In the Reign of Kumara Gupta I (5th century CE)
The strains of a flute followed Chandi, as she led Nandika toward her chamber. Her fingers interlaced with his, they strolled and shared a silent smile. Anticipation shone in his gleaming eyes, yet his countenance wavered as they approached the door.
She paused just outside the curtain and cupped his cheek. The prickly hairs in his beard tickled her palm.
“You are pensive now. Share your thoughts with me.”
He leaned into her hand and kissed the skin. Her stomach clenched in response.
“My jewel, my thoughts are only of you, and the delights to come.”
Suppressing her shudder, she laughed instead. “You forget that I know you as my own heart. We’ve known each other since we were children.”
He reached for her cheek. His finger caressed her flesh, his thumb sweeping across the curve of her lower lip. A ragged breath escaped her when their gazes met and held.
“Goddess, you’ve always known my thoughts without asking. I have never had to say the words. You know what I want, now.”
She looked away, but he framed her face in both his hands. Passionate warmth radiated from his touch. She trembled under the intense scrutiny of his darkened gaze, where passion and yearning swirled. Until now, his desires had never frightened her. She swayed against him.
“I pray, Nandika, do not speak its name.”
His grip tightened. “Why? When it is what we both want?”
Lightheaded, she willed strength into her quaking limbs. Her lips clamped together, she fought against the urge coiling through her belly, demanding her surrender. She would never allow another man such control. Not again.
She pushed her shoulders back, tossed her hair and returned his probing gaze. “And your wives? Would they look upon our arrangement with satisfaction? You have never been a selfish man. Will you begin now?”
A heavy sigh whistled through his lips. His hands dropped at his side and his gaze fell away.
Her heart damned for her a fool, pounded a tattoo of bitter resentment and regret. His obvious hurt pained her, but she could not risk the mistakes of the past. A painful lesson left its mark, cutting so deep that not even the balm of his love could soothe the old wound.
Still, she wound her arms around his neck, soothed his slumped shoulders and cradled his neck. For a moment, he froze. Then his hands grasped her about the waist, though he kept his eyes averted. On tiptoe, she kissed his cheeks and forehead, her body pressed against his. She nuzzled his beard, inhaling the scent of sesame oil coating the dark hairs. The sounds of the musicians on the veranda faded. Muscles tensed beneath the caress of his hands. She explored the contours of his nut-brown skin, nails raking down his arms. With a ragged groan, he pulled her tighter. He met her stare.
“A fool can hope. If that is all I have, then it must be enough.”
She hushed him. “Tonight, you have me. I am yours.”
Smooth and supple, his lips parted. She pressed her mouth against his, their breaths commingled. The taste of mango and cinnamon on his tongue, he pressed her against him. The power of his ardor made desire leap in her belly. She clung to him, as though this embrace might be their last. Soon, it would be. Then she pulled away. He leaned into her again, but she laid a firm hand over his throbbing heart.
“Come with me.”
She led him into her chamber, crushing patchouli beneath her feet. They entered the bedroom, where the lone lamp on a small table by the bed banished the rest of the room into shadows. She glanced at the lacquered screen directly across from her bed, and then settled herself on the pillows arranged on the floor, Nandika reclining at her side. Offering him a smile, she clapped her hands twice.
At the sound of a drum echoing from the veranda next door, Samavati appeared, framed in the doorway leading to Chandi’s balcony. She bent at the waist, a fringe of black hair falling over her eyes. Chandi smiled at Nandika, who returned the gesture before he leaned forward, his gaze intent on the younger courtesan.
Samavati raised her hands in the invocation to the gods that begun the kathak dance. The drums continued in a slow rhythm, mimicked by her movements. As she moved, Chandi often turned her attention from Samavati toward Nandika. At times, he caught her gaze and flushed, as though embarrassed. Still, he could not keep his eyes from the entertainment for long.
When the tempo of the drums increased, Samavati twirled on her heel in a spin, winding faster and faster. The long braid spun in an arc. Flushed, her golden skin a glimmer of perfection in the lamplight, ragged breaths tore from her lungs. When she finished, Nandika roared his approval.
Samavati bowed. “Thank you, Master.”
“You have a rare talent, one hardly seen in one so young,” he replied.
She glanced at Chandi. “I’m not so young, but thank you for the compliment, Master.”
“You deserve better tokens of my praise.”
Nandika removed one of the bracelets on his wrist, gold inlaid with lapis lazuli. He held out his hand. Chandi recognized his approval, curiosity, and desire. For a brief moment, she pursed her lips and tossed her hair, but when Nandika looked at her, she pushed aside the flare of jealousy.
“Would you like Samavati to remain with us, my lord?”
He swallowed and rubbed the back of his neck, before turning away. She leaned toward him, took his hand in hers. She waited in silence until his sheepish expression returned to hers.
“I would like that. Would you allow it?”
“Do you need my permission?” She smiled, intent on reassuring him, although her heart thrummed inside her chest.
He shook his head and gestured for Samavati.
The courtesan’s eyes widened. She drew a deep breath and licked her lips. The lamplight revealed her watering eyes and pinched lips. Her pain-filled expression found Chandi, who patted Nandika’s arm. He turned toward her again, a question in his gaze.
“Forgive us, the offense is mine. I should have explained. Samavati would prefer another’s touch, a woman’s own to be precise.”
His eyebrows flared for a moment. Then he settled back against the pillows. A lazy smile curved the corners of his lips.
“I can deny you nothing.” He paused and turned the pleasant expression of his face on Samavati, “not even her. If it is your pleasure, it shall be mine.”