and every night. My belly will grow full with your beautiful daughters, and down the ages, we will send them out from this place into the world, to preach the holy gospel of love… Stay here and live with me, my lion, forever and ever, and I swear on my Goddess’s name you’ll never regret it.” She was speaking slowly, almost hypnotically, but Shabal realized that he was not falling into any sort of trance. No doubt Saraswati could have just hypnotized him, but again, she was not turning the full strength of her allure on him. Perhaps it was simply that this was a decision she wanted him to make while fully awake and aware. “I know it could take some time to think over this offer of mine, but that’s all right. I won’t force you to accept it, Goddess forbid. Take all the time you need—”
“Saraswati…” Shabal took her hands in his. All the thoughts that had been swirling in his head now instantly solidified, formed into a single decisive point. “I don’t know if what I feel right now is love. All I know is that you’re the best thing, maybe the only completely good thing, that’s ever happened to me. I’m happier here, with you, than I’d ever hoped to be. Thinking of leaving this place, leaving you behind and going on — just the thought makes me feel so sad and empty, as if I’d torn my own heart from my chest and thrown it on the floor… No, I don’t want this to end, I don’t want us to end; I want it to go on as long as possible. If you can really, truly promise me that—”
“I do promise it,” Saraswati said, clutching one of his hands tightly and running her free hand softly through his sweat-soaked hair. “I’ve sworn it to you on Eros’s name, and Eros helps those who swear honestly by Her — trust me, it is not a thing I take lightly, and neither does She.”
“…All right then. I accept the offer,” said Shabal firmly, casting away his old life with only the smallest twinge of regret — and that twinge vanished when he saw the look of unrestrained joy that came over the apsara priestess’s face as he spoke the words. “Please… make me yours. Let me stay with you.”
“Then drink,” she said, lowering the middle and index fingers of her left hand to his opened lips. “Drink and be renewed. Receive Eros’s blessings.”
The cloud of amrita around her forearm suddenly contracted into a tight spiral and began to run down it in a stream — pouring across the back of her hand, down the channel between her two forefingers, and directly into his mouth. The taste of milk and honey overwhelmed his tongue, and he began to swallow compulsively, mouthful after mouthful, drinking and drinking and drinking as if he had been thirsty all of his life. It seemed to go on forever, as if he had swallowed gallons of it, and yet the spiral of milk around her arm failed to diminish in size, as if it were being constantly replenished from some invisible source; it did not seem to overstuff his stomach, either. In this, its purest form, it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted, though he might easily have granted that honor to Saraswati’s lips and her skin — and he abruptly realized that, between her mouth, her skin, and her life-giving amrita, he would be perfectly content never again to taste anything but Saraswati for the rest of his life. He idly wondered what her pussy must taste like, then shivered at the pleasant thought that he would most likely find out soon enough.
Another shiver, sudden and unexpected, thrilled through him; his eyes had fluttered closed as he drank of Saraswati’s gift, but now they leapt open. It was like lightning through all his limbs, awakening every nerve and muscle, intensifying every sensation. The very colors around him seemed to grow more vivid; the sounds of crickets in the night and the babbling of the stream as it flowed from the spring rose to nearly a roar in his ears; he could feel the drifting of cool air across his naked skin.
His body seemed to be tight with unreleased tension, and he felt compelled to pull away from Saraswati and rise to his feet; he had been so exhausted a few minutes ago that he was sure he would stumble on the way up, but he managed it with hardly any effort at all. He stretched his arms and legs, shaking off all his aches as though he had just awoken from a fine, long night’s sleep. Energy danced through his body; he felt refreshed and renewed, and he sensed a new well of strength within himself. An inexhaustible strength, at that: he felt ready to walk a thousand miles, fight a thousand soldiers, and fuck a thousand women. “What’s happened to me?” he wondered aloud.
Saraswati laughed from her seat on the couch. “My Goddess has blessed you for the first time… and I must say, you’ve taken on your gifts very well. I hadn’t expected nearly so drastic a change, certainly not on the first night!”
“Here, have a look!” The apsara made a graceful swirling gesture with one arm; the deposit of amrita spun up into the air, made a great floating disc in the air between them – and suddenly solidified and flattened out on the side facing him, forming a pale, milky mirror.
In it, he saw clearly the changes that had come over him. He was surely a few inches taller, for one thing, but that barely registered with him — he was too busy looking at everything else. His hair had been frizzy, unkempt, and mouse-brown, with those awkward mottled patches of gold; now it was a huge, shoulder-length mop of fluffy, spiky, dashingly tousled tresses, all an evenly stippled mix of pure blond and tawny brown — far more like a lion’s mane than before. His skin had darkened toward a golden tan, and several imperfections — like the ugly red birthmark on his left thigh or the few acne scars on his cheeks — had disappeared. He had not even realized he had poor posture until he saw that it was gone, his back and shoulders no longer stooped and indrawn in their permanent cringe. Where he had once been scrawny and underfed, he had filled out, and real muscles now rippled under his skin as he moved; the bumps of his hipbones had matured into a perfect Adonis belt. His face was still recognizably his own, but now looked strangely angelic, caught in an ageless twilight zone between young adulthood and full; perhaps it was the difference in his eyes that gave him that look — they were slightly wider now, radiant and sea-gray. And the tingling he had felt in his groin as the sensations of renewal spread through him had not been meaningless: his stones were larger and heavier, and his cock had swelled to at least twice its former length and girth.
“I’m a new man,” he marveled.
“I’ll say,” came the response. The mirror re-liquefied, and the liquid retreated to its position around Saraswati’s forearm. She had been looking on as he turned one way and another examining himself, and the blush on her face spoke volumes. “And since you’ve become a new man, I think you need a new name to match.”
