The Star-Touched Queen (The Star-Touched Queen #1) - Roshani Chokshi
THE LOST PRINCESS
NOT A GHOST
Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret. It felt private, like I had peered through the veil of a hundred worlds. When I looked up, I could imagine—for a moment—what the sky hid from everyone else. I could see where the winds yawned with silver lips and curled themselves to sleep. I could glimpse the moon folding herself into crescents and half-smiles. When I looked up, I could imagine an existence as vast as the sky. Just as infinite. Just as unknown.
But today, there was no time to let my head wander. Duty kept my gaze fixed on the funeral pyre slowly winding its way toward the harem. I choked back a cough. Charred incense filled my lungs, thick and over-sweet with the smell of burning marigolds. Beside the pyre, mourners screeched and wept, tearing their hair and smearing ash across their faces. It was an impressive show, but their bored eyes betrayed them. Hired help, no doubt. Real grief had no place in my father’s court.
An ivory screen separated the harem from the funerary procession, but I caught snatches of him through the lattice. He wore a white sherwani jacket, and around his throat coiled a necklace strung together with the birthstones of his children. There, by the crook of his neck, my birthstones—a handful of muted sapphires—caught the watery morning light. My father’s head was bent to the ear of a pale-faced courtier, his voice low. He wasn’t talking about the dead wife on the pyre. He probably didn’t even know her name. It was Padmavathi. She had a round face and used to sing in the morning, crooning to her swelling stomach with a secret smile. I never once heard her say a cruel thing about anyone. Not even me.
No, my father was discussing war. The shadow of it looms over us constantly, sometimes hidden. Always present. I only know of the war in glimpses, but I see its pall everywhere. I see war in my father’s face, pinching his cheeks sallow. I see war in the courtier’s brows, always bent in grief. I see war in the empty coffers, in the tents where once-spirited soldiers await the crematory grounds.
I leaned closer to catch his words, only to be yanked back.
“Get away from there,” Mother Dhina hissed. “It’s not right for you to stand at the front.”
My jaw tightened, but I stepped back without a word. I couldn’t risk giving the wives more venom. They may have covered their lips with silk, but their words were unsheathed daggers. According to the royal physician, childbirth had killed Padmavathi, but no one believed him. In the eyes of the court, there was only one killer—
* * *
In Bharata, no one believed in ghosts because the dead never lingered. Lives were remade instantly, souls unzipped and tipped into the streaked brilliance of a tiger, a gopi with lacquered eyes or a raja with a lap full of jewels. I couldn’t decide whether I thought reincarnation was a scare tactic or a hopeful message. Do this, so you won’t come back as a cockroach. Give alms to the poor, and in your next life you’ll be rich. It made all good deeds seem suspect.
Even then, it was a comfort to know that there were no ghosts in my country. It meant that I was alive. To everyone else, I was a dead girl walking. But I was no ghost. I was no spectral imprint of something that had lived and died and couldn’t leave this place behind. It meant I still had a chance at life.
By the time the funerary procession ended, the sun had barely begun to edge its way across the sky. The mourners had dispersed as soon as the royal announcement ended and only the flames presided over Padmavathi’s burial. When the noonday bell rang throughout the palace, even the smells—smoke and petals, salt and jasmine—had disappeared, scraped up by the wind and carried far into the shadowless realm of the dead.
Before me, the halls of the harem glittered, sharp as a predator’s eyes. Light clung to the curved torsos of statuettes and skimmed the reflections from still pools of water. In the distance, the great double doors of the harem yawned open and the mellow midday heat crept in from the outside. I could never trust the stillness of the harem.
Behind me, the living quarters and personal rooms of the harem wives and my half-sisters had melted into shadow.