ISTILL REMEMBER the first time my father told me the Parable of the Land of Trees. It was night, and outside my window, a soft quilt of mysterious darkness had settled over Chanakya Lake. But I felt safe under the gauze of the white silken mosquito net that hung over me, and my father’s presence reassured me. He sat at the edge of my bed and pointed out past the lake, past the mountains, to a horizon shrouded in mist. What he was really pointing to was a time that existed before us, to a world neither of us could even be sure had ever really prevailed. “Have I ever told you the Parable of the Land of Trees?” he asked me, his dark eyes fixed on that elusive brim between earth and sky, before they turned to look back at me, a wistful smile twitching on the edges of his lips. I shook my head. Outside my window, lanterns lit up the sterns of houseboats on the lake, their twins reflecting in the water, suggesting another world underneath that channel, a mirror to the one we inhabited now. I wondered about the people who slept on those boats, who lived in that sphere I had still never seen. I thought about all the places I had never visited, that I had heard about only in the stories people told me. And then in the gauzy lamplight, over the quiet, contented chirping of insects calling out to one another in the night, my father told me the tale. I didn’t understand then how stories have a way of staying with us long after people are gone. That night, I simply held on to his words: somber and thoughtful. I listened to his voice: calm, soft, measured, wise. It was how I would always remember it, taking for granted that it would always be there.
I didn’t know then what I know now: that everything—my father, this moment, every experience that molds and shapes us—is ephemeral, evaporating into the air before we have a chance to grasp on to it, before we can truly even understand what it means. P One APA WAS STANDING on the balcony outside his library when I arrived to meet him. From the doorway where I stood, I could see the sun setting over the lands he had inherited from his father, that for so long I had thought I would inherit from him one day, turning the hills and plains the color of burnished gold. Far out in the distance, snow covering the mountaintops glistened like a gilded scrim sparkling in the early evening light. Blue and silver minarets rose above the walled city of Shalingar’s capital—Ananta. A layer of marine fog settled over Chanakya Lake, revealing miniature houseboats wearing elaborate gardens on their roofs like soft, mossy hats. They sailed placidly across the flat, misty surface of the basin. But I was anything but placid. As I crossed the vast sanctuary cut of auric filigree and tomes, its gold and crystal domed ceiling dousing every shelf and book in honey-colored light, I measured my breaths, as though controlling each inhalation were the key to mastering my fate itself. I approached the balcony, and from there, I could hear the sound of the festivities below in the streets.
Cannons exploded, making the stone walls of the palace tremble. And just below those walls, dancers swathed in white silk, green and red ribbons around their waists, twirled in the streets like spinning tops. The brazen blast of horns and the clop clop clop of horse hooves resounded through the palace quarters. Children flung rose petals into the sky. They fell back down into the mud streets, transforming the lanes between homes into blushing rivers. Elephants adorned in patchwork costumes embellished with mirrors, tassels, and festive silk ribbons made their way up these very rivers, carrying Macedon’s most important dignitaries on their backs. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated their path, like diyas lighting Emperor Sikander’s way to our home. My father stood, watching the festivities. When I approached, he turned abruptly, as though I had interrupted him from a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. “Sabahaat Shaam,” I said, giving him a warm hug.
He started for a second. I realized that he had never before seen me this elaborately dressed and coiffed. My cheeks were covered in rouge tincture, my lips streaked with crimson; my lashes were curled and painted black like thick spider’s legs. I was wrapped in a magenta and gold sari, my hair piled high over my head. Earlier that day, Mala, my lady-in-waiting, and a retinue of her helpers had buzzed around me, a hive of activity that revolved around beautifying me from head to toe. It was a dance that took place whenever an important dignitary came to visit the kingdom, but today the hive spun and sped as though an inaudible tempo had accelerated everyone’s movements without warning. “Hold still, dear girl. When a great king arrives, one must look presentable,” Mala had said as she combed out my snarled hair, untangling the knots with her capable fingers. A great king. A great king who held the fate of our kingdom, as well as my own fate, in his hands.
Papa regained his composure and smiled at me. “Sabahaat Shaam,” he said before he looked back at those packed streets before us. “I forget sometimes how lovely the kingdom is at this time of day. Not the dancers or the carnival down below . but the light,” he said, glimpsing the sky, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s as though the sun and the moon want to offer our little kingdom their best.” “Luminaries,” I said to him. “That’s what Shree taught me in our astronomy tutorial—the sun and the moon are luminaries. And the way Shalingar bends toward the ocean . ,” I said, mimicking the curvature of the Earth.
