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Fiction

The Padishah Begum’s Reflections

The Padishah Begum’s Reflections by Shweta Narayan (art by Sam Schechter)

Art by Sam Schechter

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1804 AD

Hidden by the feathers of the Peacock Throne, Jahanara watched the Frenchmen’s heads appear at the top of the steps.

Diwan-i-Khas, the hall of so-called private audience, would loom before them now. Morning light caught on its outer pillars and scalloped arches, setting the whole aglow: marble embers sparking with pearl and silver inlay in creeper patterns wound around gearwork. Light slanted through the hall, danced on silk and dust and metal, and threw the delegates’ shadows in before them unannounced.

No shadow touched the throne itself. Hidden lenses and mirrors turned the sun its way from first prayer to last. Light ran liquid on gold, caught on turquoise, fractured into crushed emerald. The Frenchmen would see etched tailfeathers, fanning out from the corners of the canopy in a latticework screen. They would not see the Padishah Begum watching them from behind it.

Strutting in those European jackets, absurdly long behind and cut away from ruffled linen in front, the men looked rather like a pride of peacocks themselves. A singularly dull one. Republicans favored dark blue and white, claiming that the restraint suggested Classical rationality. Jahanara’s heartspring coiled in amusement; if they could but see their stark, precious Greek marbles painted in the garish colors of old.

The Frenchmen slowed at the outer pillars, glancing nervously up. Good. Jahanara’s father had likened the arches to clouds, once, rising into God’s glorious realm—but visitors mostly felt the weight of marble over their heads. And perhaps no weight would quell European arrogance, but splendor sent their minds into predictable paths. Let them think her a simple Eastern noblewoman hungry for trinkets and admiration. Let them think they could map out the movement of her gears. For now.

One man swept into the hall alone, leaving the rest to gape. The ambassador, surely; a red turban singled him out against his group’s blue and white, and he carried the chimerical style as though he owned it. Silent on stockinged feet, he came three steps into the hall and waited with eyes on the throne.

Well, and it did not do to let firangi feel too welcome; they mistook hospitality for weakness. Jahanara let the whole delegation enter, then let them wait another three hundred ticks of her timing wheel before she flipped the screen lever. Peacock-body counterweights swung into place; peacock tails whirred neatly shut, draped gracefully down each pillar. Her courtiers swept down into the kornish salutation as she came into view.

The Frenchmen merely bowed in their own manner, hands limp at their sides. The court’s breath caught in dismay.

So. They or their Napoleon wished to say they were above Mughal traditions. Or perhaps they misunderstood the gesture; Europeans called it a salaam, and they were not a race known for peace.

And perhaps God had chosen today to be particularly miraculous. Jahanara gestured twice: once for the French to be announced, once for a lamp.

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1055 H / 1645 AD

“You are lovely as you ever were in flesh, my dearest.”

New-enameled eyelids flickered. A familiar voice, though never heard before. “Father?”

“And fire never shall hurt you again.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1804 AD

The lamp’s worked gold clinked against Jahanara’s right knee, apparently clumsy, and a drop of sesame oil spilled over. Abida’s familiar green shawl flicked out to drink the droplet away. Its gold-thread embroidery flashed once, twice. A message. Shall I take offense?

Jahanara held her hand out, palm down to tell her human ally Wait. Anger would not bring her the opening she needed.

Though neither would weakness. Jahanara let her hand drift over the flame, cut its light into rays with her spread fingers, and listened blank-faced to the herald’s stream of names while fire caressed the polished silver of her palm. Then she smiled.

Her face, like her voice, was expressive by mechanical standards; she had three quite different smiles. This was the small one, the ones humans with their quicksilver expressions and assumptions found inscrutable. “It occurs,” she said in Greek—the compromise had taken months of letters, for of course the ambassador would never admit to knowing Urdu—“that customs vary from land to land. We understand that in yours, one shakes the right hand of another. We should not like to show discourtesy.” Smile unchanging, she held out her hand to him, its sensor strips buzzing with heat.

“I am given to understand that one does not simply approach the Padishah Begum, Light of the Empire, herself.” His tone was smooth, but his eyes showed white.

Jahanara’s hand stayed out, pinging softly as the metal cooled. “And of course,” she said, “you would never wish to offend. But your understanding of the matter is a dozen dozen years old; in this new age of reason, we keep the golden boundary only in the public hall.”

The ambassador bowed again, on the slow side of stately, before approaching. Jahanara kept the smile, raised both enameled eyebrows, and waited to see what he came up with.

