"But Mirzas just a boy," Rurayya replies.
"Yes, but someday he will be a man, just like your father. And his blood is royal. Such blood could reunite the Empire again. It could save thousands of lives. That is why I ask that you listen well. Youll tell this story to your brother when hes ready. You will all need to know it if Mirza ever seeks the throne."
Gulbadan glances in the direction of her distant home. "And until hes ready we will deceive him, just as Mother deceived us?"
"She only deceived you, child, because she loves you."
"But Mother never lies," Rurayya says.
"Youd lie, Rurayya, to protect your children. And so would you, Gulbadan. Youd tell a thousand lies, tell them each and every day for however long you needed to. And then, one morning, a morning much like this, you would tell the truth."
"What is the truth?" Gulbadan demands.
I point across the river to the Taj Mahal. "Do you know why it was built?"
Heads turn toward the marble teardrop. "Emperor Shah Jahan," my youngest granddaughter replies, "created it in memory of his wife."
"In memory of our great-grandmother?" Gulbadan asks.
"Your great-grandparents lived extraordinary lives," I answer. "Nizam knows their tale. Your parents know it. But were old, and the story must not wither with us."
Rurayya looks at Nizam, who confirms my words with another nod. My friend is as honest as a mirror, and Rurayyas lips part in wonder. "How did it begin?"
Though I am no teller of tales, my words rise swiftly, as I hope my story will temper their misgivings. I explain that before my father ever knelt on the Peacock Throne he was called Khurram, and that as the Emperors favorite son he was expected one day to rule the Empire.
"When Khurram was fifteen," I continue, "he visited a silk and beads shop. Inside, sitting atop a cushion was my mother, Arjumand. Her beauty, the poets claimed, could make rainbows weep with envy. And so Khurram was drawn to her. He asked the price of a bead and she curtly replied that it wasnt a bead, but a diamond. When she told him it cost ten thousand rupees, a sum she believed he could never afford, my father quickly produced the money.
"The next day, Khurram went to his father, begging for Arjumands hand in marriage. The Emperor himself had encountered the madness of love and could hardly deny it to his son. Yet he decreed that five years must pass before Khurram could wed Arjumand. Meanwhile, in a marriage of political convenience, my father was wed to Quandari Begum, a Persian princess."
"Why do we never hear of her?" Gulbadan asks, her anger ebbing.
"Because my fathers other wives were as important to him as camels," I answer, subduing a smile, pleased that Father placed Mother far above her predecessors. "He supported them in the harem but rarely saw them."
"And after five years," Rurayya wonders, "what happened?"
"Khurram and Arjumand were married under a full moon, within a ring of golden torches. Afterward, the air was so thick with Chinese rockets that night became day."
Gulbadans gaze swings from the sky to me. "But, Jaha, wheres the danger in this?"
"The seeds of danger were sown soon afterward, when I and my brothers and sisters were born. We caused the Empire to plunge into war, a war pitting brother against sister, father against son."
"I was a part of it," I reply slowly. "I tried to do what was best, but one can win only so many fights."
"What fights? What did you do?"
"Hear me out, Gulbadan, and soon you will know everything."
Wiping yogurt from my lips, I stared about the imperial harem. The living quarters for select women of the Red Fort, the harem was a collection of apartments, gardens, alleys, retreats, terraces and grottoes. No manexcept the Emperor, his sons, guests and eunuchswas allowed into this world.
From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.
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