Chapter One – The Garden Courtyard
Kausambi, India – Late Summer
In the Reign of Kumara Gupta I (5th century CE)
Under the myriad colors of early evening, Chandi looked up to the heavens where the first stars glittered and wondered if the god Indra had forgotten the city of Kausambi. Despite the lack of rain since the previous monsoon season, the evergreen towering above her proved resilient against the drought. She doubted the people of Kausambi were as strong as this ancient tree, standing stalwart in seasons of drought and monsoons.
She lingered beneath the shady leaves of the margosa tree at her doorway. The sultry heat of day ended under the influence of a cooling, easterly wind. Lush orchids, musk rose, and balsam scented the air, but no hint of precipitation misted the horizon.
Behind her, at the entrance to the two-storey, wooden residence, the servant Sarama cleared her throat for the third time. “Perhaps he isn’t coming, mistress.”
Chandi ignored Sarama, her attention shifting to the elaborate mehndi designs painted on her palm. She flexed her long fingers, which glittered with gold rings, and admired the reddish-brown paste in the sparkle of sunset. Whenever she moved, gold bangles clinked at her wrists. The wind stirred the pleats of her yellow dhoti, held in place by a waistband of gold incised with agate. She adjusted the folds of cotton draped around her legs and displayed the maroon and green borders edged with gold thread. Beneath a diaphanous, white shawl covering the black ringlets that fell to her rounded shoulders, her firm breasts remained bare. The cool, evening air kissed the mehndi paste coloring the tips of her blush-colored nipples. The auburn paste ran a rippling line between her breasts, down her bare midriff until it disappeared beneath the dhoti.
“Sarama, please be silent.” Chandi gripped the hard whitish-grey bark of the margosa though her nails protested. “Have you ever known a Brahmin scholar to speak anything, but the truth? The messenger arrived some time ago, but the Brahmin promised his son would come. And he will.”
“We have awaited him for three days now.”
Chandi swung round. Sarama showed not a hint of fear. With her stick-thin arms folded across her bosom and her bare feet set apart in a defiant stance, she met her mistress’ stare.
Chandi advanced a few steps with her fists closed tight and the nails digging into her palms. “Do you have something else to occupy your time, girl? Perhaps that cowherd whom you think remains a secret. Do you think I know nothing of your rendezvous with him, while I entertained last evening?”
Sarama raised her chin a notch. “I did not think mistress begrudged poor me a little portion of happiness in the world. I am loyal and give devoted service. Mistress has never had to ask me to do anything more than once.”
When Chandi gasped, Sarama continued in a rush. “Except when mistress orders me to be silent when she thinks I give my opinion too freely. But mistress also asked me to always speak the truth to her …”
“And, there is not a day your mistress does not regret that request!”
Sarama clasped her slim hands together and averted her gaze. Silken black curls framed her angular face, nut-brown almond eyes set in a sandalwood complexion.
Chandi sighed and shook her head, before she returned her attention to her fingers. To her dismay, she had chipped a nail against the bark.
Sarama muttered, “If mistress wishes, I will not lie with the cowherd after tonight.”
Chandi raised a dark eyebrow. “Why tonight?”
“Tonight is already promised to him. Mistress has always admonished me to keep my promises.”
Chandi chuckled and turned away. “Be sure you do not find yourself with child. Amravati would not hesitate to turn you and the baby out. I would not stop her, do you hear me?”
Behind her, Sarama’s deceptively soft voice sounded. “I hear you, mistress.”
Chandi looked down the avenue of iron statues, which indicated the entrance to her life-long home. Shady margosa trees overshadowed the towering figures of Kama, the god of love and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. She closed her eyes and recalled how her mother let her play in the shadows of the statues, as a child. When she opened them again, a small entourage approached.
Six men pounded the dry earth beneath their soles. Shuddering with effort, they supported a bamboo litter between quaking limbs. Chandi looked over her shoulder and smiled with a knowing nod at Sarama, who stared wide-eyed before she descended the sandstone steps.
The women waited in silence until the litter bearers halted an arms length away. Coated with grime and sweat, the men’s harsh breaths expelled from their lungs as they set their burden down with a heavy thud.
The figure behind the light cotton curtain coughed and muttered under his breath. Chandi drew closer, curiosity compelling her.
A willowy young man with copper-brown skin emerged from behind the cotton folds. He stumbled on a rock in his path. A giggle escaped Sarama, but Chandi scowled at her, even though she fought against her own bubbling laughter. The stranger raised his dark eyes to hers with a scowl that matched Chandi’s own. When he rose to his full height, he towered over both women. With his aristocratic features marred by a furrowed brow, a leathery complexion, hollow cheeks and gnarled hands, he seemed much older than the sixteen years Chandi knew him to be.
“So, this is the son of the Brahmin sent to us for the completion of his education.” Chandi clasped her hands before her. “It is a wonder your father should imagine I have time to teach you. You are in a brothel, Vatsyayana. All the women here, including myself, work for our living. We do not have time for the whims and fancies of young men. Unless the young man in questions possesses great wealth.”
