The journey begins well. I travel in a covered carriage with the Fakir riding beside me, regaling me with court news. Then a horseman gallops up with a message.
The Fakir frowns. ‘I have to go. The Sarkar needs me.’
Don’t leave me alone, I want to beg. But his first duty is to his king. As is mine. I try to keep my voice from quavering. ‘He isn’t in Lahore?’
‘No. He went to Ferozepur for a funeral. That’s why he couldn’t come to Gujranwala. He was supposed to return to Lahore today. Now he’s been delayed.’
Anxiety at being left alone makes me petulant. ‘Who’s this person, so special that the king would rather attend his funeral than his own wedding? And now he won’t even be at the qila when I arrive!’
‘The Sarkar was very sorry he couldn’t be there in person for the wedding, but he did it this way because he thought you’d prefer not to wait any longer,’ the Fakir explains patiently. ‘Lachman Kaur, the woman who died, was special indeed. She governed Ferozepur, a highly strategic town on the border, for many years, and was his staunch supporter. He had to be present at the funeral to honour her. Also to stave off the British, who have been trying to take control of the town. You’ll be safe with Gurbaksh, chief of the troop. He’ll take you to the zenana. The Sarkar will return when it is possible.’
I understand his unspoken message. This is the life of a queen. You’ll always be second to Punjab. Get used to it.
‘At least Rani Guddan will be there,’ I say, remembering the beautiful queen’s kindness to me at the banquet. I’d longed to contact her, but the Sarkar had told me to wait.
The Fakir looks unhappy. ‘Guddan’s mother is deathly ill. The queen has gone to the Kangra to be with her.’
I’ll be completely on my own when I get to the qila.
The Fakir makes a sign and the soldiers back away. My palms grow clammy. What is it that requires such privacy?
‘I was going to save this for later,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to ruin your wedding night. But news flies across the qila, changing shape as it goes. I’d rather you hear it from me than from malicious fools. A few months ago, the Sarkar had an accident. He’d had a long day in durbar, mediating between two warring misls. Upon returning to his chambers, he collapsed. He could not move or speak. Luckily, I was there. I had his guards surround him instantly so no one saw what happened. They carried him to his bed. The physician said our Sarkar had had a stroke.’
As the Fakir explains what a stroke is, my own dazed brain, too, seems paralysed.
‘We managed to keep it from the citizens and the Khalsa army. There may have been riots otherwise. Jackals in the shadows baring fangs. Only Mai Nakkain and her closest attendants ministered to him. I worried and prayed daily. But the Sarkar has great willpower. In a few weeks, against the advice of his vaids, he was back in court, though he spoke less than before and, thankfully, drank less, too.
‘I tell you this because he’ll be spending most of his leisure hours with you, at least for a while. Don’t let him drink too much. Don’t argue. And don’t let him overexert himself in trying to please you.’
My face heats up as I realize what the Fakir is referring to. But I appreciate his frankness. I’m not sure, however, that I have the power to influence our stubborn king.
He smiles as though he knows my doubts. ‘Love is your greatest weapon.’
I have a hundred questions. A thousand worries. But the Fakir salutes me and is gone.
I wait in the carriage in the dark outside the qila while Gurbaksh bangs on the closed gates, yelling for the sentry to open up. We’re late because one of the carriage wheels came off and Gurbaksh had to find a blacksmith. The jewelled sword is heavy in my lap, but I don’t want to set it down. It comforts me amidst the commotion.
‘I can’t open the gate without permission from higher up,’ the sentry says. ‘I’ll lose my job.’
‘I have the Sarkar’s new queen with me,’ Gurbaksh yells. ‘You want her to sleep out here tonight? When the Sarkar hears about that, you’ll lose more than just your job.’
Tired and hungry, I’ve had enough. I adjust my veil carefully, step out, and hold up the sword. The precious stones on the scabbard glitter in torchlight. The sentry’s expression changes.
‘I am Rani Jindan,’ I declare authoritatively. ‘I am sure the Sarkar will reward you for opening the pedestrian door to let me in. Gurbaksh will walk me to my haveli. You may keep my trunk until tomorrow.’
Perhaps it’s my show of confidence. Perhaps it’s the sword. The sentry bows. The door creaks open. Gurbaksh offers to take the sword and the small bundle Biji has given me. But I choose to carry the sword myself, though it’s heavy and I must pause often to catch my breath as we climb the steep stairs.
