Authors: Robert Leader
The preparations for the wedding had lasted for twenty eight days, and Maryam, Princess of Karakhor, steeled herself to face her duty.
She had always known that, when it came, her wedding would be a political one, arranged by her father and his advisors in the best interests of the city and empire, and now, in her eighteenth summer it was time. Her mother had told her what was expected of her and what she must do. All that was left to her was to pray to the gods that the husband she had never seen would be young and kind and handsome, and that as the seasons passed they would learn to love each other.
Now her husband-to-be was encamped outside the city with a huge entourage of warriors, nobles, priests and chieftains, their bright pavilions filling the open plain beyond the blue river in a heaving patchwork of tents and men, cooking fires and chariots, weapon stacks and banners. They were a small army, too many of them to be housed in the city itself. The central pavilion occupied by the man who was to be her New Lord and Master was the most magnificent of them all, a splendid erection of blue and gold silks flying the savage Black Leopard banner of Maghalla.
Maryam could see it all from the window of her bridal chamber high in the swan neck tower of the west wing of the Royal Palace, although she was too distant to pick out the faces of individual men. She did not need to, for since the arrival of her intended groom and his wedding party she had sensed the change in those around her, and she had heard whispered the name by which her lord-to-be was known.
“Sardar of Maghalla, Sardar The Merciless.”
So he was not a kind and gentle man, of that much she was now certain.
For a while she had continued to pray that he might still be young and handsome, but even those hopes had quickly faded. Her mother and the other wives of Kara-Rashna, her sister and all her other attendants, had gradually become reluctant to reassure her on those matters, and had finally become so evasive that she had ceased to ask.
Since the arrival of the bridal party, she had seen nothing of her father or brothers or of any of the males of her household. Custom demanded that she remain in her bridal chamber in a purifying period of bathing and prayer, attended and visited only by other females. But the joy had gone from her mother's face and her visits had become less frequent, and Maryam had seen the wet tears in the soft eyes of her half-sister, Namita.
Inside the city, night and day, the sacred fires had burned constantly over the past four weeks, on all the altars before all the splendid temples, wafting the holy flames and smoke and sweet-smelling incense to the blue and star-lit heavens. The priests had prayed and made sacrifices and intoned the sacred mantas to
All that was due to the entire mighty pantheon of the known gods had been offered in incessant entreaty for their benevolence and favour.
Maryam knew in her heart it had all been in vain. This was her wedding day, and the gods were not smiling upon her.
One of her attendants, smiling faintly, offered her a hand mirror, and Maryam looked critically at her own reflection. She was beautiful. She knew she was beautiful because all those around her had always told her so. Her sister and her hand-maidens envied her, the young men of the palace composed sonnets and heaped her with flattery and praises, and even her own brothers smiled and admitted that she was beautiful. But today there was a tinge of paleness to her flawless, dusky cheeks. There were faint lines of stress and tension at the corners of honey-brown eyes that lacked their normal sparkle. Her mouth was too grim. Her glorious black hair had been washed and oiled, scented and braided, and garlanded with white flowers, but still it seemed to lack its normal shine and lustre. Despite all her bridal fineryâthe pure white sari, the golden sashes and bangles, and the fortune in sparkling jewels with which she was draped and encrustedâshe did not feel beautiful.
She turned her head to look at Namita, her younger half-sister who was also her chief bridesmaid. Namita, dressed in yellow and blue silks to honour Maghalla and almost as bejeweled as the bride, cast her eyes downward and could not meet her gaze.
Maryam smiled sadly. “Sardar is not handsome, is he?”
Namita hung her head mutely. Her shoulders made an attempt to shrug.
“Sardar is not young, is he?”
There was still no answer.
Maryam put her hand to Namita's chin and lifted gently. Wet gaze stared back at her and then Namita threw her arms around her sister and began to sob.
“Sardar the Merciless,” Maryam said bitterly, “is old and ugly.”
The other girls who were her attendants, three daughters of the three noblest houses of Karakhor, drew back uncomfortably and exchanged distressed glances. Two of them also began to silently weep.
After a moment Maryam pulled a silk handkerchief from beneath one of her golden wrist bangles and tenderly dried Namita's eyes. “Tell me what you know,” she ordered. “I must face my betrothed in an hour. In two, he will be my husband. It will be best if I go prepared.”
Namita choked and cleared her throat. “No one knew,” she whispered. “No one knew until he appeared at our gates. Even Jahan did not know. His spies send endless reports to tell him how many warriors Maghalla can raise, how many spears, how many war elephants, how many chariots. It is said that Jahan knows every word that is spoken in Maghalla's secret councils. But no one thought it necessary to tell him of this.”
“That Sardar is old and ugly.” Maryam grimaced. “Men would not think that such things are important. Men are fools who think only of war and politics.”
“Our father is furious and so is Lord Jahan.” Namita weakly defended them. “Kara-Rashna has sworn that those of his council who urged and advised this marriage will pay with their headsâand Jahan has threatened to whip every spy in his employ. Your brother Kananda wants war with Maghalla now, rather than see this marriage go ahead, and there are many who would unsheathe their swords beside him.”
“But the marriage will go ahead,” Maryam knew, and her tone was heavy with despair, “because Karakhor needs this alliance with Maghalla.”
“Yes,” Namita said wretchedly. “I have heard our uncles say that to cancel the marriage now will be a terrible insult to Maghalla. Now that Sardar has arrived with his wedding party, we cannot send them away without their promised bride. It will mean a certain and terrible war. Even so, they are divided as to what we should do.”
“And what does my father say?”
“Kara-Rashna rages. But he says that now the honour of Karakhor is also at stake. He does not fear war, but he will not lose honour.”
“Our father was always a proud man, a noble king.” Maryam spoke with a note of pride in her own voice, although her heart felt cold and dead as ice inside her breast.
Namita nodded, and again all four of the bridal attendants were helplessly weeping.
“Shut up, all of you!” Maryam snapped and stamped her foot. “I am a princess of Karakhor. I know my duty. And if this is what it must be, then I will do it.” Her chin thrust defiantly forward, and with more courage than she felt, she finished bravely. “I will not be the first young bride who goes to an old and ugly husband. It happens more often than not.”
There was a shuffling of feet, a drying of eyes, and reluctantly the girls continued their tasks, straightening folds in the silk sari and the fine lace shawls, loading her arms, wrists and throat with even more gold and jewels. The gemstones were all white diamonds and blue sapphires. They seated her gently to ease soft slippers onto her feet, and each one was almost invisible beneath its scintillating layer of fine blue stones. Maryam stared down at them gloomily, and reflected that each shoe was worth a fortune beyond the wildest dreams of almost all of her father's subjects, but that neither could buy back the lost days of her childhood and freedom. Suddenly, with an awful urgency and poignancy, all that her breaking heart wanted was to be a child again.
The morning sunlight streamed through the high tower window, and its passage round her chamber marked the moving hours of the day. The hours were passing too quickly.
I am a princess of Karakhor
, she told herself resolutely.
I will do my duty
. She repeated the vow over and over in her mind, like one of the boring mantras of the priests.
Her hand-maidens worked in silence, and when they were satisfied that there were no more adjustments that could be made, they stood back and simply waited.
The inexorable line that divided sunlight from shadow continued its remorseless progress round the walls, lighting up the rich silk drapes with their embroideries, where deer and other gentle animals played and grazed, and birds and butterflies fluttered over glades of cool shade and running water. The line passed over the tall vases of fresh cut flowers and the wall niches where the statues of the gods were enthroned. The sunlight reached the impassive face of
the Supreme God above all others, and her time had run out. It was noon, the God had no reprieve to offer her, and her father's knock sounded on the door.
The girls looked at each other, and then slowly Namita moved to open it. The others helped Maryam to rise to her feet. She faced her father in the open doorway.
Kara-Rashna, King of Karakhor, Lord of the Golden City and the greatest and most far-flung empire that the world had ever known, still looked worthy of every one of all his royal titles. That is until he moved, for only then did the stiff right arm and leg show that he was no longer the strong young lion of his youth. His beard and moustaches, despite being carefully oiled and tinted, still showed touches of the grey that was now in his eyebrows and hair. His turban and tunic were resplendent with every known gemstone, the blood-red of rubies and the green of emeralds mixing with the white and blue of diamonds and sapphires, all of them set in pendants, rings and bracelets of gold. For gold was the symbol of Karakhor. Gold spoke of her immense wealth, which in turn spoke of her prestige and power.
Kara-Rashna was all-powerful, all-mighty, all-merciful, descended from the gods, and almost their equal. Yet today he was struck dumb. It might have been her own compelling beauty, Maryam thought fleetingly, or his own parental pride, but mostly she realized, it was pain and embarrassment.
“My daughterâ” Kara-Rashna began, but then his words stumbled and failed him.
Beside him was Kaseem, the High Priest of Karakhor, the holiest of all the holy men and Brahmins who filled the many temples. Behind him, two more priests in their simple white robes and behind them, a small escort of the palace guard in gleaming bronze and leather. All of them looked uncomfortable.
Maryam steeled herself anew and drew a deep breath as she stepped forward and offered her right hand. The gold bangles shook only slightly on her slim wrist.
“I know, father,” she said softly, “and I understand.”
A tear glistened in the corner of his eye, but willpower held it back as he forced the grimace of a smile. He took her right hand in his left and turned. The priests moved aside. The guards parted to let them through. Maryam walked bravely beside her father and the small procession formed behind them as they reached and began to descend the circular stone stairway that led down from the tower.
I am a princess of Karakhor
, Maryam repeated stubbornly in her mind.
I will do my duty
The silent vow was hollow and no longer gave her comfort. The face of her father, and the crushed and wretched face of Kaseem, who had also loved her as devotedly as any uncle, all boded ill. She began to fear that Sardar was not merely old and ordinarily ugly. There was something more.
They reached the foot of the staircase and progressed along a stone-pillared corridor to reach the Great Hall of the palace. Here a great throng awaited them, her mother, her aunts, her uncles and her brothers, and all the great heads and nobles of the powerful bloodlines that made up the great houses of Karakhor. All of them wedding guests dressed in their most colourful finery. There were a few polite handclaps, a few forced smiles, but no real joy. She looked into the face of Jahan, the Warmaster General of Karakhor, an honourary uncle but the one whom she loved best of all, and although he met her eye without blinking, his grizzled face was a mask of iron. Beside him stood Kananda, her full brother, looking as though a caged tiger savaged his breast from the inside.
Maryam's heart sank even further. She looked away from them, through the avenue formed by their waiting bodies to the high arched doorway that opened out onto the courtyard at the far end of the hall. Outside in the courtyard, the wedding party from Maghalla waited with as many of their entourage as could be crowded between the enflanking colonnades. The musicians were playing and there was the sound of coarse laughter and merriment. The sacrificial altar burned with high, bright flames before the fountains in the center. She could see their glitter and the plumes of white smoke reaching into the blue sky.