“My father ordered this. I did not choose to come here.”
Sarama laughed. “This one is too arrogant to be taught.”
Chandi eyed her servant under a withering glance. “Anyone can learn. Even you. One day, I will demonstrate the value of keeping some thoughts in your head.”
Sarama threw back her head, cackling. “If mistress believes I’m worthy of the lesson, I will undertake it just to please her. But not tonight.”
“For tonight is promised to the cowherd,” Chandi whispered between gritted teeth, shaking her head.
“Perhaps not. In truth, he is unremarkable.” Sarama paused and looked past Vatsyayana’s shoulder, toward the lead bearer, who brushed dust from his limbs. When he raised his head and noticed her, she parted her nut-brown lips, and then slowly licked them. His eyes widened, but then he smiled at her, as did the rest of his companions.
Sarama flicked a dark lock of her hair over one shoulder. “Perhaps, he’s not worth my attention after all. He is not a man of strength and vigor. Not like these men.”
Vatsyayana gave a start of surprise, his mouth gaping in stunned silence. His black eyes darted between Chandi, Sarama, and his litter bearers, who lowered their eyes under his scrutiny.
“Vatsyayana,” Chandi said, “my servant can offer your bearers food and drink, and a place to stay for the night.”
“It seems she would offer more than that.”
Chandi laughed. “Come, Vatsyayana.”
With a last look of admonition for his litter bearers, he fell into step beside her.
“Sarama, you too,” she called over her shoulder.
“Your promise, Sarama. Remember your promise.”
Chandi preceded them into the wide entryway, supported by red sandstone pillars. Her golden anklets jingled as she sauntered across the cool black tiles of kadapah stone. The parrots in gilded cages set between the pillars made their usual ruckus at her approach.
Beyond the archway, a garden courtyard beckoned, its walls comprised of red sandstone. The scent of flowers in the center greeted them, as did the glow of sun-kissed bodies. Within the courtyard, lit by torchlight, a sensuous tableau unfolded.
A short distance away, a courtesan pressed her lover forcibly against a pillar. She remained clothed but he had disrobed entirely. She framed his chiseled face between her hands and gently suckled at his lower lip, her tongue flicking the corner of his mouth. Each time the man reached for her, she drew away until he stilled. Raspy breaths warned of his desire. Her nail pressed against a corner of his mouth. He nipped at her finger but she pulled away, her eyes locked with his. Her breasts rose and fell against his chest, the tips grazing the black hair coating his chest.
The woman continued gazing at him, while she slid to her knees. Her nails raked a slow trail along his body from his torso, to his hips and down, along the inside of his thigh. Whenever the women pressed her talon-like fingers into his flesh, he moaned and shudders rippled the length of his bronzed body. Her gaze unwavering from his, her nimble fingers now caressed his back and down his waist. Her hands slid slowly over his hips and pressed him closer to her body.
With her teeth, she nibbled at his flesh along the hip. A sigh of pleasure escaped him. She repeated the motion, more forcibly this time, for the skin reddened. When he gasped, a smooth flick of her tongue soothed him.
Chandi gestured Vatsyayana and Sarama closer, as the man groaned. His lingam rose and he rolled his hips toward his lover. She opened her mouth and bestowed a suckling kiss just above it, one that caused his legs to quiver. When the exquisite torture of her tongue and teeth maddened him, the courtesan lapped at the head of his lingam once, then faster. Her lover squirmed and closed his eyes with a sigh of delight, his muscled legs flexed deep beneath the skin. She drew back and pressed her nails into his hip until his feverish gaze met hers.
Then she closed her reddened lips and devoured him, plunging to the nest of dark hair. She drew his lingam deeper and deeper into her mouth. Her lover’s face contorted with pleasure and he pumped his hips shamelessly against her.
Around them, other couples enjoyed similar pleasures, including two courtesans with one man between them. The fairest of the pair, dark brown hair trailing down her arched back, aided her olive skinned counterpart to wrap her legs around the man’s waist. His dark eyes quivered and closed for an instant as the lithe body embraced him. His lover’s hips thudded against the wall behind her as he grasped her waist with both hands. When her arms tightened about him, he forced them back. His greedy mouth on her breasts suckled her, the tongue stabbed at her nipple. She clung to him, her throat straining with pleasure. At his side, the other courtesan rained kisses from his shoulders down to his back, her teeth, and nails marking him. Cries of pleasure-pain spiced the air.
“To what place has my learned father sent me?”
Chandi whirled toward Vatsyayana. He jerked his reddened face away from the erotic scene, trembling hands closed into tight fists.
She shook her head in pity. “Here, you will learn the rule of love. Come, the hour grows late and I cannot keep my guests waiting. Sarama shall show you to the room where you will sleep. Your lessons begin tomorrow.”