by Shveta Thakrar
Once upon a time, in a land radiant with stars and redolent of sandalwood, where peacocks breakfasted on dreams salty with the residue of slumber, a rani mourned. On the surface, the rani had everything: a kingdom to care for, fine jewels to wear in her long black hair, silken saris threaded through with silver and gold, and a garden of roses and jasmine to rival that of Lord Indra in his celestial realm. When she rode atop her warrior elephant, her subjects bowed before her in awe and love. But one thing remained out of reach–an heir. She longed for a small, smiling face to call her own.
Gulabi Rani consulted midwives, healers schooled in the art of Ayurveda, and magicians. Knowing better than to refuse a monarch, they plied her with charms and salves, medications and horoscopes. She ate the roots and leaves of the shatavari plant as they recommended, and drank creamy buttermilk while fastidiously avoiding the color black. Yet her belly stayed flat. At last the healers admitted that, without a husband, there was no hope.
But the rani did not want a husband. Nor did she suffer from a lack of hope. After dismissing the healers and her servants both, she readied a place in the garden. If no one else could help her, she would find the answer herself. Surrounded by her beloved roses, garnet and pink and ivory, Gulabi meditated for weeks on end.
One morning, before even the rooster had crowed, Gulabi opened her eyes and arose. She stretched, allowing the blood to flood back through her stiff body, and strolled down, down, down to the banks of the Sarasvati, whose holy waters flowed clear and bright like liquid diamond.
As she had known he would be, a figure waited there, a yaksha from a neighboring forest. He wore a dhoti around his midsection, and a black-and-red turban wound about his head. “Namaste, rani,” he said. “I have heard your calls of distress.”
Gulabi placed her palms together in greeting. “Namashkaar. I am honored by your presence.”
The nature spirit uncapped an amethyst bottle in the shape of a lotus and beckoned her to come closer. Bending over the bottle, Gulabi inhaled deeply. The fragrance was wonderful, as though all the gardens of the world had been crushed into the crystal blossom. She sighed and reached for it.
“If you wish for a child, you must rub this oil over your womb,” the yaksha said, holding the lotus glass aloft. “Use only so much as is necessary to coat the surface and not a drop more.”
Willing as the rani might have been, she was also wise. “Ah, but nothing comes without a price. What is yours?”
A grin peered from beneath the yaksha’s mustache. “What is it you offer?”
The rani brought forth from the folds of her sari a container of turmeric, an anklet of ruby-encrusted gold, and a single fire-orange rose from her garden. The yaksha studied each of them in turn.
“Would you give me all your roses?” he asked. “Would you give me your garden?”
Gulabi trembled at the thought. The garden where she strolled when seeking solace? The garden filled with the roses for which she was named?
Yet what good were her roses when she had no one to share them with? She bowed her head. “Yes.”
“Patience,” said the yaksha, amused. “You are too eager in your dealings. But I see your heart is pure and your desire true.”
Gulabi thought many things, but shrewdly held her tongue.
“I will accept your gifts,” continued the yaksha, “and give you one of my own.” A pair of blue-and-white chappals appeared in Gulabi’s hand. They were just large enough for a baby’s fragile feet. “You must save these shoes for your child. I ask nothing else.”
“Why?” The question leaped from the rani’s lips. How she yearned to say yes, to accept the yaksha’s bargain, but she had to know her child would not live to rue her choice.
“Enough. I grow weary.” The yaksha sealed the bottle. “Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Gulabi said, extending her empty hand. “Give me the oil.”
Resting on a mirrored cushion in the company of her ladies-in-waiting, the rani lovingly kneaded the oil into her belly. She sang songs to the child to come as she did, ballads of trouble and triumph. Each circle of her fingers tingled with pleasure, each note rang of delight, as if the oil were seeping into her veins and filling her with its flowery essence. The air in her sun-soaked chamber smelled like a butterfly’s paradise.