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

The women of Sultan Fateh Ali Tipu’s harem were no strangers to marvels and entertainments. In the days of his glory, they had kaleidoscopes and trained monkeys and pyrotechnic displays, mechanical musicians whose shadows told stories and minutely painted ivory fans that sang as they were waved about. Only their French visitors were amazed the day a clockwork bird landed in the harem’s main garden with a shiver of beaten silver wings.

That the bird was of royal quality was never in doubt; those to whom her perfection of form and articulation meant nothing would yet see the band of purest gold around her neck, and hands complex and flexibile as any human’s instead of simple claws. And who but the Padishah of Mysore would send wonders and oddities to his harem?

So Tipu’s eldest daughter merely waved her singing fan and asked the bird, “And what is it that you do?”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1804 AD

The ambassador touched the very tips of Jahanara’s fingers with his and smiled. He said, “The salutation you speak of, most glorious Majesty, is for men. In my land, a gentleman greets a lady so.” He bowed over her hand and kissed the air.

Clever. And irritating. This land is yours, said the bow, while the kiss whispered, but remember, the world belongs to men. It was surely a boon, now, that her face showed no anger. She murmured, “How quaint are the differences between lands; what is courtesy to you might count as a grievous sin here—” She let the pause hang till he had paled nearly to the color of his linen. An entertaining contrast to his men, who were reddening as the day’s wet heat settled in. “—were we younger, or the circumstances more formal. But come! We must not while away our time in idle comparisons. You journeyed here for a reason, and it was surely not enjoyment of Akbarabad’s afternoons.” The court’s mixing perfumes did more to thicken the air than to mask the stench of smokestacks and river. The Frenchmen would regret those cravats soon.

The ambassador took three steps backward, placed his hand over his heart. The tips of his gloves were scorched. He said, “The splendor of the Mughals might be reason enough, surely; we have long wished for an opportunity to behold your fort and your own shining self.”

“And would our gates have been barred to France’s courtiers, when our throne itself bears French-cut gems? Your artisans have been welcome here for centuries.” And one had been more than welcome for years.

“Yet your favor seemed to shine upon the English alone.”

“But how odd a seeming,” Jahanara said, irritated, “when we have treaties—some older even than myself—with the Shahs of Persia, the daughter states of the Ottoman Empire, the Afghanis, the Sikhs, our various Hindu neighbours and vassals, and several of the southern kingdoms. God’s creation holds more than the squabbles of two little nations in the west.” She caught herself, exchanged a glance with Abida. That had been unwise. Best not give them time or breath to count themselves insulted. She laughed, a ripple of tiny silver bells. “Come, we both know that the world extends beyond Mughal lands as well—and you are here because Tipu Sultan is dead.”

The ambassador’s mouth shut with a click. He glanced around; his delegation’s fixed smiles suggested that they all spoke Greek and not a one had a thought worth hearing. He cleared his throat, said, “We deeply . . . regret Tipu Sultan’s death, Luminence. I know he was no friend to the Mughal empire, but our First Consul held him dear.”

“We were aware of ‘Citizen’ Tipu’s friendship with your Napoleon, and of his own Jacobin notions.”

“Our Republican notions,” he replied with careful emphasis, “do not stop us from wanting friendship with your great land and its eternal Empress.”

“—Now that you have lost your trading posts in Mysore and the rest of the south.”

“Losses make new friendships matter all the more.”

“Then was it a measure of your friendship,” she said, “that Tipu fought your foes, and was cut down on his battlements, with none of you at his back?” She had him sweating. Good. She leaned back. “This European manner of friendship does not interest us.”

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

The bird preened, revealing neck segments of shining copper etched with geometric forms. In a voice like a bamboo flute, in the stately Urdu of heralds and court poets, she said, “I tell stories, Shahzadi.”

The princess replied, “Is that all?”

For a moment the bird was silenced. Then she rattled her feathers irritably and hopped up next to the girl on her marble bench, perching with oddly ladylike bronze fingers. “I tell stories, Shahzadi,” she said softly, shifting effortlessly into French, “like none that you have ever been allowed to hear.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1804 AD

Hands spread wide, the French ambassador said, “Our resources have their limits. The Terror back home, and the great General’s trouble in Egypt, left us painfully short. And there were . . . tensions.”

“Tensions.” There: her opening. The flick of tail, catch of spring, before the pounce. Jahanara tilted her head with a soft ratcheting click. “Involving the young Frenchwoman who vanished?”

