“The Heart-eating Maharaja”
(Excerpt, Short Story)
By Su Mon Han
It was expected that a man of his good looks and languid charm would be offered many strange propositions in his lifetime, but Sheinzaw Lwin never forgot the unusual request from the stiff man in the Western-style suit. Although the nature of the favor was odd to begin with, the nature of the requestor made it even more so, for from the beginning, he had never struck Sheinzaw as a frivolous or cruel man. But his request was.
The first time they’d met, Sheinzaw had been actively engaged in his favorite activity—the pursuit of his leisure—and was exerting all his energies into the task of sunning himself on his pool’s towering diving board platform. He didn’t weigh much, but a warm, tropical breeze that was teasing the long palm fronds around his pool was bending the diving board perilously. Far below, the placid blue surface of the water, dusted with points of golden sunlight, glistened reassuringly, but Sheinzaw did not intend to fall in. The challenge of keeping his precarious perch while, of course, appearing to be perfectly at ease to anyone who might happen to observe him, was a favorite pastime of his.
The patio doors swung open, admitting his overdressed butler into the muggy heat.
“A Mr. Peter Aung to see you, sir,” he announced, before turning stiffly in his coattails to allow the said Mr. Peter Aung to step out onto the marble-paved patio. Sheinzaw stretched languidly and turned over onto his stomach so that he could see down toward the ground.
Mr. Peter Aung struck him as something more of a stringent schoolmaster than a wealthy businessman; he held himself rigidly, and his straight, short-cropped hair was parted in a severe line from the exact middle of his high forehead. Even in the midst of a sultry, post-monsoon day, he wore his gray, Western-style suit with every last button and cufflink clasped into place.
Sheinzaw was vaguely reminded of something a friend had once said: underneath every frowning man’s cold eyes is the woman that keeps his heart from freezing as well. Here was a frowning man if ever he’d seen one, but the degree of frigidity in Mr. Peter Aung’s mien discouraged any hope that he wasn’t already frozen and coagulated under the skin. The businessman cleared his throat, ending Sheinzaw’s momentary reverie.
“Are you the one they call the ‘heart-eating maharaja?’”
Sheinzaw raised his head and considered. “What if I am?”
Without changing expression, the businessman stepped forward and looked up to give him a piercing stare. It cut through the hazy day with a jolt like the shock of cold water on a drowsing face.
“I need you to do something for me,” he said. “I need you to break a girl’s heart.”
When Sheinzaw slowly slid his dark sunglasses off his face, his eyes on the businessman were mild and didn’t reveal so much as a spark of surprise for such a request. But the hand gripping the edge of the diving board that Peter Aung could not see was white about the knuckles.
# # #
“Heart-eater—‘breaker of women’s hearts.’ I suppose it’s just local slang.” Peter shrugged delicately, the straight shoulders of his suit crinkling as though unaccustomed to such a movement. They had installed themselves in the summer mansion’s plush sitting room, a British-flavored affair of polished teak swathed in arabesque-printed maroon silk. “I only hire the best, Mr. Lwin, and they call you the maharaja of heart-eaters. I do not know what you did in Rangoon to be so dubbed, and truth be told, I’d rather not know. But, if you’ll forgive my saying so, you would surely be qualified to make a young, untried woman fall in love with you.”
“Interesting slang you have in these parts,” Sheinzaw said. He took a sip of his jasmine tea and frowned at the flakes of tealeaf hovering around the grooved bottom of the cup. As unfashionable as the new trend of “bagging” tea for steeping was, he certainly preferred it over the risk of catching a stray leaf in his teeth. No one ever told you when it happened either.
“You will, of course, be very well compensated for your services,” added the businessman. His own cup of tea sat untouched on its saucer.
Sheinzaw gave him an easy smile. “Sir, I must confess I’m not particularly in need of money. But I’d like to hear what this business about breaking a girl’s heart is about.”
“This girl.” Peter produced a crisp, white envelope from his breast pocket and solemnly passed it to his host. Sheinzaw opened it to find a slightly bent photograph of a young woman, posed stiffly but smiling beautifully, between two men. One of the men was Peter Aung.
“Her name is Thida Sanlei,” Peter said. “Daughter of a lacquerware craftsman in the second district.”
“Oh, not of the Tawn-Gyi Ivory Traders Sanleis?”
“No, no. She’s a middle-class girl.”
“I see.” Although she was indeed clad in plain clothing in the picture, Sheinzaw noted that she also wore an impressive pearl necklace that would truly be a work of art if faux. No, definitely not faux; and also, definitely a gift—but from which of the men in the picture? He hoped it wasn’t Peter.