When she was finished, half the bottle remained. Gulabi was a practical woman with no use for waste. She considered the yaksha’s words from this angle and that, but concluded a second massage could only magnify her joy. So she performed one.
Soon after sunset, amidst the throes of birthing, Gulabi screamed. In response, the baby emerged.
A gasp escaped the midwife as she received the infant. A moment later, Gulabi, too, gaped at the washed and swaddled baby laid in her arms. It was a girl, which did not surprise her, but the girl was red! Not the red of a newborn taking her first breath, not the scarlet of spilled blood, but a rich, dark crimson, as though she had leached the hue from Gulabi’s favorite roses. Under the flickering lamplight, the baby’s face gleamed, fresh and dewy like petals, and her hair shone greener than grass.
Gulabi ran a tentative finger along the girl’s tender arm. Something pricked her, and she jerked back in pain. “My child has thorns! My child is crimson!” Her heart ached, but she could not deny the truth. “My child. . . my child is a rose.”
She did not know what to think but that the yaksha had tricked her.
Her ladies-in-waiting, although curious, kept to the corners while Gulabi gazed down at the tiny girl. The baby did not cry; she simply returned her mother’s stare with inquisitive eyes. Deep brown eyes, Gulabi was pleased to see, like her own. Her pulse quieted as her heart opened. Perhaps there had been no trick, after all.
“Bring the chappals,” she commanded, and her personal attendant ran to do so. Once the sandals were at hand, Gulabi reached into the blanket and placed the right chappal on the baby’s right foot. The toes were miniscule, miraculous, with nails like seashells.
When she moved to put the left chappal on, the baby shrieked, her face screwing up and her eyes squeezing out tears. “Sister,” she insisted. “Sister, sister!”
The rani paused, confused. Whatever could her daughter mean?
As if to answer, the contractions commenced once more, and another girl joined the first, this one with fine skin the brown of tilled earth, thickly lashed cinnamon eyes, and a cap of fluffy black hair. The midwife sighed with relief as she handed the charming child to Gulabi.
The brown baby caught sight of the rose baby and smiled. “Sister,” she said.
Beaming, the rose girl pointed to the brown girl’s right foot, and beaming in turn, Gulabi placed the second chappal there. She would have to commission matches for each girl, but for now, this would do.
The time came for Gulabi Rani to name her precious daughters. “Lavanya for grace and Deepika for light,” she proclaimed, her voice fierce yet fond. “Let no one say otherwise.” She cuddled her daughters, rose and brown, grace and light, close. Together, they began to explore the ways of the world.
The sisters grew up, always together, always playing, as twins are wont to do. Few in the palace were fond of Lavanya, with her garnet-tinted skin and hair like spring leaves, fearing her to be a demon or some other foul spawn. Those who dared lay a hand on her bare flesh risked the cruel prick of thorns hungry for blood. A much beloved perfume drifted from the girl, captivating those who smelled it, but also enchanting bees and beetles, aphids and earwigs, and many other things the courtiers found less than desirable. Though the kingdom treasured its rani, it could not love her crimson daughter.
The ladies-in-waiting and nurses did their best to avoid the odd girl, going so far as to lock her away in her rooms on the rare occasions they found her alone. Out of sight was out of mind, they said, and a good thing, too. For Deepika, however, they had endless treats and trinkets, offers to brush and braid her hair, and pleas for her to sing, as hers was the sweet voice of the nightingale.
But the sisters refused to be separated for even a moment. The strange story of their birth, the chappals that kept pace with their growing feet, their interest in nature and stories–these things bound them to each other more securely than any rope.
Lavanya did not mind the isolation so much. Indeed, she quite liked her peculiar skin, for butterflies spoke to her as they would to no other, in the soft, luscious language of nectar, and she could pluck her thorns as she needed them. Why should she be lonely, when she had Deepika for a companion?