“You know of her?” His arms, jaw, courtier’s mask all dropped in shock.

So he’d heard about the lady Claudine. And cared, perhaps. Jahanara gave him the small smile again and said, “The tale made its way to our court.”

The ambassador said, “It reached me only because she was an aunt. My father—” He stared down at his hands as though they might hold his fallen mask; a struggle. “We know little, even so. Not even how we gained Tipu Sahib’s anger, when it was his harem the lady disappeared from. If—”

But Jahanara, quarry caught, was looking over the other blue-blooded French peacocks. “One might suspect,” she said, “that France has grown careful indeed of her ladies, to send none to an Empress’s court.”

“That . . . choice was not mine,” said the ambassador, “and so I cannot speak for it. But women can be volatile creatures.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“Women of flesh, I mean. They are not—”

“—truly citizens in your vaunted republic?” She waved her hand gently through the lamp flame. “Trusted with the delicate diplomacy you men perform so well?”

The ambassador bowed deep, and his smile was wry. “Any kind of match for you,” he said.

If only he knew.

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1076 H / 1665 AD

“Two things alone bring me comfort in my twilight years,” Father said.

A year ago, when he was less fragile, Jahanara might have teased, “Wine and dancing girls?” Now she merely waited.

He was silent for some time, looking at the diamond in his hand. Into the diamond, at the little image of the Taj Mahal caught in its facets. Then he said, “Two things. The memory of your mother—and you, my dear, the best of all our children.”

Mumtaz was little more than a name and a tomb to Jahanara; she had been buried in the Taj Mahal far longer than Jahanara had lived in this emerald-and-silver form. Her mother, who had made her, was no human. But she only shook her father’s shoulders gently. “Come, now,” she chided, “you are unjust to my brother Dara. It’s not his fault he is dead, after all.”

“And would Aurangzeb have defeated you so easily?”

“He hasn’t defeated me yet.” She laughed softly. “But this is maudlin, father; I blame that cursed diamond. Set it down. I’ll carry you to the window and you can see the Taj yourself.”

“You may carry me when I’m dead, child. Under the river, to lie beside your mother under the marble dome. But what then? You have spent too many years imprisoned with a dying man.”

“I’ll have years enough.” Years upon years upon years. Mid-thought, Jahanara’s heartspring twisted, her gears caught with pain. “But not to spend alone,” she said. Pleading. “Grant me this: take back great Akbar’s command to the princesses. Let me marry.”

“Could I deny you anything?” He smiled. “Only promise me this: Don’t marry unless you love him.”

Too soft for his failing human ears to catch, Jahanara whispered, “Her.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1804 AD

Jahanara hid satisfaction behind half-lidded eyes and said, “One might think you a follower of the Buddha, ambassador, and free of desires beyond this so-vague friendship. There are now three requests you have not made: You do not ask why the English lost our favor; you do not ask for your missing aunt’s tale; and you are silent on the matter of trade agreements.”

His face spoke acknowledgement, understanding; said he saw her concession and agreed it matched his own. All that, with muscles smaller than the finest gear. She said, “But though you do not ask, we grant you the first answer and the wisdom it may bring: the English lost our favor by cheating our subjects.”

He said blandly, “Such compassion in so great a queen is a marvel in itself.”

“Ah, but the guillotine encourages compassion; it would be a foolish ruler who failed to take your country’s lesson to heart.”

“And the wisdom of the Eternal Empress of Akbarabad is as fabled as her kindness.” The tone was practiced. “It would be a kindness to my father’s memory, Radiance, to resolve the mystery of his sister’s fate; but I cannot let personal matters distract. We are here, as you said, for a purpose.” He paused while courtiers around him straightened and smiled, then said, “Which is that we would be honored beyond imagining if you would accept the humble gifts of France. Festoons of steam-cut diamond and emerald; lustrous dioptase, a new-found gem, set into worked platinum; some sculptures the First Consul judges to be Pajou’s best—”

Jahanara waved it aside. “Yes, and with them a representative of your trading company?”

“We would not insult you so.” He managed to sound hurt. “We brought these items over the seas not as trade, but for the joy of presenting them, though they be stars that fade before your sun.”

And there was the flattery, matched to its trinkets; rehearsed, expected. He seemed to look two moves ahead. Perhaps Jahanara could set up her own exchange in three. “You may have that joy,” she said, “when we discuss matters of trade. We shall include in that discussion not only nobles, but also those whose profession is trade. In keeping with your own Republican ideals.”

His bow acknowledged a hit.

“As to the matter of your aunt,” she continued, “Tales may be told. But they are woven from souls and stars, and carry a price beyond coin of this world.” She leaned forward, watched his breath catch. “For the merely personal gift of our thought and breath, you may offer us an idea.”

“ . . . Any idea in particular, Majesty?”

“A small one, for so small a tale. A weaver’s loom.”

“Your pardon; I must be very stupid today—”

“In the new automated design of your Maître Charles dit Jaquard of Lyon,” Jahanara continued. No reaction. Was he enough of a nobleman not to understand? “His punch cards, and the programmable weaves and patterns they allow, intrigue us. Bring an artisan, too, who understands the use and making of the machine; we would have speech with them.”

He smiled; impressive control, or else no notion how small a group she had described.

But was it a small enough group? Jahanara said, coolly as though her wires did not hum with tension, “And consider this, excellency: mechanicals find the claims of flesh men about their women to be laughable at best. At worst, such imbalance is uncivilized. So your course will be more easily steered—later—if your delegation does not continue entirely male.”

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

Shahzadi Abida knew why the bird had shifted to French: it was a language Tipu’s children spoke, but his wives did not. With a look she summoned the other girls, and they clustered together around this newest marvel while their elders laughed about girls’ games.

“Tell us a tale that is impossible, yet true,” the Shahzadi said, for she had the impossible much in mind at that time.

One of the French guests, a girl the Shahzadi’s age, glanced at her with eyes dark with secrets.

The bird said, “Have you heard how the Maratha king Shivaji escaped from Aurangzeb? For that was surely impossible, and yet he managed.”

“Everybody knows that one,” said Tipu’s second daughter. “Everyone’s known it for a hundred years. He hid in a basket of temple offerings, and his son hid in another. We want a new story.”

“And you shall have one,” the bird replied. “For though his escape is legend, very few people know that Shivaji was helped by a mechanical.”

Moonlight Garden, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

A dozen French ladies came on the next boat, arriving a few months later with the news that their Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor around the beginning of Ramadan. It did not take them long to exhaust Jahanara’s patience. In Greek they simpered at her, asked to touch her hair, and told her how their funereal white would bring out her beauty. In French they complained: first of the heat, then of the rain, and throughout of mosquitos and heathen. So she flouted convention to receive the ambassador and his newest guest alone.

Wind frothed the great river, but at the bottom of the stepped Moonlight garden it merely ran damp fingers through shawls and sashes. Jahanara stalked around the octagonal pool, beheading chrysanthemum, frangipani, indigo. Here water lay still enough to hold the world unwavering; an upside-down Taj Mahal pointing to an underworld of slate-gray clouds. Peeking through them, the new-risen moon gleamed orange as a red coral fish.

The clouds were so heavy. The river so dull. She scattered flowers over the pool with a flick of the wrist, spun away from the ripples, and bit back a sharp comment when Abida smiled at her.

“I’m glad to be free of them too,” Abida said in Urdu. “If even one were like Claudine . . .”

Jahanara shrugged. “Who can understand God’s ways?”

“Or yours. Meeting a French commoner, here?”

Jahanara shook her head. Abida understood more than anyone, surely; but not that the court ladies didn’t matter, and not that this meeting might. She was slipping contentedly into middle age, and Jahanara never changed.

Her other companion gave her mood no notice. She perched half-shadowed among magnolia blossoms, a bird with hands like a human lady’s, motionless as only clockwork can be.

Abida looked up towards the garden’s entrance, her face easing into formal lines, and Jahanara stopped as though unwound. She must get the musical streams checked for shifting stones; their sound grated like saws against her suspension wire.

Abida rose from her bench.

Jahanara had said too much, or not enough, or else rumors had reached the ambassador’s ears—

“They come, Padishah Begum.” A brisk note, one few people would dare, pulled Jahanara’s head up.

The ambassador had abandoned his starched linen in the monsoon’s first week; he wore the Mughal style quite creditably now, though still in France’s colors.

He escorted a woman.

Crickets and the garden’s song of leaf and water settled into Jahanara’s silence. The weaver—she could be the one Jahanara had been hoping for. She was neither young nor pretty as humans counted these things; her hair showed silver, her jaw was long, and her body more square than rounded. She clutched a blue pashmina shawl tightly over the neck of a diaphanous gown, and her shoes exemplified why European ladies must lean on the arms of their men. But the strength in her watchful eyes set Jahanara’s wires buzzing.

The ambassador murmured to her in French; she curtseyed deeply while he bowed, then stood with eyes downcast—watching their every move in the pool’s reflection. Were she mechanical, her heartspring would be wound tight and strong, indeed.

And surely only one woman understood Jaquard’s loom well enough to be here. Jahanara swept forward, stepping as lightly as she could. Bad enough that her skin borrowed the clouds’ leaden tones; she would not add to the effect by moving like a pewter doll.

The ambassador said in Greek, “Most exquisite Radiance, the sight of this garden is a gift to raise the spirits. I bring you the weaver Vaucanson, who you desired speech with; I regret that she knows no Greek—”

Jahanara stopped him with the big smile, showing cut-pearl teeth while her gears stuttered at the name. “Our thanks, excellency,” she replied in French.

To his credit, he did no more than swallow hard and stare while she turned to her newest guest. “But I think,” she continued, voice as cool as ever, “that you are more properly Maîtresse Vaucanson, the master weaver and inventor.”

The woman’s eyes widened. She said, “Not according to the guild, Majesty.”

“Your guild is not here,” said Jahanara. “And I believe some of your work is.” A sliver of copper sun appeared below the clouds, throwing long purple shadows and setting the world alight. For a moment the Taj outshone the moon, and Jahanara nearly laughed with the joy of it; she gestured wide and said, “No matter. The Moonlight garden is at its best, and we shall have no more ceremony tonight. Come sit by the pool; I have promised his excellency the tale of a tale told in Tipu Sultan’s harem.”

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

The bird cocked an eye at her gathered audience and said, “Many years ago, in the time of your grandparents’ grandparents, three travelers trudged up the path to Naneghat, a cold and stony mountain pass near Jivdhan fort . . .”

Naneghat Pass, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

A falcon might have seen the three, for the evening was clear as a sapphire lens, but the pass was too remote for human watchers.

A man of flesh led the way, and behind him came a boy; they both had brahmins’ plain robes and single pigtails. The third, who walked behind, carried several bags, and wore the tunic and shalwar of the Mughal lands and the winding key of a mechanical. This youth’s skin was supple and undented, but blackened with dirt and tarnish.

At times the boy tired, and at these times he rode upon the mechanical’s back. “Nara,” he said at one of these times, “do you not think it odd that a man’s clothes and hair may change how the world sees him?”

“Would a real brahmin ask that question, little prince?” said Nara in amusement. For the boy and man were in fact Sambhaji and his father, Shivaji, and you know how they escaped. “Mechanicals may change more yet; we replace our parts, save only our heartsprings, many times over the centuries. So one with the seeming of a man in one age may look like a mongoose or a tiger in another if he so chooses. But indeed, clothes are generally enough to fool humans. You pay so much attention to the outer surface.”

Moonlight Garden, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

“Is Nara then a man’s name?”

Jahanara’s gears caught at the weaver’s tone. She stretched out a hand, though she knew it would not be seen. Only the sky held light now, and the gaslamps across the river, and a thin mist drowned all reflection. She said, “It is not a Mughal name, nor yet a name of the Marathas, so who was the bird to say otherwise?”

“But surely you know, Majesty? There’s a Nara in your court. I’ve corresponded with her—or him—for some years now.”

“We beg your pardon, illustrious one,” said the ambassador. “It is the enchantment of your telling that robs us of decorum.”

“But it was I,” Jahanara said, “who laid ceremony aside. Maîtresse Vaucanson, you will have your answer. But not just now; I fear the time for sunset prayer is upon us.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

Jahanara sent two messages to the Firangi Quarter that night. One invited the ambassador to attend upon her once the next day’s heat lifted; the other offered Maîtresse Vaucanson a chance to inspect the fort’s silk work at her convenience.

“One might offer a wager,” said the clockwork bird from the filigree shadow of a window, “that her convenience shall be prompt.”

Jahanara said, “You know I don’t gamble, mother.”

“No?” A rattle of wings. “Then whatever are you doing right now?”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

The weaver’s convenience brought her to the Clockwork Tower around noon; Jahanara surprised her in the entryway. She swept into a curtsey, and her guide into a kornish, and it was hard to tell which of them Jahanara had flustered more.

“I am glad to find you here, Maîtresse,” she said, more gently than she might in the ambassador’s hearing. “I wonder, what is your opinion of the silk that is this tower’s pride?”

The master weaver straightened, holding herself taller than she had the previous day. Her artisan’s sturdy skirt and canvas apron, and her comfort in them, suited her as the pretense of being some mere decorative lady had not. “I have yet to see it, Imperial majesty,” she said. “The marvels in these alcoves . . .” She blushed, though she met Jahanara’s gaze. “I confess I was distracted.”

