She knelt before him, her arms raised in supplication, begging mercy for her iniquitous lover, and he could bear it no longer. How could he stand to think of Nadir, unworthy Nadir, taking such a woman into his arms, his coarse fingers caressing her breasts, her hips. She professed to loving Nadir, more fool she, for it only provoked him further. He lunged forward, shoving her to the floor and pinning her there with the weight of his body, one hand clawing at the fine silk of her bodice. She screamed, struggling like a captured bird, but he barely heard it. The bodice tore away, leaving her bare and exposed at last. He marveled for a brief, fleeting moment at the exquisite perfection of her body before his eye caught on something that made him freeze, his blood turning to ice in his veins. Between her breasts, hidden until now from his sight, lay a pendant. No, not a pendant exactly, but a single pearl, attached to a worn leather cord that snaked around her elegant neck. He reached for it, his hands trembling, and closed his fist around it, breaking the cord with one sharp tug that made her cry out in pain. He couldn’t believe it, refused to believe it could be real. Taking advantage of his preoccupation, Leïla scrambled away from him, retreating into the corner and attempting to cover her body as best she could with her hands. The sound of her quiet sobbing roused him, and he looked from her to the pearl in his hand, and back again. “Where did you get this?” he asked, though he was certain now he knew. “Tell me.”
“A stranger,” she mumbled, clearly still too frightened to speak clearly. “I protected him from harm when I was a mere child, and he gave me it in return.”
The icy chill grew to envelop him, numbing him, making him feel less and yet see so much more. Free of the veil lust had cast over his eyes, he recognized her now. How could he not, when her soft blue eyes had once smiled so kindly at him in his hour of need? How could he forget the voice that had bravely defended him from his pursuers, denying having seen even a glimpse of him? He felt shame welling within him, threatening to overwhelm him. “Go,” he ordered. She looked at him in confusion, her eyes wide and frightened. He turned away, unable to look at her torn clothing, evidence of the foul crime he’d nearly committed. “Take Nadir and go. Run as far as you can, to somewhere where no one will recognize you.”
Slowly, carefully, as though afraid he might attack her again, she rose to her feet. He did the same, slowly and painfully, his shoulders hunched in agony at the weight of his guilt. “Go,” he repeated, and this time she listened. Hurrying to the door, she paused, looking back. “Thank you, Zurga,” she murmured, and he felt a rush of warmth at the sound of his own name on her lips. A moment later she was gone, leaving him alone once more. In his hands he still held the pearl he’d taken from her, the same pearl he’d pressed into her delicate palm so many years before. As he pressed the pearl to his lips, he felt a single tear roll down his cheek. He’d known, the same as everyone, that the priestesses of Brahma were chosen for their purity and beauty. He’d never realized such virtues might refer, not to a priestess’s body, but to her heart. Tying the ends of the broken cord together, he slipped the pendant over his head and tucked the pearl beneath his shirt. She would never belong to him, but in a peculiar way he felt that he had already experienced the beauty of her love, in the very moment she’d taken the pearl from his hand. Though his heart might ache with the pain of losing her, the memory of her would remain with him forever, captured in a tiny, shimmering pearl.