Deepika adored her rose sister in the way the moon adores the sun, finding favors and festivities to mean little when they went unshared. Everything she received, she divided in two; it was the way of things. What use were playmates who did not understand this?
And so they lived for years, learning their lessons, watching their mother the rani rule, and advancing their arts. Lavanya wandered the grounds, gossiping with the roses and evading the petulant gardeners. Yet, when she played the bansuri, a flute carved of bamboo, both the plants and their caretakers paused to listen. Deepika took up archery and embroidery. Her arm was strong and her aim true; her nimble fingers animated the fine needlework images until the fabric thrummed with their tales.
One evening, over a banquet of roasted fowl and spiced vegetables, Gulabi entertained a rani and a raja from another kingdom. They sat in the marble dining chamber discussing matters of politics and economy as Deepika ate her fill of the birds she had hunted, and Lavanya sipped at water from a golden cup. She also ran her fingers through a small dish of rich black soil, a delicious dessert to her earlier meal of sunlight.
But Lavanya could not enjoy it. She did not like the visitors, the knowing way they smiled at Deepika, the boisterousness with which they talked and laughed. It rankled her, though she could not say why.
She looked at Deepika, who scooped thick saffron curd with the spoon of her hand. Her lips parted, then pursed as the raja spoke.
“So you see, Gulabi Rani,” he said, his teeth tearing into a fleshy leg of pheasant, “clearly it is in the best interests of all to join our children in marriage.”
The words, uttered so casually, so naturally, brought the entire court to silence. Lavanya reached for Deepika’s hand just as it found hers. A scratchy sensation stole over her body, the familiar feel of eyes that assessed and quickly dismissed her in favor of her sister.
Of course it would be Deepika. The visitors wanted her for their son as though she were a bauble to be bought and sold. Lavanya glared at them, and the thorns in her arms bristled. How dare they?
“Yes, Deepika would be a fine match for our Vibhas,” the visiting rani agreed, ignoring, or perhaps enjoying, the hush that blanketed the hall.
“Such a beautiful girl. She would, of course, have to give up the hunting.”
Deepika’s fingernails dug into Lavanya’s palm. Lavanya wished she could do the same to the raja and rani. They were not the first to ask after her sister’s hand in marriage, but they were certainly the most presumptuous.
“Your proposal brings honor to our family, but I am afraid I must decline,” Gulabi said firmly, having recovered her wits.
“My daughters are far too young for such considerations. A few years from now, possibly.”
“However, I have heard you are fond of roses.”
She began to talk of her gardens, offering her guests a tour, but though they nodded, raw greed still glittered in their eyes. Lavanya knew this would not be the end of their attempt to buy Deepika and the land she represented. The worry on Deepika’s and Gulabi’s faces told her they knew it, too.
Why, oh, why had her mother forbidden her to use her thorns on troublemakers like these?
The tiger’s roar came in the night, echoing through the empty halls, horrible, hateful, hungry. It stained the sky scarlet with the promise of running blood. Terrified cries and shouts rang out in its wake.
Lavanya, torn from the sweet touch of sleep, raced into the corridor. Deepika met her there, bow and quiver on her back and embroidery thread in her waistband. The sisters followed the sound of their mother’s voice to the entrance of the throne room.
“I will never give you my daughter!” Gulabi said, her voice quiet, still, dangerous like a crow’s appraisal of its next meal as she confronted the visiting raja and rani. She gripped her sword with both hands.
“The offer of marriage was an act of charity,” the raja said in the tone of one who believes himself far cleverer than his audience. “After all, who else would take a fatherless child with a monster for a sister? But if you insist on defying us, we shall just take what we came for and go on our way.” He swept his arm across the expanse of the throne room.
“Where are they?”
Deepika scowled, and Lavanya bared her teeth. If only he could see them!
“Be reasonable,” the rani said to Gulabi. Beneath its veil of compassion, her look was sly. “Do you really wish for the tiger to kill all your people? That is surely not the just ruler of whom they sing songs, is it?”