Jahanara turned to the climbing monkey, the ever-unfolding lotus, the snake and mongoose, though she barely saw them. “This latest batch pleases, does it not?” She glanced sideways at her guest. “I find myself charmed.” She gestured dismissal to the guide, who edged wide-eyed to the door and fled.

Maîtresse Vaucanson turned to Jahanara, puzzled worry clear on her brow. “Majesty,” she said, “I’m lost here without my guide. I don’t wish to impose upon you—”

“And you don’t,” Jahanara said. “I had this tower made, and I wish to show it to you.”

“Ah.” The frown eased into a blank look, polite and wary. She said, “I . . . am honored.”

“By so little of my time—when young ones, like your guide, have learned your language for the chance of speech with you?”

Startlement, bewilderment, sharp interest; face and fingers spoke as clear and quick as her voice. She discarded one question, asked the other. “The girl’s a weaver?”

“An artificer; the use of the new loom likely matters less to her than its working.” Jahanara paused. Her smooth voice and features might be a strength before the court; here they were failing her. She turned away. “You see that the staircase rests on rails at this level; It moves with the upper storeys, whose windows follow the sun in the colder months and hide from it in the summers. You will not believe it now, but we do have colder months.”

Maîtresse Vaucanson murmured awe at the staircase, the window filigree, the gem-inlaid marble of the walls; but her thoughts clearly lay elsewhere. Eventually she said, “Do you follow what all your young artisans do?”

Ah. “Hardly. But I try to be aware of promising ones; masters of craft are the jewels of my court.” Jahanara settled in a window niche and patted the cushion beside her. “You worry. Sit with me and I’ll explain. I promise to breathe no fire.”

“You’ve been nothing but kindness.” But she did not sit.

Jahanara attempted the big smile, barely managed the small one. “But you wonder,” she said. “Perhaps I am fearsome? Your guide did run.”

The other woman’s chin came up. She perched on the edge of the cushion as though unwilling to disturb its weave, and she kept her eyes on a window, but she did sit.

“It’s the taint she probably fears. I rule without a husband, after all. I sit barefaced in council with men.”

“Would she have her life if you didn’t?”

“But others may have their lives, too. A depraved lack of standards in an Empress.” And there were the other rumors, of course, though she had been celibate so long. Jahanara laughed softly. “At least my brother Aurangzeb had a strong moral sense.”

Maîtresse Vaucanson drew breath, hesitated a moment. “The jewels of your court must be precious, indeed,” she said carefully, “if you allow them impertinence.”

“Precious. Indeed.” Jahanara laid a hand against the window, catching geometric patterns, henna-like, across the palm. “For more than simple love of beauty, though I’ve that etched into my heartspring. Winged sentry, cannon, art—this fort entire is a show of strength.”

“It’s all about power, then?”

“In this age of empire, yes. But it’s an age too of diplomacy and innovation, and power wears many faces.” Though none that would let her speak the tension ticking her gears ever-faster. “My master artisans are my generals, Maîtresse. The lens grinder, the rocket engineer, the artificer whose creations warn of soul-hunting fog or poison in the water; these people win wars. And the makers of new weaves and dancing dolls, they—you—win the growing wars of trade.” Better trade wars than killing boys on swords and girls on pyres. Madeleine Vaucanson would agree, surely; she had written passionately on the topic. Jahanara said, “There’s no other safety to be had. The English tried to bleed us, and now Bonaparte wants me fighting them, wants us weakening each other.”

“And I am French.”

“But your ambassador warns me that women of flesh can be volatile creatures.”

Maîtresse Vaucanson winced. “Ah.” She sat silent for a long moment, dappled with filigree shadow, eyes darting in thought. Then she sighed, said, “Men say these things. I’ll not turn coat.”

“Nor would I ask you to; only to consider staying. I believe you could improve on Jaquard’s design. Would you not like the chance to? I ask . . .” Jahanara paused, springs in conflict. “Because my people are in need. We must be masters of the fabric trade, or the English will make us its slaves. But I don’t ask you to hide your inventions from France.” She stood, gestured upward. “Allow me to show you my tower’s greatest marvel while you consider.”

A woven marvel this, large as the wall, in silk of green and bronze and shimmering gold. With color and weave it created the orchestrated gearwork of an orrery, every piece so real that the eye expected movement.