“It’s the light reflecting on the water.” Papa looked at me and laughed. “Or perhaps it’s just magic,” he said, and his eyes sparkled as he challenged me. I shook my head. “No such thing.” “Maybe you’re right,” he quietly responded, and for a moment, I was regretful of my words because a mask of seriousness transformed my father’s face again. “One day, after you’ve seen the world, you’ll understand just how special Shalingar is.” “I know how special it is, Papa.” I sighed. “If I could stay here forever .
” I couldn’t finish the sentence. “You always did speak of traveling the world, didn’t you?” he wistfully asked. “Now you’ll have the opportunity to do so.” But I could hear the lack of conviction in his voice. We both knew that this, what was about to transpire over the next few days, was not what either of us had in mind when I spoke of traveling the world. “Sikander was a friend of yours once, wasn’t he?” I changed the subject. If he had once been a friend of Papa’s, how bad could he really be? I wondered. I had, for the past several weeks, asked everyone I knew a variation of this question. “They’re all just . stories, aren’t they?” I had queried Arjun, my best friend, the night before as we slowly walked the grounds together.
“Of course they’re just stories,” Arjun had mumbled. “Like that thing about how he had all the advisors on his father’s council stoned to death?” “I’m sure that’s not true.” Arjun shook his head vehemently before he pressed his lips in a thin line. But his silence for the remainder of the walk didn’t inspire confidence. ¤ Now my father turned to me, and the light of the sunset caught his eyes, transforming them to gold. We looked alike, my father and I; people often told us this. I had his hands, with their long, tapered fingers, his smile, broad and easy, and his dark, wavy hair. “Friends . something like that. But it’s all in the past.
I haven’t seen Sikander since you were a baby. Now we’re starting anew.” The uneasiness in his voice was difficult to ignore. I assumed he didn’t want to discuss it. It had never been his way to be open about the past. But I knew some things about Sikander and about Macedon beyond what my tutor, Shree, had taught me about the Silk Road and Sikander’s conquests. I knew that my father had first met Sikander when they were both young scholars at the Military Academy of Macedon. And that they had been friends, once upon a time, at least according to Bandaka, Papa’s advisor and Arjun’s father. That was before Sikander took the throne by assassinating his own father and declaring himself the new emperor. After that, he battled his way through Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Bactria.
After his overthrow of Persia he became Sikander the Great, who led the greatest and fiercest standing army of all time. In just fifteen years, he had nearly quadrupled his territories, largely through battle. Who was he really, though? Who was he back when my father knew him? I attempted a different tack. “Did you like Macedon?” I asked Papa. “It’s . very advanced in some ways. Buildings so tall they block out the light. Giant arenas that took hundreds of years to build. They’re used for fighting: slaves fighting one another to the death. People cheering like madmen over it.
Everyone has a slave, practically.” He shook his head. “They don’t believe in equality between the sexes. To question the leadership is considered a sin. And they like war. Very much.” I was quiet as I considered that it didn’t matter anyway what Macedon was like. I would see it from my window in Sikander’s harem, living among his other wives. I wouldn’t visit the great cities of the world, or rule over my kingdom the way my father had. I would be nothing more than a prisoner in Sikander’s bejeweled zenana of toys.
I knew the thought of this sickened my father, just as it horrified me. I wanted to believe that my fate wasn’t yet sealed, but we both knew that my father’s options were limited. He could agree to Sikander’s proposal of marriage to me, and Shalingar would remain stable and have a powerful ally. Or he could refuse, and Sikander would undoubtedly take umbrage, as he was often known to do. In fact, we were expected to be thrilled, honored that Sikander was seeking to build diplomatic relations with our little kingdom. That was Sikander’s new strategy, now that he had battled half the world. Or rather, that was the only choice left for the tiny kingdoms he hadn’t yet conquered. Agree to all of Sikander’s terms with regard to the negotiation of trade relations, developing trade routes from the east to the west, and the fate of your daughters and sons, and Sikander would be your most powerful friend. Displease him, disagree with him, question his motives, and another outcome awaited you. What concerned my father, beyond my own future, was the future of our kingdom.