When Gulabi did not respond, the visiting rani took the raja’s arm. “Let us give her a last chance to consider our offer. There is still time to call off the beast before many suffer.”
“We will await your decision in our rooms,” pronounced the raja, and they left.
Lavanya yanked Deepika behind a statue of the goddess Lakshmi as the visitors approached. Once it was safe, the sisters hurried to their mother.
Tears trickled down Gulabi’s face, one on each cheek, and thickened into sparkling gems. “Take the chappals and flee,” she said, every word hard and heavy as a boulder. “A tiger is on the loose, and behind him an army. I must convince them to stay their hands.”
“But why?” Lavanya demanded. “Surely they do not think our land worth killing for.”
“We are all that stands between them and their empire. They have already conquered our neighbors and allies,” Gulabi said, her eyebrows knitted in anger. “But even that is not enough. They have come, more than anything, for your chappals.”
Lavanya regarded her feet. When properly paired, the yaksha’s gift lent the wearer the swiftness of a divine chariot. If the raja and rani were to obtain the chappals, nothing but their own avarice would be able to catch them. Wicked mirth bubbled in the rose girl’s throat. “Such a shame, then, that they must go away disappointed!”
“I will distract them,” Gulabi said, “so you can escape. Go deep into the forest, and hide there. But beware the tiger!”
Deepika said nothing, yet swords danced in her stare. One hand toyed with the bow on her shoulder, and Lavanya caught the crafty movement of her mouth. Her sister had a plan.
Gulabi seized the jewels from her cheeks and bound them about the girls’ necks, the teardrop pendants glistening with her grief. She clasped her daughters briefly, far too briefly, to her breast. “Because I cannot be with you, these stones will remind you of me.”
Then, her steps reluctant and silent, she took them through a secret passage marked with sigils and out of the palace. Pressing kisses to their foreheads and a torch into Lavanya’s hand, she motioned them away. “Always stay together. Now go!”
“I will stop him,” Deepika told her sister, confident. She nocked an imaginary arrow. “I will shoot him down. No one threatens our mother, and no one calls you a monster.”
Lavanya swung the bansuri that hung at her side. “And I will help,” she pledged.
Hand in hand, the sisters ventured into the forest. Deepika held up one hand. “Listen,” she said, “it is far too still. No hooting of owls, no chirping of crickets, no buzzing of mosquitoes.” She sniffed the air. “The tiger is close. Come, we must follow.”
It was not long before Deepika halted beneath a pine tree and gestured toward Lavanya’s bansuri. Lavanya put the instrument to her lips and began to play, a melody both of challenge and of wonders untold. She could see neither tooth nor tail of the tiger, but if he were nearby, he would not be able to resist her song.
A massive shape bloomed in the light of the torch, all arrogant yellow eyes, ebony-striped silver fur, and claws sharp as scimitars. The tiger padded in circles around the sisters, slowly, purposefully, once, twice, then three times. “Who dares to summon me so?”
Lavanya smiled. “I do.” At her side, Deepika pulled back the bowstring.
The tiger opened his jaw wide and roared, the sound of hunger itself. “A mere rose? I will crack your neck and drink your blood like rosewater!” He swiped a paw in Deepika’s direction, knocking her into a bed of muddy leaves.
Lavanya concealed her rage and the thorn she had plucked from her arm. After all, one must tread carefully with tigers.
“Tiger,” she lamented, “what sorrow is this, that such a brave beast as you should be reduced to such a state?”
The tiger glowered. “What do you mean, foolish flower? Reduced to what state?”
“How they mourn!” Lavanya cried, sliding the thorn behind her back. “It is on the lips of every person, every serpent, every beast. They say you have fallen, that you carry out the bidding of a mere human! Worse, of two humans. O king of the jungle, how can this be?”
“I undertake no one’s bidding but my own!” The tiger tossed his majestic head, but the gesture lacked its customary pride.
