The bride-to-be of Gamilah, twelfth prince of that name, lord of the richest province in all of the country of Ranek, was alone in her tower room.
It was her first moment alone in twelve days, and she cherished it, holding it to her like a gift far more precious than the dozen purebred peacocks in the courtyard or the teardrop ruby hanging at her throat. Twelve days of feasting; twelve last days of innocence. The ceremony arranged by his parents and her own would be completed, her fate sealed to his. And tonight, oh tonight would be the marriage feast, and the prince, her lord, would claim her as his own. Perhaps if she drank enough wine, she could forget that tonight she would become his bride. She could lose herself in wine and music and poetry, at this final feast.
“Sharmi?” Her servant stepped into the room, not bothering to announce her presence. They had gone beyond formality long ago; Veena was more of an aunt to Sharmi than a servant. Still, they were no longer safely home.
“‘Princess Sharmila’, Veena. And you must announce yourself.” Sharmila’s tone was gently chiding, with no real force to it. If Veena hadn’t been exhausted by the twelve days of feasting and ritual, she would have been the one making the correction, not Sharmila.
“My apologies, my princess.” Veena ducked her greying head abashedly. “But it’s almost time.”
“I’m ready.” Sharmila gathered the final folds of her crimson and gold-shot silk wedding sari in her arm, and stood tall for Veena’s inspection. Her oiled and perfumed hair hung past her hips like a midnight waterfall, and the rich gold of her dowry rested heavy on wrists and ears and neck.
“You look lovely, princess. You’ll make a perfect bride for…him.” Veena had hesitated before naming the prince, and Sharmila knew that her servant harbored the same doubts about this new lord. He was so old, so stern. Sharmila had heard disturbing rumors about his terrible rages, and strange moods. Yet, as her mother had told her, being wed was a woman’s duty. Even more, marrying for the good of the state was a princess’s duty, and every princess in all of Ranek knew that it was so. So she could do nothing but hope that this alliance would be good for her as well as for her father’s princedom. For now…it was her wedding day.
She will desire him like sin
She will desire him like virtue
The poet’s voice rose and fell, climbing and receding like the tides. The prince sat on the high platform, ensconced in cushions like a great elephant at rest, his head nodding approval at what seemed a perfect wedding poem. But as the poet’s voice continued, Sharmila trembled.
In some unknown place
In an unknown room
She will make love to him in her thoughts…
The poet was a lean man, a hungry man. Poets were many in Ranek, and competition was fierce for court favor. The Queen in her palace had the best of them, but each of the lesser princes could boast four or five court poets, who lived lives of luxury far beyond that of the common bard. The poets had come from the country and the cities to court her favor, in the hope that she might bear some influence with her lord and win them a post in his court. This one had dressed in sober black, rather than the peacock hues of his comrades, a slim ebony blade in a night of brilliant fireworks. His eyes were locked on hers, and she could not tear her gaze away. She had seen him before, this poet. He was one among many who flattered and praised her, eyes burning. She had taken little notice of him, except to note that he was perhaps somewhat handsomer than most. But she had been surrounded by beauty since birth, and he was nothing. A poet. But now his words grew dangerous. The soft flowers that fell from his lips had turned to jewels, to knives. If he was not very careful, they would cut him.
She will desire him
Like a kind of dream…
When the poet finished reciting the famous words of Gagan, the prince nodded his approval. Sharmila breathed easier, and began to once again pick at her dish of cucumber and yogurt, gathering her courage for the coming night. But then he began again.
“My prince. I offer a humble poem of my own working. May you smile upon it.”
With the first lines, terror gripped Sharmila. She carefully pushed away her dish, and turned, to fix her smile upon the prince. He smiled down at her, and so they continued for the length of the poem.
My love is sweet as jasmine,
Blooming only at night.
She climbs garden walls
Beneath my eyes;
Opens only to my touch.
My love is bright as starlight,
Surrounded by the dark.
She cannot be smothered
By the devouring night;
My skin burns, fired by her touch.
When it ended, the poet waited, silent. The prince absent-mindedly threw a gold ring to the man, and then bent to kiss his princess. The poet bowed, and turned away.
The rest of the evening passed in a golden haze for Sharmila. She felt feverish, and as the sandalwood and jasmine incense mingled in the overheated room, the princess feared she would faint. Dish after dish was paraded before her; cool sherbets and tall yoghurt drinks alternating with curried vegetables and spiced meats. She barely touched them, until the prince could not help but notice.
“You are not eating, my dear.”