Its winding key bore an engraved name in a spidery script: M. Vaucanson.

Jahanara stroked a satin-weave gear. “And this,” she said softly, “this beauty, which sets my heartspring to trembling, is the other reason I ask you to stay.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

The clockwork tower paused in its rotation whenever a top-floor door aligned with the Weaver’s Garden, a small walled space with neither symmetry nor color to draw visitors. Its muted green, bronze, and fenugreek gold formed the image of an orrery’s gears, and nine gemstone planets bobbed like flowers on slender copper stalks.

It replicated the tapestry on the tower wall.

“They orbit,” Jahanara said as she showed her speechless guest around the garden. “We hid the mechanisms under the flower beds, so you must trust that it follows your design as they do.”

Maîtresse Vaucanson visibly gathered her wits. “Nara told me he . . .” Hesitation, decision. “No, I don’t believe that. She said she knew who might like my work, Majesty, but never said it was yourself she had in mind, nor that . . .” She trailed off again, gazing around.

“It seems there is much your friend hasn’t told you,” said Jahanara ruefully. Too much unsaid, too many chasms to cross. “Though in truth, not many know how this garden gained its name. One would have to see both your work and the garden itself, and the tower’s lower levels can distract the attention. Besides, being part of the Crystal Palace, the tower is prohibited to men, and while the garden is on the main level, it receives less attention than . . .” She was filling the silence. How embarrassing. “It offers privacy in the heart of the fort, anyway, with no hint of secrecy to draw attention. Ah, your ambassador arrives to hear the end of a tale he thinks told for him.” She laughed a little, glanced at Maîtresse Vaucason. “In total ignorance of the fact that the garden he meets us in is named for you.”

Naneghat Pass, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

The disguised prince Sambhaji said, “Do mechanicals never care, then, how you look?”

“There was a town in Kabul province,” Nara replied, “in the time of Shah Jahan, who died last year—though his time ended before you were born, when he was deposed and imprisoned by his son.”

“Aurangzeb the wicked?”

“Say rather Aurangzeb the clever. You may have outwitted the white serpent to escape, but never forget that he outwitted your father first.”

The boy fell silent. Nara continued, “The mechanicals who lived in that town cared greatly . . .”

Of Devanagar; 1045-9 H / 1636-9 AD

They cared so much that they fashioned themselves, their homes, even their tools, from the most precious metals and stones. No gear or spring within these people, nor even the knives and hammers that fashioned them, might be touched by one who had touched so low a metal as mere bronze. Their streets were cobbled gold, their windows jade filigree, and their roofs tiled with turquoise and cinnamon stone.

They named their town Devanagar, city of the shining gods; and though they forbade any lesser being entry, the brilliance of their gleaming domes and spires birthed rumors. And Devanagar came thus to the ears of Shah Jahan.

There was nothing the Shah-en-shah loved more than beauty, so he sent his eldest son, gentle Dara Shikoh, to bring back a mechanical from the fabled city. Prince Dara returned a year and a day later, dejected. “I found Devanagar,” he told his father. “But I did not set foot on its cobbles. They told me I might wear as many silks and necklaces as I wished, but I was yet made of rotting flesh.”

Saddened, Shah Jahan sent his second son, Shah Shuja, in his brother’s stead. But Shuja too returned in failure. “I saw no more of the town of gold and gemstones than its highest golden spire,” he told his father. “A message dropped on my tent that night. It said that it did not matter how much perfume I wore, I smelled of dung and rancid oil to the people of Devanagar.”

Shah Jahan passed over Aurangzeb, who he did not trust, and sent his youngest son, Murad Baksh, to Devanagar. But the insult to his elder sons had angered him, and he instructed Murad to claim tithes from the arrogant mechanicals. And Murad Baksh returned with worked silver and coins cut from purest rubies and gold as strong as steel. “But they said to me, father,” he said, “that I should not come again; that they will send these tithes only if we leave them be. They said my prayers were an offense to their ears, for I called out to God himself, who is greater than they are.”

“Never mind, my son,” said Shah Jahan, who couldn’t stay angry with makers of beauty. “They are not of the faithful.”

Aurangzeb left that day, with neither order nor permission. He returned with molten lumps of gold embedded with precious gears and ratchets, with broken jade filigree and severed diamond eyes and fingernails. He threw these down at his father’s feet, and said only, “They were Infidel.”

Naneghat Pass, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

“So I put to you, young prince,” Nara said, “that mechanicals cannot care too much about appearance if they wish to survive human greed and dogma.”