“Yet they told us, the rani and the raja, that they sent you to attack our realm,” Deepika said, brushing the residue of the forest floor from her sari. She slung the bow over her shoulder and strung an arrow. “They claim they have found your price.”
“Tiger,” gasped Lavanya, clutching her chest, “could it be true? Are you. . .a tame tiger?”
With a growl, the tiger pounced. “Insolent child! I go where I wish!”
Deepika leaped in front of Lavanya and let fly her arrow. The missile rushed toward the tiger, who narrowly dodged it, and thudded into the trunk of a tree. Furious, the tiger charged, batting Deepika to the earth once more before turning to Lavanya.
Lavanya darted behind him, dashing through the trees to hold his attention. When he spun around, jumping through the air, she brandished the thorn she had stretched into a deadly spear. Just before the head pierced his throat, the tiger froze.
“Sister, lend me your thread,” Lavanya said. Deepika threw the spool of embroidery thread over the tiger’s head, where it expanded into a blue-and-green-and-purple bridle. Snarling, he tried to shake it loose, but his distress only drew it tighter.
The girls climbed onto his back, and Deepika took hold of the reins. “Tiger,” said Lavanya, “take us to the land beyond the mountains, where the raja and rani live.”
The tiger sneered, yet it was a powerless sound. With a magical bit in his mouth and a spear at his throat, what choice did he have but to obey?
Their star-colored mount bore Lavanya and Deepika much further than they had ever been, past winding rivers, over snow-capped mountains, around bamboo-strewn forests, through villages large and small, and finally, many moons later, into the arid desert realm of their enemy. “I have brought you where you wished to go. Now free me!”
“Soon, tiger,” Lavanya said. Her thirst had grown potent, causing her hair to wilt and her skin to slough off like crimson petals, but she willed herself to wait. They neared the dawn fortress, a magnificent pink-and-orange structure with towers and turrets, carvings and cupolas, pillars and pavilions. In the center of the gate, an open doorway tall enough for even a daitya arched to a point far above them. It was clear a proud people dwelled within.
The tiger halted before the opening. “I can go no farther,” he announced. “Release me.” The sisters’ feet had barely touched the ground before the tiger’s own scampered away. In the shadow cast by his absence, the rose girl felt smaller than a snail without a shell. How would they ever find their way in this place that extended almost to both ends of the horizon?
Lavanya and Deepika entered the fortress. Rather than the guards they expected, they were greeted by a lively blend of perspiration, incense, spices, produce, and perfumes. Before them pulsed a bazaar teeming with supplicants, nobles, and sages, people selling wares, people buying wares, people hurrying from one place to another. Voices rose and fell in a chaotic chorus of agreement, debate, and all things between, and the speakers’ clothes glowed like a galaxy, ranging from grey to the green of raw mangoes.
The massive market square dwarfed Gulabi’s entire palace, making a plaything of it in Lavanya’s memories. She ran her fingertips over the wall inlaid with many-hued marble flowers and gold, her breath catching at the beauty.
“Look,” Deepika whispered, indicating the scene before them. Exhaustion had engraved itself like a script on the faces of the people, in the slump of their shoulders, exhaustion and misery that could not be masked by their fine clothing. Lavanya did not know what to make of it, but her thorns bristled. These were the people who had attacked her land, others’ lands. Why were they not gloating over their conquest?
A secluded fountain shaped like a lily stole those and all other thoughts from her mind. Her eyes saw only the inviting spray, her ears heard only the water’s splash on the marble as she leaned forward. Cool liquid trickled past her parched lips until her belly brimmed and her skin sang. Oh, how satisfying the crisp, clear flavor of clay on her tongue; how splendid the soft wetness on her toes!
Eventually she withdrew, sated, and stumbled over a small boy with a tattered blue cap and bright brown eyes. Grinning, he flaunted a filthy string knotted with glass bangles. “Red, green, yellow, pink,” he called, “whatever you like, I have it!”
