Over the next two weeks I will be posting the first four chapters of my new short story The Red Palace. Other stories are available as free downloads on my site: A Most Curious Courtship, Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening, The Wedding Night and The Alpha’s Edge.
Badar Ali stepped onto his balcony of marble and red sandstone and gazed out over the distant plains he had yearned to see for so many years. As he stood in the place where he had spent idle hours of his youth daydreaming, a background feeling rushed forward and filled him with sudden awareness. Before the Rana had sent him to study in far-off Belait ‘England,’ he had not realized how much pleasure he took from having the soaring Himalayas at his back. He felt their comfort now, solid and confident. He let his mind’s eye roam among the majestic snowcaps, the sacred source of the five rivers flowing through the fertile plains of the Punjab spreading far and wide to the horizon. He sent his sacred mountains a prayer.
He breathed in. The air, released from the suffocating heat of the day, carried now only the scents of hibiscus and frangipani and jasmine from the palace’s many gardens. The sound of water trickling in his personal fountain a few feet away mingled with the fluttery gust of a sudden flight of a flock of geese overhead, jackals snarling and quarreling in the distance, and parrots and paddy birds and ring-doves calling and cooing as they bedded down in their trees for the night. He watched the dusty purple of dusk shade into the amethyst of twilight then deepen into the indigo of sunset. This was the magical moment before the great arc of the night wheeled its burden of stars slowly above. It was the fraction of an ecstatic second between daylight and nightlight, when houris slipped through the heavenly gauze to dance on the ground and beckoned the djinn to join them.
He glanced down into the darkness. The palace wall dropped one hundred feet to meet the scrub at the edge of a thicket in the midst of which wandered a hidden stream. In that half-second he caught the flash of a houri, lithe and surely lovely, flit past the scrub and steal into the thicket. The next second stars spangled the sky, the sickle moon was flung high, and all houris fled, leaving the capricious djinn to pester or to bless poor earthlings, as they pleased.
Houris. He entertained thoughts of them for a fanciful moment before his education of the last ten years broke through his thoughts like a thundering phalanx of British cavalry. They bore him the terse and sober message: Apply the scientific method.
What had his professor at Cambridge once said? “Man’s natural tendency is to start from a conclusion and work backward to confirm his assumption. But the scientific method drives down the wrong side of the road by starting with the assumption and then making every effort to disconfirm it.” So. Westerners had once believed that meat left outside long enough would spontaneously generate new life in the form of maggots and flies. Then a clever Italian chap tested the idea by placing meat and eggs in both sealed and unsealed containers. When he checked back to compare the two conditions, he saw the sealed containers had not spontaneously generated life. Next was tested the assumption that forgotten piles of dirty rags would turn into mice and, lo and behold, Westerners began to change their perceptions of the world. Armed with their new experimental prowess they set out to harness the rest of the world.
Ask a question; construct a hypothesis resulting in a prediction; test the prediction; draw a conclusion. The scientific method.
The obvious question was: Did houris exist? However, if he predicted Yes, he could never test the hypothesis because if they had the qualities the great religious scholar Bayazid claimed for them, they would never let themselves be caught. So he needed a new question. He stood there long enough in contemplation, his gaze focused on the darkness below, to chance to see the same form flit back the way she had come. Or was what he saw and heard merely the scuttle of a nocturnal animal? Nevertheless the quick scurry prompted the question: Could a human being – and a female, no less, or perhaps a boy – come and go from such a well-guarded palace, unattended and under cover of night? From this question materialized another: Is the palace well-guarded?
He hypothesized that, Yes, it was possible for a human being to come and go from the Laal Mahal ‘Red Palace’ at will and, No, the palace is not well guarded. The next questions were Who is this Earthly Houri? and How does she make her escape?
When he had been in Belait, he had longed for his return to India. However, he had not relished the labor awaiting him after ten years away and the duties to be thrust upon him in the face of his father’s declining health. Nevertheless, over the next few days, as he reacquainted himself with the workings of the Laal Mahal, his hypothesis and its attendant questions acted like a mental spur stimulating him to seek information.
The next day he had the Head of the Guards sit with a scribe and write down the hours and duties and posts of the various soldiers who kept the watch. If there were a spy in his court – this woman or boy who came and went – it was best he keep his suspicions to himself. Although he had maintained a regular correspondence over the years with his father’s chief minister, Koda Des, he still could not know yet which way the political winds really blew through this grand pile of sandstone with its planless maze of rooms and corridors.
He kept his watch, too, on his balcony every night at the magical moment when the houris danced, and he marked the days on the Western calendar he had brought with him. On the fourth night he saw a figure trace the same route she had taken on the first evening of his arrival then came another sighting four nights later, thereby establishing a pattern. Four nights after that he took his inquiry into the field and hid himself behind a clump of trees not too far from the path taken three times already by the Earthly Houri.
And she was a woman. He could tell from her form and her movements when she passed not far from him, completely unaware of his presence. Beyond her outlines he could discern nothing of her features or the exact shape of her figure because she was enfolded in a long robe with a hood and belted at the waist. He knew what his father would have done with her. He would have had her arrested, interrogated and likely executed. However, his father would never have discovered her, because Badar Ali’s balcony was the only one with the view of the Earthly Houri’s path, and his father would have never crouched and watched and discovered anything by observation. If she were a danger to the palace, Badar Ali would discover it, which meant he needed to find out what she did in the thicket.