We walk across the grounds of the sleeping palace. Night makes everything look different from my memories. The silvered turrets are cold and forbidding, and the fountains, filled with broken moonlight. Loneliness twists my heart.
But then, hasn’t loneliness been my companion these last two years?
Suddenly, a figure detaches itself from the darkness and blocks our path with an upraised sword and a harsh command to halt. An armed woman. She’s followed by others. The zenana guards! One grabs my arm with steely fingers. A second presses her blade against Gurbaksh’s throat.
For a man to be in this part of the palace at this hour of night, I remember Manna saying, is a crime punishable by death.
The chief guard glares at Gurbaksh. ‘What are you up to, creeping through the dark?’
Shock has struck Gurbaksh dumb. The woman holding the dagger says, ‘He’s clearly guilty. Shall I—’
I must stop her! ‘Let him go,’ I cry.
The chief guard turns to me. ‘Who are you? His accomplice?’
I remember, all of a sudden, where I’ve seen her—in the women’s pavilion, when Mai Nakkain ordered her to throw me into the dungeon. A name swims up through my murky memories.
‘Bhago Kaur,’ I say, ‘I am Rani Jindan, the maharaja’s new wife. I was married this morning to his sword.’ I raise the sword. The guards step back, murmuring. ‘This man was ordered by the Sarkar to bring me from my parents’ home to the palace.’ I force steel into my voice, though all I feel is fear. ‘Surely you were informed that I would be arriving today!’
Things happen rapidly after that. Gurbaksh is escorted out of the qila. Bhago bangs on the door of a long, low building, muttering under her breath, until an old woman with a flickering lamp opens it and leads me to a small, damp, windowless room. Inside, the bed is hard and narrow, the bedclothes musty, the floor filthy. I step over black pellets of mouse droppings. Mismatched furniture—an almirah, a discoloured mirror, a footstool—lines the walls, as though the room was used for storage. In a corner, atop a chest, sit a covered dish and a pitcher of water, along with an unlit lamp.
‘Are you sure this is my room?’ I ask, incredulous. ‘For Rani Jindan?’
‘It is your room. I was given orders.’ The woman points at the dish. ‘Your dinner.’
Ranting will do no good. I’ll have to try a different tactic. I take a coin from my pouch and hold it out. ‘Thank you for your help so late at night.’
The woman looks taken aback, as much at the courtesy as at the baksheesh. Her hand darts out and grabs the coin. She says, ‘Toilets are at the end of the corridor.’ She uses her lamp to light mine. Then she whispers, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t eat the food.’
My heart skips a beat. ‘Why not?’
The woman doesn’t meet my eyes. ‘It’s been sitting out a while. May have spoiled.’
‘That is sound advice.’
‘You can drink the water, though.’ She hobbles to the door.
I enquire, casually, ‘Who assigned me this room?’
‘In the zenana, Mai Nakkain makes all decisions.’
Left alone, I examine the door. The latch is flimsy—one good kick would break it in two. I sit on the bed, my mind in a whirl. Could the food be poisoned? Was that what the old woman hinted at? Surely Mai Nakkain wouldn’t dare to kill the Sarkar’s new bride?
Yes, she would.
So many problems. The Sarkar’s ill health. My promise to Jawahar. And now, Mai’s enmity. How will I solve them?
I open my bundle. Biji had packed a few laddus for me. I’d taken them mostly to please her, certain I wouldn’t need them. Now I eat them all, then take a cautious sip of the water. It tastes fine. My throat is dry, but I only allow myself two mouthfuls. I don’t want to go searching for the toilet.
I feel more optimistic after having eaten. Tomorrow I’ll send word to the Sarkar. He’ll sort everything out.
Footsteps shuffle along the corridor, then stop. Is someone outside my room? I set the dish of food on the ground and push the heavy chest against the door. I decide to leave the lamp burning. Then I lie down on the bed, covering my head with a sheet in case rodents decide to visit.
Waheguru, send me someone who can help me…
In the middle of my prayer, exhaustion drags me into oblivion.
In the morning when I wake, my dinner is scattered on the floor. My rodent room-mates seem to have enjoyed their feast.
Excerpted with permission from The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, HarperCollins India. You can buy it here.
Watch the author in conversation with Mini Menon as they discuss the book here-
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