"Cease your foolishness!" Mother commanded tersely. She stood behind Nizam, arms clasped. "The harem is a place for study and relaxation, and is hardly fit for a brawl. If fighting is what you crave, find yourself a pile of mud outside."
Mothers glare silenced Aurangzeb. "Obviously, you both need a little sun. Shall we surprise your father?"
Before we could utter a word, she motioned for Nizam to free us. As he did so, she exchanged her shawl for a copper-colored robe, gathering it about her shirt and skirt with a purple sash. Bidding farewell to her friends, Mother led us from the room and proceeded down an adjacent alley. Her anger with me was apparent, for I had let Aurangzeb untether my emotions, a break of etiquette. To be truthful, Mother scorned such rules more than I did, but by wrestling Aurangzeb Id flaunted them openly, giving no thought to my actions. Mother, on the contrary, disregarded rules only to serve a higher purpose.
A pair of guards opened the harem gates as we approached. Behind Mother and Nizam were my other brothers, Shah and Murad; Dara, Aurangzeb and I followed separately. Beyond the harem, the Red Fort fell into a riot of activity. We shared the cobbled streets with hordes of traders, administrators, warriors and priests. Almost everyone seemed in a hurry, darting into shops and mosques, stables and barracks. Far above us on the upper level, pavilions teemed with nobles and their servants.
The Red Fort nestles on the Yamuna. Encircled by sandstone walls fifty paces high and six paces thick, the fortress was the seat of my fathers empire. Upon its flagstones strode nobles and slaves alike. Formations of soldiers drilled incessantly in its courtyards, while several hundred warriors stood atop the citadels parapets. Cannons projected from the crenelated walls.
Hindus and Muslims bustled about, for under Fathers rule the Red Fort sheltered both sets of people. Though we Muslims ruled Hindustan, we comprised a minority of the populace. Our position was thus somewhat precarious. As Father often maintained, only by treating Hindus with respect could we retain control.
I observed those of the other faith as we hurried past. Their women wore sarissingle lengths of cotton or silk wrapped about the body until only hands and face remained unconcealed. Muslim womens robes were stitched and our outfits consisted of multiple pieces.
All of us wore sandals, and mine clopped my heels ceaselessly as I followed Mother. Piles of elephant and camel dung littered the way, and I had to eye the flagstones carefully. Normally, Nizam walked near me, but today, probably because of my fight, he remained by Mother. Though Nizam was often the victim of Aurangzebs cruel tricks and might secretly agree with me about my brothers skills in polo, he was wise enough to guard his feelings.
Trudging through the Red Fort was like being a mouse on a ship. There were endless places to venture, accessed by twisting walkways and far-reaching stairs. Sandstone walls, clad with glazed tile, were often so high that I was unable to see what lay beyond them. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of towers and ramparts which shouldered warriors and rippling red banners.
I might have become lost, if not for the footsteps of Mother. Despite her purposeful gait, she exchanged greetings with many she passed. People often acted surprised when the Empress returned their compliments. But they shouldnt haveMother was known throughout the land as one who dropped pearls into the tins of crippled beggars, or found homes for orphans. It seemed to me that much of Mothers happiness stemmed from helping those whom even commoners passed with disdain. A few times in the harem I had sipped from this cup of happiness when I was able to aid someone. The smiles of those I assisted warmed me.
From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.
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