So he followed her and had his answer. She went to bathe.
Odd, but not terribly dangerous. She did not seem to be a spy because she did not meet anyone, just rinsed herself off in the stream. He was too far away from her, and it was too dark in the thicket to see her features or enjoy the sight of her nudity, but he was sure her activities included nothing beyond washing skin with water. He could think of no reason why a woman would not wash herself in the hammam ‘bath’ in the Zenana ‘women’s quarters.’ Could it be modesty? Or did she have something to hide? A deformity? When she returned along her path he caught of glimpse of her calves. Her skin was white, like that of a houri – or a Persian.
He opened a new line of investigation. His return to India had coincided with the Sepoy Rebellion that had broken out to the east in Meerut then spread to Delhi and Lucknow. His state was thankfully far to the west and not under the control of the East India Company, so the brutal massacres of British men, women and children had not spread to infect his peaceful principality. However, given the rebellion, a new idea had come to him concerning his Earthly Houri, and he was now scouring with fascination otherwise tedious reports of the comings and goings of every caravan in the region, engrossed by any detail that might explain how a foreign woman – perhaps an Angrezi-bai ‘Englishwoman’ – came to be in the Laal Mahal.
He could not pose a question about a specific woman to any man in the palace. Nor could he ask Yasmina, the woman he had chosen from the ones who had been presented to him upon his return. But surely the women in the Zenana knew she was there and who she was – or at least some women must. It was a puzzle, so he dug in and pieced together the strengths and weaknesses both in the mofussil ‘the countryside’ and in the sometimes feckless, often treacherous palace. What was more, he was able to assemble a strange but plausible story about his Earthly Houri.
He asked for a private audience with his father, which meant they would not meet in the open-air pillared and arched pavilion in the first courtyard. Instead he went to the Rana’s receiving room where the floor was strewn with Persian rugs and brocade cushions, the walls were hung with shot silk, and the low tables scattered throughout were carved from sandalwood and inlaid with ivory. The chamber was redolent of roses and orange blossoms and vanilla tobacco. Split cane blinds had been lowered to filter the mid-afternoon scorch.
His father was reclining on a magnificent divan, equally magnificently robed and wearing a turban studded with a large emerald. Rubies graced his fingers. The size of the jewels served to emphasize his bulk and seemed to further weigh him down. He had become quite stout and indolent, overindulgence being a hazardous if commonplace temptation for someone of his rank. His son, with all due British public school discipline, planned to avoid it.
Badar Ali chose his cushion, and the audience began predictably enough with Badar Ali doing most of the talking, his father doing most of the smoking, with the bubble of the hookah punctuating the conversation. The heir apparent outlined the state of the realm with efficiency, leaving out details sure to distract his less than enthusiastic sire. The Rana was so immune to distressing news that he dismissed the whole of his son’s well-researched remarks on the sepoy ‘infantry’ rebellion rocking India with a negligent hand and the terse and arguably true statement, “The British deserved what they received.”
“It is surely the end of Company rule in India,” was Badar Ali’s assessment, and since he was at the end of his recital he let a pause fall, requiring his father to rouse himself enough to say,
“An energetic report, my son, I thank you.” It did not sound wholly like a compliment nor did it carry much heartfelt gratitude.
Talk turned to palace gossip, amusing anecdotes about Badar Ali’s time in Belait, the Rana’s health, and finally his mistresses. Here Badar Ali sighed meaningfully.
After taking a long, thoughtful draw on the hookah the Rana asked, “You do not care to speak forthrightly with me, my son? I had rather thought you had found the way of it until this point.”
Thus encouraged he said baldly, “I want access to more women.”
The Rana bent his head a fraction in acknowledgement of his son’s statement. It was a direct challenge and, although lazy and self-absorbed, the Rana was not yet ready to cede the final keys to his kingdom by giving his son free rein in the harem.
Badar Ali knew this and had already set his course. He was comfortable to let his words hover, threatening and forceful. He allowed the Rana time to consider his response, all the while knowing his father was imagining and discarding at least three if not four ways he could put a period to Badar Ali’s existence. He had an heir to spare, after all, in nine-year-old Laiju, the son of his now-deceased second wife.
Badar Ali extended the silence in order to give the Rana time for his thoughts to travel onward and to fear the same ways his son could easily organize his father’s last breath. The Rana might have known a moment of pause, a second-guessing of his decision to send his son to school in Belait to learn how the Angrezis thought. Then again, as Badar Ali knew well, it had not been the Rana’s idea but rather that of Koda Des, and the Rana had only endorsed the wisdom of it. Perhaps he was considering that his son had learned too well the crafty ways of the men of the East India Company who had once brought large swaths of India under Company rule.
After a sufficient time, Badar Ali added, “But not all of the women.”
The Rana inclined his head, perhaps in acknowledgement of his son’s finesse. His slight shift on the divan was the only sign to suggest he might have been relieved.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen