January 13, 2014
Kicking my heels against the stallion’s flanks, I swept through the city gates at a fast gallop. Guards shouted a welcome and I could almost feel the jumping pulse of the crowd as the news of my return was passed on from soldier to soldier and house to house. The combination of excitement and gratitude in seeing me alive and well was something I also felt when I saw them.
Shouts of, “The Prince has returned!” followed in my wake.
When I entered the estate I resided at while monitoring the borderlands, my manservant appeared and helped me out of my armor.
“What’s the news, Rahul?” I asked as he offered me a hot towel to wipe the sweat and dirt from my face.
“Your parents have arrived. Your mother wishes to see you before dinner.”
I was surprised to hear they were visiting. I hadn’t been expecting them. “Is it urgent?” I asked tiredly.
“I don’t believe so.”
“Good. Then I’m going to the bath house first.”
Rahul inclined his head. “As you wish, Prince Rajaram.”
He followed silently behind me as I strode towards my chambers. Snapping his fingers, he whispered silently to others who ran to his side and then, having been instructed, quickly vanished into the corridors of the palace attending to their various duties.
My body ached. The journey to the outpost had been futile. I’d been called to organize a manhunt after a deadly attack on our lands. We’d found the trail and tracked the murderers for several hours but then the marauders’ trail disappeared. It was as if they’d slunk into the dark crevices of the mountains, melting into them like shadows.
Something felt very wrong about the incident. After I met with my mother I’d have to find Kadam and tell him there was much more going on in the far reaches of the empire than simple raids by thuggees. It wasn’t the first time this had happened and as we’d given much care in training our military and reinforcing the outposts, this was highly unusual. Someone was taking them down one by one.
Each time the villains evaded us and the troops were beginning to share strange stories—superstitious tales of specters haunting the night. They believed there was some kind of mysticism involved and as much as I tried to reassure them, I could see in their faces that they were terrified.
I’d been gone several days and had barely slept so when I headed into the steam filled bath house and sunk into the scented hot water, I almost fell asleep. Rahul didn’t let me completely drift off though. He handed me a sponge and placed bowls of soaps nearby as well as a bucket of cold water to rinse off with.
After scrubbing myself clean and washing my hair I ducked under the hot water and rose, flipping my hair back. I’d hated the cold water rinse since I was a child but my mother insisted that it invigorated the body so I grit my teeth and poured it over my head, gasping loudly as goose flesh crept up my arms and chest.
Refreshed and dressed in my courtly attire, I made my way to my mother’s receiving room. My mother, Deschen Rajaram, was visiting with the widows of our military in the area. She believed strongly in caring for them, especially after their husbands had made the ultimate sacrifice for king and country.
The invitation asking if they would like to live in the palace or one of our citadels was sent by messenger as soon as she got the reports of the death of the soldier. A whole section of each of our homes was dedicated to these women. Mother saw to their physical needs and they became her entourage, assisting her in tending to the poor and downtrodden. When she saw me enter, a bell was rung and the women departed, their skirts softly swishing around their feet.
“You wanted to see me?” I asked softly as I knelt before her bowing my head.
She reached out to me and clasped my hand. “First, tell me of your journey. You are well?”
“I am,” I confirmed. “But we lost many men.”
“Have you spoken with your father or Kadam?”
She nodded and her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “I will need a list of the men that were lost.”
“You will have it tomorrow.”
She stood and I rose as well and offered her my arm.
“I am thankful you have safely returned, Dhiren. Will you walk with me? I have some happy news to share.”
“Happy news will be welcome in the palace,” I said, curious as to what had suddenly lightened her steps.
The bangles on her arm chinked softly together as she gathered her scarf and covered her hair. “Shall we walk in the garden?” she asked.
I walked alongside my mother and felt her bubbling energy. She was excited about something.
“Are you going to share your secret, Mother?” I inquired with a twitch of my lips as we circled the fountain.
“Have you given any thought to the future, son?” she asked.
“Of course, I think of nothing except the future of the empire.”
She frowned, “I don’t mean the empire, I mean your future,” she emphasized by poking my arm gently.
I took her hands in mine, turned towards her, and inclined my head, studying her expression to decipher her meaning. “Do you mean my role as father’s heir?”
Sighing, she said, “I can see I’ll need to speak plainly. Do you ever think about a future family? A wife?”
My body stilled at her words, and my mind, which had been entirely focused on the affairs of the empire, and my duties as heir shushed all my thoughts. I suddenly became aware of the perfume of the flowers around us and the tinkling of the fountain. My empty mind filled with the dreams I’d dared not share with anyone except in my hidden poems. The precious few moments I had when I wasn’t training, at war, or expended in diplomacy, were spent envisioning a woman.
I wrote endless words about the softness of her skin, the silkiness of her hair, the lushness of her lips, and the fire in her eyes. My parents loved each other fiercely which was partially the inspiration for the one I met only in my dreams.
My mother watched me carefully. I blinked and responded, “Yes, of course. I am interested in marriage and family.”
She smiled, “That’s what I hoped you’d say.”
When I gave her a puzzled look she continued. “A neighboring king who has recently ascended to the throne has a daughter.”
I frowned and wondered which king she was referring to. That she wasn’t sharing the whole story was obvious. “You met her?”
“Yes. They came while you were away.”
“I see. And…you like her.” It wasn’t a question for the answer was obvious on my mother’s face.
Nodding happily, she clutched my arm.
“She’s lovely. A sweet girl. She’s shy but polite. There’s something almost haunted in her face but when she smiles, well, it can take your breath away.”
I rubbed my jaw. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to meet her, but you know that I’m leaving on a tour of the other outposts soon.”
“Yes. I know.” She turned and began walking back to the palace. “It’s just…”
“I feel it’s imperative that we offer her a place and soon.”
“I see.” So she was one of my mother’s lost souls then. “I’ll be gone for some time.” I stalled, slightly uncomfortable in committing myself to a course of action without having the time to get to know my intended bride first.
She waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. Of course you’ll need time to make your decision.” My mother wrung her hands nervously. She was worried about the girl.
A decision to marry. My heart leapt at the idea. To have someone of my own—a beautiful girl to be with, to hold, to comfort, to argue with, to love.
My parents had had an arranged marriage and it worked well for them. Most of my people had a marriage partner that was chosen for them. Was I any different? I trusted my mother. She was special and she wouldn’t choose just anyone to be the consort of the next king. If she believed that this was the woman I should wed, then why should I wait?
As we entered the citadel, I said, “Yes.”
“Yes? Do you mean—?”
I kissed her brow. “I mean, arrange the marriage.”
“Are you sure?” she asked excitedly.
Smiling warmly, I replied, “I’m sure. You work out the details while I’m gone and when I return we’ll have a wedding.”
Mother clapped her hands and hugged me furiously. “You will love her. I promise.”
“I’m sure I will.” I laughed. “Now will you please accompany me to dinner before I expire from hunger, thus disappointing my future bride?”
“Oh, this is so thrilling. Let’s go tell your father. The whole empire will celebrate tonight!”
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