While Shalingar would have an ally in Sikander once I took his hand in marriage, would it also mean that Macedon’s ways would bleed into our own? In just a few weeks, Arjun was expected to make the journey to attend the Military Academy of Macedon—the best military academy in the world. For the longest time, I had desperately wanted to join him, and I still remembered the day that I learned that the Academy didn’t accept girls. I was devastated to learn that the fate of a woman in Macedon was so circumscribed. There were no women on Macedon’s Leadership Council, and all the diplomats and scholars sent from Macedon to Shalingar were men. Women weren’t allowed to own businesses in Macedon. Or work, for that matter. They weren’t allowed to attend school, or walk down the street unescorted. “How come you never went back to Macedon?” I asked my father now. It was an obvious question. My father traveled all over the world on diplomatic trips, but he had never returned to the place of my birth.
Papa continued to look out past the horizon. The parade in honor of Sikander’s visit was thinning now, the tide receding, and most of Sikander’s advisors were already within the palace walls, waiting for us to come greet them. I looked at my father expectantly, waiting for his answer, well aware that there was something else embedded in my inquiry about his time in Macedon. It was a question within a question, like those dolls I played with as a child—the ones that nested inside larger versions of themselves. I was really asking him to tell me something, anything about my mother, whom he had met in Macedon during his time away. I wondered now if Sikander had known my mother too. “There was no reason to,” he said as he looked back toward the walled city. I followed his gaze, noticing the way whitewashed homes blushed in the early evening light, an empire of pink. That was what my father was talking about when he mentioned the light. I thought about things like that sometimes—how many elements it took to create the simplest of things—a pink sky, an unusually perfect day, a happy family, a deep friendship, a moment of pure delight.
I wondered too what it took to undo these things. It seemed to me that undoing something was far easier than creating it. “I wish your mother were here now, to explain things to you.” Papa abruptly interrupted my thoughts. I glanced at him in shock. He had never mentioned my mother before, and as much as I had hoped that he might, that day it still stunned me to hear those words coming from his mouth. She was the mystery I most wanted to unlock. It called to me in my dreams, a vision of her, green eyes just like mine, and her voice telling me how much she loved me, how much she missed me. How desperate she was to meet me, wherever she was . if she was even still alive.
“What . kinds of things?” I asked carefully. “Amrita, what’s about to happen . ” My father shook his head. “I wish I could go back in time and undo things.” He paused before he added, “And I wish your mother were here to tell you about marriage . I have so many regrets, and now it’s coming back to haunt me, the past, and I—” “Your Majesties?” Arjun’s low voice called from the doorway. My father and I both turned, and I found myself doing a double take when I saw him. He was handsomely dressed in a crisp blue and gold khalat rather than his everyday kurta pajamas or slacks. His hair, usually a mess because he was always running his fingers through it, was combed down.
He looked taller somehow, more like a man than the boy who chased me around the mango grove outside his parents’ quarters. “It’s time,” he announced to us, a tight smile on his lips. His eyes caught mine for a moment before he quickly looked away. “Go on, Amrita. Arjun will escort you,” my father said, before he gave me a kiss on the forehead. I squeezed my father’s arm to reassure him. His words about my mother lingered in my mind, what he had said about his regrets. I opened my mouth to ask him more, but the moment was already gone. “Go on,” he said again, more gently this time. “They’re waiting for you downstairs.
I’ll be there soon.” I nodded slowly before I crossed the library toward Arjun, noting his broad shoulders, the stubble on his jaw, the loose smile on the edge of his lips, his dark eyes examining the shelf to my right. I followed his gaze: Something sparkled amid the tomes. I discreetly ran my fingers across the dark wood till I discovered something cool and delicate wedged between two books. I realized what it was even before I saw it. A ring. I gasped, turning to look back at my father, making sure he didn’t notice me snatching the bauble into my palm. I quietly inspected the treasure that had been hidden expressly for me. In the place of a gemstone, the gold delicately curved into the petals of a jasmine bud. I slipped the ring on my finger.
It fit perfectly. “Thank you,” I whispered, looking back into Arjun’s face, returning his smile. “For good luck,” he responded, his eyes twinkling. Hidden gifts: It was our language; it always had been. It started when we were children. Arjun was allowed to leave the palace whenever he wanted, something I envied. I was allowed to leave, but going out into the world beyond the palace walls was such a fraught production that on most occasions, I avoided the entire nuisance of it. For one thing, at my father’s insistence, I had to cover my face with a veil. “We have to protect your identity,” my father insisted. “We don’t want you to lose your anonymity and not experience life in a normal way.
