"Emperor Alamgir," I say, "may Allah forgive his crimes, would wrong you if he heard these words."
"But he doesnt even know us. He"
"He knows much, much more than you realize, Gulbadan. And just because he hasnt met you hardly means hes incapable of hurting you."
"Hurting us? But why?"
My sigh lingers and is beset with regret. "You must understand that we that we kept secrets from you. Secrets Ill share today but that would have been perilous in your possession if you had been too young to safeguard them."
Neither granddaughter stirs, hardly seeming to breathe as a temperate breeze tugs at their brown robes. Simple garments also house my aged flesh, though Im disguised as a Persian woman, shrouded in black shapeless cloth and wearing a veil that covers my face. When we met this morning, Gulbadan and Rurayya asked why I was in disguise. My lie about avoiding a greedy moneylender came easily, and as with all the other lies, my granddaughters believed me instinctively. But Ill no longer deceive them. Not after today.
"What do you know of the Emperor?" I ask.
Gulbadan glances at the Red Fort. "People seem to well, either they worship or detest him. Though most detest him."
I start to speak, but Rurayya interrupts me. "Why is he so cruel, Jaha?"
How many times have I pondered this question? A hundred? A thousand? "The Emperor," I reply, still somewhat unsure of the answer, "always felt unloved. He was mistaken, but that didnt matter, for when you deem yourself unloved your world is quite cold. At first theres jealousy, then bitterness, then hate. And hatred soured Alamgirs heart."
"But how do you know anything about his heart?" Gulbadan wonders.
I hesitate, for Gulbadan and Rurayya have been misled all their lives. How would I react, I ask myself, if our places were switched? Can a young woman cope with the idea that she isnt a commoner, as shes been raised, but in fact, an emperors descendent? Will my precious granddaughters understand the need for our deceit? "Alamgir was once called Aurangzeb," I respond finally, meeting their stares. "And I was once his sister."
Nizam nods at these words, the shadow cast by his turban bobbing upon Rurayyas lap. "His sister?" Gulbadan repeats in disbelief.
I lean toward my girls. "We had to protect you. If we hadnt"
"But how can you be his sister?"
"Because my blood, your blood, Gulbadan, is as royal as his."
"Royal? Your father was a fisherman like mine. He died in a storm!"
"My father was the Emperor. Emperor Shah Jahan."
Gulbadans mouth opens, but no words spring forth. Her brow tightens. Her hands drop. "Then why do you live so far from Agra? And why why have you lied to us? Why have we never known?"
"When you hear my story youll understand."
"But why are you telling us now?"
"Because of your little brother."
"Because of Mirza? You make no sense!"
I have rarely seen Gulbadan so upset. Rurayya acts as if shes awakened to find a sky with two suns. "Please, please listen, Gulbadan. If you listen, Ill explain."
My granddaughter stifles an angry reply. I close my eyes for a moment. Silence descends and I question the prudence of our decision. They are certainly old and wise enough to keep my terrible secrets. But will events ever unfold that might warrant such knowledge?
"I must tell you of our familys history, and of the beliefs of those long since dead," I say. "I cant predict the future, but in these troubled times the throne may someday be empty. If it becomes so, and if Mirza is willing, he might try to claim it. Hes far too young to hear of these tidings today, but you are not. Mirza will need your guidance if he wishes to follow the path his great-grandfather so carefully laida path that led to peace and compassion, not the war and mistrust surrounding us today."
From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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