Nizam had seen fifteen summers. Two years his junior, I was wise enough only to realize what little I knew of the world. I understood some things, such as my love for my parents, and their adoration for each other. The latter was easy, as Mother was often at Fathers side, regardless of whether at war abroad or at court conducting the Empires affairs. Whenever possible, my brothers and I accompanied her, for Mother wanted us to witness our fathers kingship.
Of my four brothers, Dara had always been kindest to me. He was just a year older and we were closer than many women in the harem thought appropriate. Setting my yogurt aside, I moved nearer to him. "Can you help me?" I asked, handing him an intricate bamboo cage the size of Fathers fist.
He looked up, pausing from his calligraphy. "You distract me too much, Jahanara," he said. "Father will be unhappy with my work."
"Unhappy with you? That Ive never seen."
Dara shrugged my words aside, taking the cage. Inside perched a trio of crickets, which often sang to me at night. Some bamboo at the top of the cage had cracked, and I feared that my crickets would escape.
"How did it break?" he asked.
He winked, a seemingly effortless action I wished I could duplicate. "Youd better be more careful with your pets. I wouldnt like to step on them." I started to speak, but Dara continued, "After all, Hindus believe we can be reincarnated into such creatures."
I failed to see how I might become a cricket, but stayed silent. Dara knew much more about such subjects. Mesmerized by the dexterity of his hands, I watched him wind a silk thread about the splintered bamboo. In the time it would have taken me to draft a brief letter, he finished.
"Would you like to be a cricket?" he wondered.
Dara took such thoughts seriously, so I didnt comment on the boredom a cricket must endure. "Perhaps if I lived in a banyan tree, where I might explore."
"What about in your cage? Would the views be as interesting?"
"You think I should free them?"
"Do whatever you want," he replied, and then tugged affectionately at my hair. "Which I know you will."
As much as I enjoyed the crickets music, I realized Dara was right. For I lived in a cage of sorts, and few vistas existed indeed. "Would they prefer trees to grass?" I asked.
"Trees, I believe," he said, returning to his studies.
Ill leave them on a high branch, I thought, where no cats or lizards can vex them. While I debated which tree in the harem might make the best home, I noticed Aurangzeb had been watching us. The third of my four brothers, Aurangzeb was often sullen and remote. When our eyes met, he looked away. After hanging my cage from a teak post, I walked over and knelt on the carpet next to him. "Want to play a game?" I asked, for I was weary of books.
Aurangzeb snickered. "Games are for girls."
"You could teach me polo."
His laugh was high-pitched, reminding me of a squealing pig. "Polo?" he echoed scornfully, his delicate face tightening.
"Id like to learn"
"Only men play polo."
Though Aurangzeb was merely eleven, I held my tongue. For a moment, at least. "Then why do you play?" I asked innocently.
His lips clamped shut and he pounced on me, digging his knees into my chest. I knew he wanted me to whimper and plead, so I struggled to remain silent, scratching at his legs. Barely stronger than he, I succeeded in knocking him backward. Aurangzeb flung himself at me again.
"Dara!" I cried, suddenly fearful of Aurangzebs temper.
My older brother moved swiftly to intervene, but before he could reach us, Nizam, who despite his youth seemed infinitely stronger, grabbed us each by the neck.
From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.
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