“The excitement is too much for me, my lord. It has been a long twelve days of feasting.”
“I, too, long for the day to be over, my love. Come. You must try this at least. I ordered it especially to tempt your appetite.” The prince clapped his hands, and the cook came forward with a small covered dish. The prince removed the golden lid to reveal another dish of spiced meat, unusual only in its size. “It is small, I know, but the beast it comes from does not have a mighty heart. It is said to be most tender, though. Will you not try it?”
Sharmila tentatively tasted the dish, and as the delicately flavored sauce melted on her tongue, she realized that she was indeed hungry once more. She reached towards the dish, and the cook deftly slipped the contents of the dish onto her plate before vanishing into the kitchen. The prince smiled as he watched her eat voraciously, contenting himself with a glass of crimson wine. When she finished, he said, “May your appetite for that dish be a good omen for our marriage; may all your appetites flourish within it.” Sharmila blushed, then shivered as he leaned forward to kiss her again. Despite his kindness, she felt nothing but revulsion at his touch, and thought with longing of the dark poet, slender as a blade.
When the last rays of the setting sun cast their dim glow over the room, Am’kele’s priest spoke the final words, sealing them together as husband and wife. Then the prince took Sharmila’s hand in his, and they walked through the garden to her tower, under the light of hanging oil lamps and the rising moon.
It was hours later when she arose from the bed. She gathered her white gown around her, and crossed to stand by the window. The moon hid behind clouds, but the light of stars caressed her battered body, and her eyes were dark pools as she gazed out upon the garden far below.
“Looking for your poet, my wife?”
Sharmila spun around, her gasp betraying her as surely as a murmured assent. The prince lounged among the pillows, a bitter smile lighting his face. “You will not find him in the garden. That dish you found so tasty, that you devoured like the little beast you are? It was his heart. They cut it from him, still beating, and basted it with his blood. Have a care for your poets and courtiers, my wife. I do not take kindly to those who desire the beauty that is mine.”
“He was only a poet, my lord. We had not betrayed you; I do not even know his name. I will not deny that something in him spoke to me, but I am a princess of Avasthi, and I have my own honor. You cannot know what he or I intended; he did not deserve this death.”
“Already you leap to his defense!” Gamilah growled. “I heard his poem — I knew his intent! I had to protect what is mine, wife.”
“You say I am a beauty. I am afraid that if you murder every man who speaks of me, my lord, your hands will be soaked in blood.”
“If that is what is needed to protect my honor, then so be it. Perhaps they will learn not to speak of you, wife. From tomorrow onward, you are to remain in your rooms. All that you require will be brought to you by your new servants. I have already ordered that your old woman be sent home. I will have no more traitors in my house!” His brawny hands clenched and unclenched at his side, and his face was contorted with fury.
Sharmila gasped at the cruelty of his restrictions. “You wish me trapped in these rooms; chained to your bed? I had my doubts about this wedding before, though our families gave us little choice in it. They are confirmed. You are the true beast among us.” Her hands were clenched on the window sill, her painted nails cracked and digging into stone.
“Beast I may be, wife. But I am not so displeased with my father’s choice for my wife. I am your husband still, and you had best accustom yourself to that fact.” He rose then, and began to cross the room towards Sharmila. Then she stepped up into the window, silhouetted by the starlight, and spoke again.
“I am not used to living caged, my lord. I fear I would not thrive in such a cage, and such beauty as I have should all be ruined. The poet did not deserve his fate, my lord, and I have no wish to spend my remaining days trapped with the monster that ordered his death. Remember me as I am; a somewhat battered bride, but with the taste of the sweetest meal I’ve ever had still upon my tongue.” With that, she stepped out the tower window, and was gone.
The Raneki believe in reincarnation. When the poets tell the tale of Sharmila Avasthi, they say that she was reborn into her parents’ House, in Avasthi province, generations later, and eventually went to her poet as his bride. They say she always had a love of gardens, and a passion for the night. It was she who ordered the colors of her House changed to black and silver; night and starlight. None can say what the truth of the matter is, but one thing remains the same, even unto the present day. On the night of Sharmila’s leap from the tower, the poets deserted Gamilah province. The bards and minstrels and songsters went with them, and not a one has returned, for memory of him, and her.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and ten other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010 and Maneki Neko Con. She serves as Executive Director of the Speculative Literature Foundation, has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is Clinical Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Mary Anne’s author photo is by Jontisha Graves. The remixed photo of an Indian Wedding Story is by Clickmehul and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.