The next few blog entries will be the opening chapters of my short story The Red Palace. Click here to catch up on Chapter One.
Badar Ali had enlisted the help of Gita, his old nurse who was like a mother to him, his own having died in childbirth. Gita had been able to discover that a foreign woman was currently hidden in the Zenana, having negotiated a remarkable deal with the Rana’s three favorites.
This hefty nugget of information meant that Badar Ali was likely on the hunt for a Mrs. Elizabeth Wilkins, whose husband had been killed in an ambush hardly six weeks earlier on the long journey from Bombay to Rawalpindi. There Charles Wilkins was to have taken a post as a clerk and historian in the East India Company, more familiarly known as John Company. Official accounts of the massacre conflicted on the point whether Wilkins was traveling with his wife and whether she was found among the dead bodies. Her account would surely be the stuff of memoirs if she, like her late husband, had a talent for writing. Resourceful she surely was. She seemed to have survived what was by all measures a savage attack and then found refuge in the women’s quarters of a Rana’s palace with no man being the wiser – surely the safest place in India for an Englishwoman at the moment. Her tale would be the stuff of fairy stories. Perhaps she was, indeed, an Earthly Houri.
But even such a quasi-magical creature was subject to the gravity of palace politics, and Gita had given voice to the question – knowing the capricious and often cruel natures of the Rana’s favorites – just how long it would be before the Three Scorpions, ahem, Beauties would tire of whatever game they were playing and end it in time-honored palace tradition: by tossing Mrs. Wilkins over one of the walls.
Badar Ali put his plan in place.
His visit to the women’s quarters had been announced two days in advance, but still when he appeared, with Gita at this side, he felt the air ripple with what seemed flutters of surprise. Some seventy women, whether standing or reclining, managed the contradictory feats of both stirring in agitation and remaining immobile and of both glancing at him and keeping their eyes properly downcast. His instructions had preceded him. The women who were reclining immediately stood up and found their places in a line, arranged according to rank, running the perimeter of the luminous blue-tiled main room of the Zenana. The women were not naked, as they might have expected to be, but were all, per his instructions, wearing a robe that brushed mid-calf and closed with a belt. The colors ranged from peacock to canary to sunset. Their hair was bound away in scarves of apricot, aquamarine or grape. The air was sweet with coconut oil and almond oil and spicy with patchouli.
He sought first Yasmina. A quick count put her fifteenth in line. He would start with her, meaning that he would not poach on the fourteen who preceded her and who may be considered the Rana’s favorites.
“Your hand,” he said to Yasmina, holding out his palm. Then, “Look up.”
She put her hand in his and raised sensuous sloe eyes to meet his gaze. He nodded then dropped her hand and stepped in front of the next woman with the same instructions. So he went, woman by woman, holding her hand and looking into her eyes. Toward the tail end of the line, a woman put a slim dark hand into his and hesitated before she looked up. Her eyes, in a face as dark as her hands, were crystal blue. He betrayed no more interest in her than his customary nod and moved on to the next woman. When he came to the end of the line he turned to face the group, bowed once low and left the room with Gita.
That afternoon, after the worst of the heat had broken, he repaired to the room he had dubbed in English his Exchequer. The past few weeks had not been long enough to tame the riot of curling foolscap littering the massive rosewood desk. He did not look up when Gita brought the woman he had identified as Mrs. Wilkins into the room and led her to a Mughal rug positioned five feet to his left of the front of his desk. Gita pushed Mrs. Wilkins down so that her legs buckled and was seated on her left hip, with her legs tucked. He did not look at her when Gita removed the robe to reveal Mrs. Wilkins’ nakedness, but he could see out of the corner of his eye that her skin had been washed of the dark nut brown stain that would have made her unappealing to the Rana. Her blonde hair, rinsed of the henna dye dulling it, was unbound and flowing down her back. He knew the Angrezi-log called the color ‘guinea gold.’
Gita must have told her what was in store for her. Still Mrs. Wilkins was unprepared enough for her disrobing to emit an audible gasp, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her reach out to snatch back the robe. But Gita was too fast for her and left the room to retire to a chair in the antechamber to his left where she would remain until he called for her.
He had arranged the rug so he could see Mrs. Wilkins in his peripheral vision without having to look up from his work. When she recovered from her shock, she turned so that her back was to him. He snapped his fingers once. Gita came into the room and put her into position. Gita left. A few seconds later, Mrs. Wilkins lay down on her stomach. Again he snapped his fingers once, and Gita did her part. On it went for quite some time with Mrs. Wilkins finding ways to hide herself – the British had stamina, he would grant them that – until she finally settled into the position he desired and became frozen in it. He continued to work calmly. Barely audible above the scritch-scratch of his pen were her tiny gulps of air, as if she were swallowing sobs.
He did not look directly at her once. Nevertheless, he had a fair idea of her loveliness, and he found that her presence cut the otherwise dreariness of his work to laughably low degrees. He even imagined looking forward to the most routine of his tasks when accompanied by his pretty naked pet. Her opinion of the arrangement did not much concern him, but he had a fair idea she thought him the lowest of the low – savage, a barbarian, uncouth, uncivilized, native. He had an equally good idea about her feelings. Although she seemed to be holding her breath, her quivering embarrassment, outrage, fear and indignation were pouring off of her in perceptible waves.
Mid-way through the session Koda Des, working in the antechamber to the right of Badar Ali, asked if the prince was ready to hear legal cases. This doorway to the Exchequer was filled with a screen of lacy marble, porous enough for sound to penetrate but ornate enough to prevent any gazes from falling on Mrs. Wilkins. Badar Ali put down his pen, turned to the right, with his back to his naked captive, and said Yes. For the next two and a half hours he adjudicated the usual human folly involving quarrels over land rights and water rights and elephant path rights, dowry disputes, market stall rivalries, the search for who to blame for dead livestock, one strange case of arson, two involving drunken brawls, and a petty grievance nursed to epic proportions over generations with both sides claiming its importance to be second only to the greatest battle in the Mahabharata.
When he’d had enough he stood up and announced that any unheard cases would be taken up the next week. He snapped his fingers twice, bringing Gita out of the antechamber to the left. With his back still turned away from Mrs. Wilkins, he headed for the antechamber to his right.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen