Authors: Kevin Kwan
“What did you do with it?”
“I wore it,” Piya replied patiently, wondering why on earth her husband's cousin was so weirdly fixated on this badge.
“I mean, what did you do with your badge after the conference?”
“Erâ¦I must have either thrown it away or left it in the hotel room.”
Eddie stared at her in disbelief. His Davos badge was folded and placed in a special pouch along with his prized Roger W. Smith
watch and his precious sapphire-and-platinum cuff links. He couldn't wait to get it framed the minute he returned to Hong Kong. He was quiet for a few moments before turning his attention to Adam. “So what are you up to these days? Do you work or do you just live a life of leisure?”
Adam felt like grimacing, but he was too well brought up to show any reaction. Why did so many people assume that just because he had a royal title, he didn't have to work for a living? “I'm in F&B.
I have a restaurant at Central Embassy, which is the newest mall in town, and I also have a few gourmet food trucks that serve authentic Austrian
snacks like bratwurst, currywurst, and KÃ¤sekrainer. You know, those Austrian sausages filled with cheese?”
“A sausage truck! You actually make a profit from that?” Eddie asked.
“We do quite well. We park the trucks in all the nightlife spots around the city. People love to get a snack late at night after they leave the bars and clubs.”
“The sausages help to soak up the alcohol,” Piya added.
“Hmm. Drunk-people snacks. How lucrative,” Eddie said with a not-so-subtle hint of condescension. He sat waiting for Adam or Piya to ask him what he did for a living when his aunt and uncle came out of the bedroom. “She's asleep, but you can go in,” Catherine said to her son.
Catherine sank down on the settee next to Eddie, suddenly looking totally deflated.
“How is she today?” Eddie asked.
“Hard to tell. Francis said that with the morphine drip, she wasn't in any pain. I've just never seen her look soâ¦so frail,” Catherine said, her voice cracking a little. Taksin placed a comforting hand on her shoulder as she continued to talk. “I should have come down in November like I meant to. And the boys. Why didn't we make them come down more often?”
“Auntie Cat, you should go to your room and rest for a little while,” Eddie suggested in a gentle tone. He became uncomfortable whenever women got emotional around him.
“Yes, I think that's a good idea,” Catherine said, getting up from the settee.
“I'm going to call Jimmy and Mattie. We'll get them to fly over immediately. There's not a moment to waste,” Taksin said to her as they walked off.
Not a moment to waste
, Eddie thought to himself. But Auntie Cat had done nothing but waste her time. She had spent so many decades away, and his cousins hardly knew their grandmother. And now that Ah Ma was dying, they were finally going to show their faces? It was too little, too late! Or could there be another motive behind all this? Were the Aakaras tight on money these days? Was this why they came down on a commercial flight? He couldn't imagine the humiliation. A Thai prince, flying in economy class! And they only brought five maids with them this time. And Adam had to run these pathetic little hot-dog trucks. It was all beginning to make sense. Was Uncle Taksin urgently summoning all his sons to Singapore so they get their hands on Tyersall Park? Everyone knew that Nicky had been disinherited, and that Ah Ma would never leave any of the Leong cousins Tyersall Park when they already owned most of Malaysia. The only contenders left were the Aakara boys; his brother, Alistair; and
. Ah Ma had never thought much of Alistair, especially after he tried to bring Kitty Pong home, but the Aakaras, she always had a soft spot for them because they were half Thai. She loved her Thai food and her Thai silks and her creepy Thai maidsâeverything from that goddamn country! But he wasn't going to let those Aakaras win. They lived their lavish snotty royal lives and only deigned to come for short visits every three or four years, while
made a point of visiting his grandmother at least once a year. Yes, he was the only one who deserved the deed to Tyersall Park!
Adam and Piya emerged from the bedroom, and Eddie immediately went inâthere wasn't a moment of
to waste. Su Yi's canopied bed with its ornately carved art nouveau headboard had been replaced by one of those state-of-the-art hospital beds with an electronic mattress that constantly shifted the patient's body weight to prevent bedsores. Aside from the oxygen tube at her nose and a few tubes coming out of various veins on her arms, she looked so serene lying there under her sumptuous lotus silk bedsheets. A heart monitor on a stand pulsed quietly by her side, its screen displaying her ever changing heart rate. Eddie stood at the foot of the bed, wondering whether he should say a little prayer or something. It seemed slightly absurd, since he didn't really believe in God, but he did promise Auntie Victoria. He kneeled down beside his grandmother, folded his hands, and just as he closed his eyes, he heard a sharp voice say in Cantonese, “
Nay zhou mut yeah?
” What on earth are you doing?
Eddie opened his eyes and saw his grandmother staring at him.
“Fucky fuhâ¦I mean, Ah Ma! You're finally awake! I was about to say a prayer for you.”
Nay chyee seen ah!
Don't you start on me. I'm so sick of all these people trying to pray for me. Victoria kept sending that Bishop See Bei Sien to drone his idiotic prayers every morning when I was at the hospital, and I was too weak to chase him out at the time.”
Eddie laughed. “If you want, I can make sure Bishop See isn't allowed to see you ever again.”
“Were you awake when Adam and Piya came in?”
“No. Adam is here?”
“Yes, and he brought his wife. She's pretty, in that Thai sort of way.”
“How about his brothers?”
“No, they aren't here. I'm told Jimmy is much too busy working to come down. I guess since he's a plastic surgeon, there are too many urgent face-lifts and nose jobs that require his attention right now.”
Su Yi smiled slightly at Eddie's comment.
“And do you know what Mattie is doing?”
“He's on holiday with his family.
Skiing in Switzerland!
Can you imagine? I happened to be in Switzerland too, attending a very important conference with the world's most important businessmen, political leaders, and Pharrell, but I dropped
and flew straight to Singapore the minute I heard you were ill!” Eddie looked up at her heart monitor and saw that it was accelerating from 80 to 95 beats per minute.
Su Yi let out a brief sigh. “Who else is here?”
“Our whole family came down from Hong Kong. Even Cecilia and Alistair.”
“Where are they?”
“Everyone's at the zoo right now. Fiona, Constantine, Augustine, Kalliste, Cecilia, and Jake. Ah Tock got them special VIP tickets for that River Safari thing, but they will be back by tea time. Uncle Alfred gets in later tonight, andâ¦um, I'm told that Nicky is arriving tomorrow.”
“Nicky? Coming from New York?” Su Yi muttered.
“Yes. That's what I hear.”
Su Yi remained silent, and Eddie observed that the heart rate number on her monitor was rising rapidly: 100, 105, 110 beats per minute.
“You don't want to see him, do you?” Eddie asked. Su Yi simply closed her eyes, a lone tear streaming down the side of her face. Eddie glanced uneasily at the monitor: 120, 130. “I don't blame you, Ah Ma. Showing up here like this now, after all he's done to betray your wishesâ”
“No, no,” Su Yi finally said. Her heart rate suddenly jumped to 145 beats per minute, and Eddie looked at her in alarm. When the number hit 150, the heart monitor began emitting a high-pitched beep, and Professor Oon rushed into the room along with another doctor.
“She's elevating too rapidly!” one of the doctors said in alarm. “Should we defibrillate?”
“No, no, I'm going to give her a slow bolus of digoxin. Eddie, please clear the room,” Professor Oon ordered, as two nurses rushed in to assist.
Eddie backed out just as his aunt Victoria entered the sitting room. “Is everything okay?”
“Don't go in now. I think Ah Ma's having another heart attack! I mentioned Nicky and she began to freak out.”
Victoria moaned. “Why on earth did you mention Nicky?”
“She wanted to know who was here and who was coming. I can tell you one thing, thoughâAh Ma does not wish to see Nicky. She does not even want him to set foot in this house! It was the last thing she told me.”
M.C. is an abbreviation for Mom Chao, which translates to Serene Highness and is the title reserved for the grandchildren of the King of Thailand. Since King Chulalongkorn (1853â1910) had ninety-seven children by thirty-six wives and King Mongkut (1804â1868) had eighty-two children by thirty-nine wives, there are several hundred people still alive who can use the title of Mom Chao.
Catherine Young Aakara, like many of the girls of her generation and social standing, attended the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Girls' School in Singapore, where they were taught by British nuns and developed the curious distinctive accents that made them all sound like extras in BBC period dramas.
Cantonese for “Wow, what a good life.”
To his eternal chagrin, Eddie had not been invited to his cousin's wedding to M.R. Piyarasmi Apitchatpongse. Only his parents had been invited to the small, intimate destination wedding held at a private villa in the Similan Islands.
The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations that deals with international public health issues. The South-East Asia Regional Office is located in Bangkok.
One of the most sought-after bespoke watches in the world, each Roger W. Smith watch is made by hand, takes eleven months to complete, and there's a four-year waiting list for one (probably five years after this is published).
An abbreviation for food and beverage, currently one of the hottest industries in Asia. All the CRAs that used to work in M&A want to get in to F&B these days.
Cantonese for “Have you lost your mind?”
Astrid stood on the balcony, breathing in the luxuriant scent that wafted up from the rose gardens below. From her vantage point at the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, she had a sweeping view of the city. To the east, an impossibly romantic-looking fort perched on a mountaintop, while in the distance the tight clusters of vibrant blue buildings that made up the medieval city of Jodhpur gleamed in the early-morning light.
The Blue City
, Astrid thought to herself. She had heard somewhere that all the houses here were painted this shade of cobalt because it was believed to ward off evil spirits. The color reminded her of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre BergÃ©'s estate in Marrakechâthe Majorelle Gardensâmuch of which was also painted a distinctive shade of blue, the only house in an entire city of rose ochre allowed by decree of the king to be painted a different color.
Astrid stretched out on the chaise lounge and poured herself another cup of chai from the silver art deco teapot. This monumental palace had been commissioned by the present maharaja's grandfather in 1929 to give work to all the people during a great famine, so every detail retained its original art deco styleâfrom the pink sandstone pillars in the rotunda to the blue mosaic tiles in the underground swimming pool built so that the maharani could swim in complete privacy. The place reminded her a bit of Tyersall Park, and for a moment, Astrid felt an intense pang of guilt. Her grandmother lay in bed attended by a team of doctors while she was here, enjoying a secret weekend rendezvous at a palace.
Her guilt faded slightly as she caught sight of Charlie padding out onto the balcony clad only in his drawstring pajama trousers. When did he become so built? Back in their university days in London Charlie had been positively scrawny, but now his lanky torso took on that distinctive V-shape and his abs looked more ripped than she had ever remembered. He stood behind her as she lay on the chaise lounge, bending over and kissing that tender spot on her neck. “Morning, gorgeous.”
“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Now I don't recall getting any sleep last night, but I'm sure glad
did,” Charlie teased as he poured a cup of coffee from the samovar set up on the chrome-and-glass trolley. He took his first sip and murmured in satisfaction, “Mmm. How great is this coffee?”
Astrid smiled placidly. “Actually, I'm sure their coffee is great, but I brought these beans. I know how much you love your first cup, so I had them ground for you this morning. It's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Verve Coffee in LA.”
Charlie gazed at her in appreciation. “That's it. I'm kidnapping you and not letting you go back to Singapore. I'm never going to let you leave my side forâ¦well, the rest of eternity.”
“Kidnap me all you want, but you'll have to contend with my family. I'm sure my dad will send out a SWAT team if I don't turn up for breakfast at Nassim Road on Monday morning.”
“Don't worry, I'll get you back in time, and you can even show up with a big tray of these parathas for breakfast,” Charlie said, taking a bite out of the buttery, still-warm Indian layered bread.
Astrid giggled. “No, no, it has to be something Malay, otherwise they'll suspect. It feels like I'm playing hooky, but I'm so glad you convinced me to do thisâI really needed it.”
“You've been spending so much time at your grandmother's bedside, dealing with the family circus, I thought you could use a break.” Charlie perched on the balcony's edge, looking down at an ornately turbaned man sitting on a pile of pillows in the middle of the grand terrace, playing a soft melody on his bansuri while a flock of peacocks wandered behind him on the great lawn. “Astrid, you need to come check this out. There's a flute player on the terrace, surrounded by peacocks.”
“I saw him. He's been out there all morning. It's absolute heaven here, isn't it?” Astrid closed her eyes for a moment, listening to the enchanting melody as she savored the warmth of the sun on her face.
“Well, just wait. We haven't even toured the city yet,” Charlie said with a sly gleam in his eyes.
Astrid smiled to herself, enjoying his impish little-boy expression. What was Charlie up to? He looked just like Cassian did whenever he was trying to hide a secret.
After they had enjoyed a classic Indian breakfast of akuri-spiced scrambled eggs on laccha paratha, chicken samosas, and fresh mango pudding on their private balcony, Charlie and Astrid walked to the front entrance to the palace. As they waited for the maharaja's Rolls-Royce Phantom II to pull up to the front steps, the guards started showering compliments on Astrid. “Ma'am, we've never seen anyone look so beautiful in jodhpurs,” they praised. Astrid smiled bashfullyâshe was wearing a white linen tunic tucked into the new pair of white jodhpurs that had just been tailored for her. But instead of a belt, she had wound a long hand-beaded Scott Diffrient turquoise necklace through the belt loops.
They were driven in the vintage convertible to the Mehrangarh Fort, an imposing red sandstone fortress perched on a dramatic cliff four hundred feet above the skyline of Jodhpur. At the foot of the hill, they transferred into a small jeep that sped them up the steep road to the main entrance, a beautiful arched gateway flanked by ancient frescos known as Jai Pol, the Gate of Victory. Soon they were strolling hand in hand through the interconnected network of palaces and museums that made up the fort complex, marveling at the intricately carved walls and expansive courtyards that afforded commanding views of the city.
“This is incredible,” Astrid said in a hushed voice as they entered an elaborate chamber where the walls and ceilings were made entirely of mirrored glass mosaic tiles.
“Well, they don't call this the most beautiful fort in Rajasthan for nothing,” Charlie said.
As they strolled through a reception hall where every surfaceâfrom the walls to the ceilings to the floorsâwas painted in dizzyingly colorful floral patterns, Astrid couldn't help but comment, “It's so empty. Where are all the tourists?”
“The fort's actually closed today, but Shivraj had the place opened just for us.”
“How sweet of him. So this fort belongs to his family?”
“Since the fifteenth century. It's one of the only forts in India that's still controlled by the original ruling family that built it.”
“Am I going to get the chance to thank Shivraj in person?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell youâwe've been invited to the private residence at Umaid Bhawan for dinner tonight with his family.”
“Great. I wonder if they are related to the Singhsâyou know, Gayatri Singh, our family friend who throws those fabulous parties where she displays all her jewels? Her father was a maharaja of one of the Indian statesâ¦though I can't recall which one at the moment.”
“Maybe. I think many of the royal families of India intermarried,” Charlie replied a little distractedly.
“Are you okay?” Astrid asked, noticing his change of mood.
“Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. There's this amazing room that I'm trying to find for youâI know you'll love it. I think it's up these stairs.” Charlie led her up a steep staircase that wound around in a teardrop shape, and at the top of the stairwell they arrived at a long narrow room flanked by arched windows along every wall. In the middle of the room was a collection of golden baby cradles, each more ornate than the other.
“Is this the nursery?” Astrid asked.
“No, this is actually part of the
, where the ladies of the palace were cloistered. This building is called the Peeping Palace, because the ladies would come here and peep down on the activities of the courtyard below.”
“Oh, that's right. The royal wives and concubines could never be seen by the public, could they?” Astrid leaned out a window framed by a distinctive Bengali-style eave, peeking through the little star-patterned holes in the screened window. Then she opened the shutters completely, taking in the view below of the grand marbled courtyard surrounded on three sides by palace balconies.
“Hey, do you want to get your hands painted with henna?” Charlie asked.
“Ooh. I'd love to!”
“The concierge at the hotel told me there's a henna artist here who does the most incredible work. I think she's in the museum gift shop. Let me go get her.”
“I'll come with you.”
“No, no, stay here and enjoy the incredible view. I'll get her and be right back.”
“Oh, okay,” Astrid said, a little puzzled as Charlie rushed off. She sat on a bench in the room, contemplating what it would have been like to be married to a maharaja back in the time when they were absolute rulers of their kingdoms. It would have been a life of unfathomable luxury, but she wasn't sure she wanted to be part of a harem with dozens of queens and concubines. How could she ever share the man she loved with someone else? And were the women ever allowed to wander beyond the palace walls, or even to step onto the elegant courtyard below?