Lavanya opened her mouth to refuse, but the words shriveled before the boy’s grime-splattered rags. Untying the end of her sari, she removed two golden coins. “Here,” she said. “Take these.”
The boy grabbed the coins and tucked them out of sight. His mouth turned up in a curve of pleasure, which he promptly smothered into a sober line. “That will buy you half a bangle.”
“Do not lie to me,” Lavanya scolded. “For the price I paid, you should give me ten, no, twenty, times the bangles you have.” But she contented herself with two, one yellow for Deepika and one red for herself.
The bargain completed, the boy scurried away, and Lavanya offered the yellow bangle to her sister. Deepika did not take it. Indeed, Deepika was no longer there.
Lavanya whirled around in alarm. The hem of Deepika’s sari winked violet before vanishing around a corner, as though tempting Lavanya to give chase. She did.
Rounding the bend, she spied the ragtag band of boys and girls that had captured Deepika and was now conveying her down a pillared hallway, through a vast courtyard, and into an open-air royal audience. Deepika punched and kicked, whipping her head from side to side, all to no avail.
“Here,” the eldest girl said, striding toward the throne. “We have brought you your sister. Now give us our reward!”
Lavanya crept closer. What game was this?
“That is not my sister,” the man on the throne replied, his mustache well groomed and his turban dearer than all their garments combined. No beggar was this, but a prince. “My sister is lost to me.”
“She hunts, she is strong, she is good enough,” the girl countered, unconcerned. “Pay us! You may sulk in the shadows, but we need to eat.”
“Bring our parents home,” a familiar voice added. “While your parents wage their war, we are left alone.” It was the boy with the bangles, the boy who had duped Lavanya. The thorn spear shuddered in her grasp.
“Enough!” said the prince, producing a small purse. “I will compensate you for your trouble, but more I cannot do.”
“They took our parents!” The children ambushed him, a murderous, desperate mob of arms and legs and teeth.
Lavanya flung her spear into the bedlam. The blood-covered children fled, leaving the spear to clang off a cage of bone. At its heart sat Deepika, within reach but also far beyond it. Though Lavanya beat her fists against the bars of bone, she could not free her sister. “Release her!”
The prince stood, bruised and battered, and stopped her onslaught. “Brave one,” he said, his face forlorn, “this cage was meant for me. If I take her out, they will put me in. I am sorry, but you must go.”
“She is my sister,” said Lavanya staunchly. “Until she is liberated, I will never leave.”
Deepika thrust her chappal through the bars of the cage. “No! Take this and run. I will not see you harmed.”
“Never,” Lavanya said, giving back the sandal. “When they return, I will be here.”
She played her bansuri to while away the time, the sound swirling into the cage like light, and Deepika accompanied her, singing of stories yet to be. Were it not for the bars of bone and the presence of the prince, they might have been home.
From his throne, the prince observed the rose woman and her warrior sister. Doubt darkened his brow. “Such loyalty, such devotion. Truly it is no less than Falguni and I shared.” He arose and approached the cage, a bone key in his hand.
Drawn to the song, a crowd had gathered in the courtyard. “My mother was taken!” one person shouted. “My husband!” said another. “My grandfather.” “My aunt.” “My cousin.” “My brother.” Despair dripped from their words, despair hardened by wrath. “All conscripted for your parents’ abomination of an army, while you, princeling, did nothing.”
“If you will not help us,” cried an old woman all in white, “we will kill you.”
Before the prince could speak, the swarm raised its arsenal, axes and maces, swords and slingshots. Lavanya set down her bansuri. “Peace! We are here to help.”
“We are the children of Gulabi Rani,” Deepika called from the cage. “We are on your side.”
“Go on,” said the old woman.
“Hear me!” the prince decreed, lifting his chin and unlocking the cage of bone. “We will bring your families home. It is Vibhas who swears this.”