Leaving examination of her, he brushed his eyes briefly over the strangely constipated-looking smiling face of Peter and came to inspect the other man in the picture. He was handsome and young, his face full of the good humor and freshness of carefree youth.
“Who is this?”
Peter took the picture back and looked at it. His face was curiously blank. “This is my younger brother, Bryan. My late younger brother.”
“I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard.”
“Oh, it’s been several months since his passing; you would’ve still been in the City at that time.” Peter procured the white envelope and replaced the picture inside of it. He held it in his lap and stared at it, some of the rigidity in his posture gone. “You would have liked him; most people did. He was a very kind person, good-natured; a bit impetuous, perhaps, and…very naïve.”
“A proper younger brother.”
“Oh, yes; the apple of our mother’s eye and the darling of every girl in town. Yes,” Peter murmured, his eyes pensive. “You know, he could have had any woman he fancied in this town—well, except, of course, for the one that he ended up falling in love with.”
“Yes. He worked very hard to be able to provide for her and make her his wife. He even refused my help and my money because he wanted to support his future wife on his own. And then, when he finally asked her to marry him, she refused him utterly, and completely without warning. She broke his heart without a shred of pity—after everything he had done for her! And he… well, he was unable to bear it. He took his own life shortly afterward.”
“And that’s why you want me to break her heart.”
“Yes. An eye for an eye.” Peter adjusted his wire-frame glasses slightly, his face once more a blank. “Will you do it?”
Sheinzaw picked up his teacup again and swilled the tepid liquid around in it, making a cloud of tealeaf flecks dance wildly. “I’m very sorry for your brother. But having me break this girl’s heart isn’t going to be of any benefit to him.” He held up his hand as Peter began to protest. “I’m sure Miss Sanlei didn’t refuse your brother with the intent of causing his death. It seems unfair to punish her for a crime she didn’t commit maliciously.”
Peter shook his head vehemently. “But you don’t understand. You’d have to meet Thida to see how—”
“Forgive me, but my answer is no.” Without raising his voice, the room rang with the tones of finality in his words. Peter fell silent and Sheinzaw inclined his head slightly; the monarch’s sympathetic dismissal of the crestfallen supplicant.
But Peter Aung was not a man easily deterred once he decided to fight. After a pause, he regained his composure; the steely competence of Peter Aung the businessman found its way back to the forefront and checked all emotion. He knew then, just as he knew when the opposition was about to crumble at the negotiation table under a bit more politely-worded cajoling, that his chance stood before him and that now was the time to act.
“Of course,” he said, calmly pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, icy deliberateness in his every movement. “Excuse my outburst; I suppose my mourning for my brother is making me unreasonable. I understand your decision, of course. After all, this situation does not concern you at—” He stood a bit too quickly then, and a small, bulky package slipped out of his inside coat pocket.
“I’ve got it,” Sheinzaw said quickly, and reached out to stop the cylindrical package from rolling off the edge of the coffee table.
“Oh, no, I’ve—” In his apparent agitation, Peter seemed to misjudge the direction the package was rolling. The two men collided and the package, unfettered, rolled neatly off the table and landed with a tinkling crunch on the marble-tiled floor.
“Oh, no,” Peter breathed, “the heirloom!”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Sheinzaw apologized. “I should have caught it.”
“No, no,” Peter said, suddenly distraught, “it was foolish of me to have brought it. I’d expected that a man of your status would not be interested in money—had you taken the job. So I brought along this antique statuette of Buddha, a family heirloom. It’s been passed from generation to generation since the times of Kyun Sitha, I’m told. I had heard you were a relic collector, so I thought…”
“I am truly sorry,” Sheinzaw said, and really meant it, ignoring little misgivings flitting about the back of his brain as to how accidental the accident had been. “In my house, your possessions should be safeguarded. Please allow me to pay you for the statue.”
Peter was aghast. “Oh, certainly not!” he exclaimed. “It was my fault entirely—”
“But as your host, I take responsibility. Please.”
“No.” Peter shook his head ruefully. “The money is of no use to me. The statue is not mine. It was an heirloom passed to Bryan… which is why I had thought it especially fitting to serve as your payment. For a favor to him.”
The earlier misgivings resurfaced quite clearly in Sheinzaw’s mind, but he could not go back on his word; they both knew this. Very shrewd, indeed; it was little wonder that Mr. Peter Aung was renowned as one of the few but formidable forces of domestic commerce in northwestern Burma. Sheinzaw had lost this round. He composed himself and said solemnly, the barest hint of resignation in his voice, “Please allow me to repay your brother for his heirloom. I will break Thida Sanlei’s heart.”