Astrid heard some laughter in the distance, and she spied several women emerging through an arched doorway in the courtyard. How pretty they looked in their red-and-white lehenga cholis. They were followed by another row of women in the same tightly cropped blouses and flowing embroidered skirts, and soon there were about a dozen of them in the courtyard. The women walked single file in a circle as the sound of drumming began to emanate from deep within the fort. Suddenly the women formed a straight line right below where Astrid was standing. They flung their hands in the air, jerked their heads up at her, and began stomping their feet in rhythm to the drumming.
From the archways on the lower floor beneath where Astrid was standing, a dozen men in white came running out between the women to the far side of the courtyard. A Hindi pop song began blasting through the air, and the men and women danced opposite each other in a seductive face-off. They were soon joined by another dozen female dancers in vibrant blue-and-purple saris, streaming in from the north and south gates of the courtyard, as the music got louder and louder.
Suddenly the song stopped abruptly, and the window shutters on the opposite side of the courtyard flung open, revealing a man in a gold embroidered sherwani. He extended his arms toward Astrid, singing a cappella in Hindi. Then the music resumed as the dancers continued to stomp and twirl. Astrid burst out laughing, delighted at the Bollywood spectacle unfolding before her.
Charlie must be behind all this! No wonder he's been acting weird ever since we got here
, she thought.
The man disappeared from the turret, only to appear moments later in the courtyard leading a band of musicians. The entire troupe danced to the beat of the music, moving in perfect formation. She looked down at the handsome lead singer outfitted in gold, realizing with a shock that it was none other than Shah Rukh Khan, one of India's biggest stars. Before she could even react properly, the sound of trumpets filled the air, followed by a strange roaring sound. Turning to the main archway into the courtyard, Astrid's eyes widened in surprise.
Coming through the gate was an elephant festooned with gemstones and vibrant pink-and-yellow patterns painted onto its head, being led by two mahouts dressed in the full regalia of the royal court of Jodhpur. On the elephant's back was an ornate silver howdah, and perched majestically on one of its seats, dressed in a midnight blue paisley sherwani with matching trousers and turban, was Charlie. Astrid's jaw dropped, and she ran out of the room onto the open veranda. “Charlie! What's all this?”
The elephant strode over to her veranda, and she was almost at eye level with Charlie as he sat on top of the elephant. The mahouts guided the elephant so that it stood alongside the balcony, and Charlie leapt off the howdah onto the terrace where Astrid stood.
“I wanted this to be a surprise. I haven't wanted to tell you until now, but Isabel signed our divorce papers last week.”
Astrid let out a little gasp.
“Yes, I am a free man. Completely free! And I realized that in all the craziness of the past few years, we've just talked about getting married as though it was a done deal, but you know, I never properly proposed to you.” Charlie suddenly got down on one knee and stared up at her. “Astrid, you are and have always been the love of my lifeâmy angel, my savior. I don't know what I'd do without you. My dearest sweet love, will you marry me?”
Before she could answer, the elephant let out another roar, and then curled his trunk upward to grab something from Charlie's hand. The animal then extended its trunk toward Astrid, waving a red leather box in front of her face. Astrid took the box gingerly and opened it. Sparkling inside was a five-carat canary diamond solitaire, encircled in a delicate floral scrollwork of white gold. It was an unusual setting, unlike anything that a contemporary jeweler might design.
“Wait a minuteâ¦thisâ¦this looks like my grandmother's engagement ring!”
your grandmother's engagement ring.”
“But how?” Astrid asked, utterly confused.
“I flew down to Singapore last month and had a secret date with your grandmother. I know how important she is to you, so I wanted to be sure we had her blessing.”
Astrid shook her head in disbelief as she stared at the precious heirloom ring, covering her mouth with her right hand as tears began streaming down her face.
“So how about it? Are you going to marry me?” Charlie looked at her plaintively.
“Yes! Yes! Oh my God, yes!” Astrid cried. Charlie got up and embraced her tightly, as the crowd of dancers and musicians cheered.
The two of them walked downstairs into the courtyard, and Shah Rukh Khan bounded toward them to be the first to offer his congratulations. “Were you surprised?” he asked.
“My goodness, I'm still in shock. I didn't think I could still be surprised at this point in my life, but Charlie really pulled it off!”