Distrustful mouths grumbled and groused. “Why should we believe you?” demanded the old woman. “You would not listen before.”
“I was wrong to lose myself in my loss and neglect my people,” Vibhas said. He blinked to clear the lingering clouds of gloom from his vision before guiding Deepika from the cage. “Falguni would be anything but pleased.”
“Life must continue, prince,” agreed the old woman. “We have all lost someone, we all grieve, yet we endure.”
Bowing, Vibhas removed his arm ring and offered it to her in tribute.
In turn, Deepika removed her necklace, and Lavanya unfastened her own. Together, they held them forth. “Accept these as a symbol of our promise. We shall free your families as we free our own.”
The throng lowered its weapons, while the boy with the bangles cupped his hands for the pendants. “Go, then,” he said. “We will be waiting.”
Lavanya and Deepika departed the dawn fortress, Vibhas in tow. As they passed beyond the sandstone walls, a roar mighty as the monsoon rain reverberated around them. Seconds later, the tiger lunged.
Lavanya pushed Vibhas from the tiger’s path, though a claw still scratched him, while Deepika fired an arrow at the tiger’s heart. Farther, farther, farther went the tip in search of its target, burying itself to the fletching. But would it be far enough?
The tiger bellowed, raking at the arrow, at himself, yet there was no blood, no rending of skin. He lowered his teeth into Deepika’s leg, then abruptly released her. She bit her lip but did not scream even as blood spurted from the wound.
Lavanya ran to Deepika, pulling her to safety and cradling her bloody limb. Having torn his shirt into strips, Vibhas bandaged Deepika’s leg, then his own arm. As they watched, wary, the madness melted from the tiger’s eyes, and the whiskers from his cheeks. His silvery body dissolved into a regal figure, tall, sturdy, and two-legged. A princess.
Lavanya stared. A princess! How could that be?
The princess tugged the shaft from her chest, snapped it in two, and dropped the pieces to the ground. She paid no mind to the tear in her emerald choli, instead studying Deepika as intently as an astronomer observing the stars. Lavanya held her breath as Deepika raised her head and mirrored the probing gaze. Minutes passed before white teeth flashed bright in the light of the lanterns, the half-moon of one mouth framing the challenge, the other accepting it.
Still deep in their private dialogue, they advanced, nearer, ever nearer. Then the princess noticed Vibhas. “Brother!” She bounded away from Deepika and into his open arms, embracing him tightly.
“Falguni,” sobbed the staring prince, “is it really you?”
“Yes, me and no other.” The princess broke free, laughter shining in her eyes and ringing from her lips.
Vibhas offered an arm to Deepika. “You broke the curse,” he said amidst a cascade of tears. “If not for you, Falguni would have spent the rest of her days as a tiger and lost to me. In thanks, I would marry you.”
Lavanya stood aside, a prisoner of war: Sweet delight for her sister battled in her heart with the knowledge bitter as karela that again, she was not wanted.
Deepika glanced from the princess to the prince, from the prince to the princess. She knew the prince’s gratitude for the obligation it was, just as she noted the sword in the princess’s hand and saw the strength it revealed. She nodded, certain.
“I choose the princess,” Deepika said, weaving her arm through Falguni’s equally muscular one. Falguni smiled the secretive smile of a tigress about to spring and led Deepika to one side.
Vibhas joined Lavanya under the archway. “I am glad she did not choose me,” he confided, “for she is not the one I desire.”
Lavanya frowned, fearing to believe.
“Nor do I believe my sister will be so easily claimed. She, too, enjoys the hunt,” Vibhas continued. “When my parents began amassing the lands of their neighbors, their most trusted advisor tried to dissuade them. But they cared only for their empire, forcing the most robust of their subjects into their army while the rest starved. And so the advisor, also a magician, cursed my sister in the hope that they would reconsider.”