“A new name?” he said, grinning. “What do you propose?”
“Shabal al’Asad no longer suits you,” she said. “You have always been a lion, and always will be, but your years as a cub have ended. In your own tongue I would name you Layth, the brave — the lion who casts away fear.”
He pondered it for a few moments. “Hmm. I like the sound of that… So be it!” he said, and laughed. “From this night forward, let me be known to the world as Layth.”
“So be it,” agreed Saraswati. “Let us seal the pact, then: apsara and incubus, priestess and priest, servants together of the Goddess Eros.” She spread her legs, gave him a smile that absolutely smoldered with desire, and beckoned him back towards her — their — bed. “Come, Layth. Take me. Take me and make us one forever.”
“Yes,” said Layth, swaggering toward her with a confidence he had never before felt. He knelt between her spread thighs, and the words escaped him almost before he could think: “I love you.”
To finally hear himself speak that simple phrase was the second happiest moment of his life. The first-place winner came immediately afterward, with Saraswati’s reply: “And I love you.”
Then he lunged forward and sank into her welcoming depths, and as they felt the cosmos swirl around them and ring with chimes of rejoicing, the priest and priestess performed the most ancient of all dances, and everything was perfect.
“Tell me,” Saraswati said later as they watched the lamplights dance on the mosaic ceiling. “Did you ever believe in love at first sight?”
“Not till I first saw you.” Layth smiled.
“I’ve always believed in it,” said Saraswati. “All my years, I was sure that someday I would find the right man — that I would lay eyes upon him and know he was my destined one. But year after year, decade after decade—” her arm tightened around his chest, the pearly drapes of amrita softly sloshing — “I looked and looked, and never saw anyone who fit me just right. There were a few who came close, but I knew they weren’t the one I was waiting for.
“I’ve told you before how my joy was like a knife in my heart every time I went to preside at a wedding; I was always left wondering when my own turn would come. I felt empty, not just at the core of my body but at the core of my soul… I can’t lie to you — it tested my faith, Layth.” Her arm clutched him even more tightly, and he detected an unsteadiness in her voice. “Every night, in desperation, I sang and danced my prayers to my Goddess, hour after hour, night after night, year in and year out, decade after decade — begging Her unceasingly to send me my love at last. I began to fear that She could not hear me, or that I had unknowingly done something wrong to make Her withdraw Her promise…”
Saraswati dragged the pause out so long that Layth looked over, somewhat worried — but the look on the apsara’s face, her eyes shining with unshed tears of gladness as the remembrance filled them, was enough to allay his fears. “Then I saw you… And I was sure, for the first time. I couldn’t have been more sure if Eros Herself had whispered your name in my ear.”
“You didn’t seem all that impressed,” chuckled Layth.
“Self-control, my beloved — pure iron will. But you have no idea how hard it was, meeting your eyes and not losing myself. It’s a miracle that I didn’t explode right there in front of the whole town, that I didn’t start leaping and dancing and screaming for joy: ‘It’s YOU, my love! At long last, She’s brought you to me!'”
Layth laughed again. “I’m glad you didn’t. That would have been awkward as all hell.”
“Oh, indeed. It might even have frightened you off, no? But to know my loneliness might finally be over… oh, I was so happy,” Saraswati sighed dreamily. “Happier than I had ever been before — but of course, not even one millionth as happy as I am now.”
“You know,” Layth mused, “until tonight I don’t think I had a clue what happiness even was. I thought of it as something out of reach, something meant for other people… I was just waiting, the same as you — but waiting without any real hope.”
“But now… I’d say it was worth it,” he said, turning to look into her eyes. “The years I waited, all the miles I traveled to get here. All worth it.” Layth moved to kiss Saraswati’s cheek, but Saraswati turned to meet his lips with her own, and for a long minute their tongues went through their own small dance together.
Saraswati shifted on her side and threw one leg over Layth’s waist. “Shall we worship Eros together again, my priestly lion? Just once more, for luck — and then perhaps we’ll doze off here, and let the sunrise awaken us.”
Layth ran a hand lovingly up Saraswati’s side, caressing her hip and her belly, and taking gentle hold of one perfectly sculpted breast. “I would like nothing more, my priestess.”
“Yes… Love me, Layth.”
Very early in the morning, as the traders were making preparations to travel onward, the apsara appeared before Sharif and asked — flashing a frankly stunning display of gold pieces in one hand — if she might be permitted to make a last-minute purchase. The merchant looked at Saraswati strangely, suspecting that she had something to do with his apprentice’s dubious disappearance, but he could not refuse her when she offered a princely sum for the most exquisite and durable of all the flutes in his possession. He went into his wagon, searched deep in one dark corner, and emerged with a long, dark-stained, polished hardwood piece inlaid with electrum; the sound of it, the depth and timbre, had astonished him when he tried it for himself. Having completed the deal, they parted courteously, and he returned to his packing.
The caravan started not long after, as soon as the south gate was unbarred and the echoes of the church bell had died away into the soft rumble of waves against the bay shore. To the south were the orchard towns to which they had been invited, and beyond that the great port town of Chandrakanta, where the last of their goods from home would be sold to merchants bound for the faraway Mist Continent — and where goods from that faraway land could be had at their cheapest. Sharif was still pondering the question of what had become of Shabal when he thought he heard, far away to the north, a faint reverberation of music: the mellifluous strains of a low flute, the rhythmic chiming of little cymbals, and the lilt of a high and crystalline voice, all joined together in a song as pure as blue water and as sweet as the nectar of the Gods.