Or worse, become a target,” he always added, his voice stern. And then there was the matter of my having to be escorted by a member of the palace retinue, which made leaving the grounds decidedly less fun than I hoped. But Arjun had traveled the world with his parents and, more recently, on his own. When we were children, every time he went away, I cornered him upon his return, demanding to know what he had seen. Every time, he was vague. “I went to a temple.” “Which temple?” “It’s high up on a mountain, with a slanted roof and lanterns hanging from the rafters.” “Who goes to this temple?” He would shrug. “People.” “What kinds of people? Where do they live? Whom do they pray to in the temple?” Impatience creeping into my tone.
Arjun would sigh. Or sit down, or bite his lip, running his nervous fingers through his hair, apprehensive that his answers would never placate me in a way that was satisfying to either of us. “It’s really not all that interesting, Amrita. And I’m no good at describing things anyway. You’re the one who tells stories.” “You’re the one who gets to travel.” “So?” “So at least bring me back something.” And so he did. From the ocean, a shell. From the desert, a dried fossil of a sea horse.
From the temple, a thread of jasmine. From a shop, a silk scarf. I had a collection of things that Arjun had brought for me from the outside world, that he would hide in all corners of the palace for me to find. Sometimes he left me clues about where his presents were hidden. A note tucked into my schoolbooks, arrows made of stones that I would find in the mango grove outside his living quarters, and occasionally, a sly gesture or glance. I had, over time, made peace with the fact that he spoke better in gifts than he did in words. Now I turned the ring in my hand as Arjun and I crossed the wide, pillared corridors of the residential west wing, past the potted palms and portraits of my ancestors, our feet clacking on the marble checkerboard floor. “I had it made,” he whispered. “An artisan in Shalingar. I know jasmine is your favorite flower.
You can’t carry the fragrance with you all the way to . ” He went silent for a moment, as though he didn’t want to say it, as though he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it. “And I wanted you to remember . ” That was all he said, his eyes fixed on the guards, dressed in emerald and gold khalats, who saluted us as we made our way down the corridor. He refused to look at me, but I couldn’t help but watch that profile I was so familiar with that it may as well have been my own. His regal nose, his square jaw, his full lips tightening into a line as his face fell into a mask of composure. “It’s good luck,” I repeated his words. “Too bad you’ve never believed in luck,” he said to me, and I caught a brief smile fleeting across his face. “Maybe I should start now. I need it,” I told him.
“You’ll be fine. You’re good with people. He’ll . love you.” “Perhaps it’s better if he doesn’t,” I whispered under my breath as we turned toward the grand stairway. I tried to smile, attempting to shore up my confidence. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s an option,” Arjun responded. “It’s impossible not to adore you.” He was still looking straight ahead, and his words released a torrent of butterflies in my stomach. I wanted time to stop.
I wanted to turn, to run, but where? I could already hear the brass band playing Shalingar’s national anthem in the gallery below. In the quiet hollow of my chest, I was lamenting the fact that I was powerless in the face of my own fate, and something within me was screaming, flailing against all the walls of my own existence, fighting for another outcome, for another choice. But on the outside, I remained calm. I did what I knew to do whenever I greeted dignitaries: I slipped a cool mask of composure over my face. I held my head high, flashing the diamond-studded shoes Mala had selected for me, my fingers light on the redwood banister as we descended the grand stairway into the Durbar Hall, a vast gallery with a glass dome and frescoes of Shalingar’s history painted into the ceiling. “Are you sure you want to wear it?” Arjun asked, his eyes glancing at my finger. I nodded. Wearing Arjun’s ring felt like an act of defiance but also reflected something true within me. I knew why my heart was racing. And it didn’t have to do with my fear of Sikander.
I wanted to choose my own future. I didn’t want to be Sikander’s bride. What I wanted was too impossible to say aloud, too dangerous, too fraught. And yet I knew that I desired it with my entire heart: To stay in Shalingar. To be my own person. To serve my people. And to be with those I loved—Papa, Mala, Bandaka, and Shree. But also Arjun, I realized in that moment. Especially Arjun.