“But they did not,” Lavanya said, completing the tale.
“No,” said the prince, his eyes dim with dismay. “Indeed, they were glad for another weapon in their armory.”
His pain reminded Lavanya of her mother and the long months they had been separated. Her melancholy increased with the memory of the gardens. On a whim, she asked, “Do I not hold the most splendid rose?”
“You do,” the prince agreed, the enchantment turning his gaze to glass. And it was true; she now clasped a blossom the color of her own strange skin.
Lavanya caressed the slim stem. “Do I not need to return to my own mother?”
“You do,” the prince said, dreamily repeating her thoughts. “Daughters belong with their mothers.” The chappals at Lavanya’s crimson feet blazed blue then, a brilliant, restless blue.
“Do you find me ugly?” the rose woman wondered sadly, stroking Vibhas’s cheek with the petals. “All think my sister is beautiful, thus the one to love.”
“She is beautiful, that is true,” Vibhas said, wrapping his hand around hers, the hand that held the bloom. The thorns of her arm did not prick him as he drew close, or if they did, he did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had shattered the spell, for his eyes were clear, his words his own. “But you see, she is not a rose.”
Lavanya donned the chappals and linked hands with the others. Leading their chain, she sprinted toward the horizon, fleet of foot, faster even than the wind itself. They visited villages and cities and settlements to herald the end of the war and scatter the seeds of harmony. Then, weary of heart and of body, they hastened home to rest among the roses of Gulabi’s garden.
The rani had dispatched the unwelcome visitors, who had proven no match for her swordplay, and deposited them in the palace dungeon. Vibhas touched Gulabi’s feet in apology for the crimes of his parents. Tears rolling down her face, she touched his forehead in forgiveness.
At Falguni’s command, the ragged remnants of the army dispersed, impatient to return to the lands they called home. At Vibhas’s command, each soldier carried a rose from Gulabi as a sign of goodwill.
Deepika introduced Falguni as schooled in the sword, both curved and straight. “It was I who freed her.”
“It was I who allowed myself to be freed,” Falguni stated, not one to relinquish her tigress’s proud bearing for even a moment. She addressed Gulabi. “The people of the dawn fortress will need a ruler, now that my parents are no longer fit to do so. With your blessing, I would return there in the company of your daughter.”
Lavanya imagined Deepika a rani amid the pink-and-orange walls, hunting beside Falguni and crooning victory songs to the stars above. “With your blessing, Vibhas and I will remain here with you,” she said, moving closer to her mother.
Gulabi clapped her hands together in approval and in joy. As one, they kicked off their shoes and danced in celebration of the weddings to come, of the freedom they had won, of the rose-loving rani’s reunion with her daring daughters.
Seeing this, the courtiers and servants, all the inhabitants of the kingdom, for that matter, forgot their cares, forgot their fears of Lavanya, forgot everything but the chance for merrymaking. The royal musicians struck up a fine tune, and the royal chefs served up a fine feast. As it often does, food led to drink, drink led to song, and song led to laughter that sounded in the air until even the roses swayed blithely on their thorny stems.
Some say a yaksha with a red-and-black turban wound about his head slipped out from behind a banyan tree that day, stealthy as a snake in the grass, to snatch up the chappals, and never were they seen again in that place.
BIO: If people let her, Shveta Thakrar would eat books for dinner. Since they won’t, she settles for writing Indian-flavored fantasy. Drawing on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her M.A. in German Literature, she likes to explore the magic that is just out of sight as well as that which stands right in front of our faces. Other things that interest her include feminism, cultural and racial notions of beauty, and how language influences how we think. Shveta is currently working on a YA novel featuring Indian fey, bleeding thumbs, and family secrets, all in Philadelphia. Find out more at http://shveta-thakrar.livejournal.com.
The featured illustration is from the mystical Sufi text Madhumalati and depicts a pair of lovers shooting at a tiger. The illustration is in the public domain.