“But Aurangzeb’s wickedness wasn’t their fault.”

“Life seldom offers a moral. It may hold lessons, nonetheless.”

Chhatrapati Shivaji had been silent for some time on the steep pass; now he paused for breath and said, “Nara is saying that the wicked exist, and cannot be ignored.”

“More than that,” Nara said. “Granted, they couldn’t help Aurangzeb’s zeal or his ambition. But they didn’t have to insult his brothers. Or snub their neighbours. Or make themselves too precious to be soldiers.”

“His ambition?”

Nara smiled grimly. “You don’t think he gave his father all of the riches he looted, do you? Or even half, to be spent on thrones and tombs when he had an army to equip?”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

“Nara’s political acumen makes one wonder,” said the ambassador, “what lies behind his surface.”

“Or even on it,” Maîtresse Vaucason added. “You said that Nara tarnished black?”

Jahanara smiled and went on.

Ghatghar, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

It was raining by the time the three made it over the pass, huge warm drops that turned the road to sticky mud and seeped clammy through cotton. Chhatrapati Shivaji could not know whether his men still held Jivdhan fort, so they kept their guises and stopped at the village of Ghatghar for the night.

The village headman offered hospitality with neither protest nor pleasure, and the Chhatrapati and his son soon joined his silent family on the floor to eat unspiced rice and lentils. Nara crouched over the tiny fire and rubbed ash over hands and arms and face.

The Prince could not help but fidget through this, the plainest meal of his life. Eventually he nudged a son of the house of around his age and whispered loudly, “What’s wrong here?”

“It’s my eldest sister,” the boy whispered back. “She went out to draw water yesterday and never came home. Probably rakshasas got her and roasted her for dinner.”

“That’s all you know,” said his elder brother. “There’s no such thing as rakshasas. Probably Shivaji’s men got her, and that’s worse.”

“Oh you’re so wise,” said the prince. “Shivaji’s men don’t hurt women. Besides, what’s worse than being roasted for dinner?”

The older boy could not answer this. He muttered, “Who knows what those soldiers get up to, though, with himself caged like a songbird up in Akbarabad.”

The prince laughed. “That’s all you know,” he said.

His father’s face grew stern, but it was too late; the children all clamored to know what he meant, and the headman and his wives were giving both apparent brahmins looks of deepening suspicion. So the king drew breath to explain.

Before he could speak, Nara said, “And a strong cage it was, but what does that matter when the key is left inside? Tales of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s courage and cleverness against great odds, and his honor towards defeated foes, has reached even distant Akbarabad. He has won allies against Aurangzeb within the Padishah’s own court.”

“Are you saying he escaped?” said the headman.

Shivaji sighed. “He is saying that, yes,” he replied, “And also that your king sits to eat with you tonight, and will find your daughter if she can be found.” For even if he did not owe a guest’s gratitude, Chhatrapati Shivaji kept his people’s loyalty the only way a king can. Nor did he miss Nara’s message: that the alliance with his mysterious friends in Akbarabad might depend upon his behaviour to his villagers.

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

The Shahzadi sneered. “So there was honor among Marathas a hundred years ago. So what?”

Her French friend put an arm around her. “The story also tells us,” she murmured, “that the Marathas had allies in the Mughal court a hundred years ago and more.”

The Shahzadi said, “Men’s games, Claudine. They’re all the same. He rescues the girl, he marries her, or his son does—they always do—and nobody ever asks her what she wants.”

“And if that were so,” said the bird, “Why would the tale be forbidden? Though certainly the Chhatrapati and his mechanical friend found the girl . . .”

Jivdhan Fort, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

She was a young woman, plump and pretty as village girls so often are, and the Shahzadi may have liked her, had they lived in the same century, for the would-be rescuers found her by following the trail of destruction.

Shivaji found the terracotta shards of the pot she had cracked an attacker’s head with, and Nara the wounded tree whose branch she had ripped off to beat them about the shoulders as they carried her away. They both found the churned mud where she had flung boiling lentils into her captors’ faces before escaping on one of their donkeys, and nobody could miss the trail of disconsolate bandits being marched up to Jivdhan Fort.

So in they snuck, the brahmin and the ash-skinned mechanical—to find a young woman terrorizing a full sqadron of soldiers with one of their own pneumatic crossbows.

“Well,” Nara said, “At least we’ve no trouble recognizing her.”

Shivaji murmured, “Why am I recruiting men, again?”

“Just brain her,” yelled a bandit with mud and lentils in his beard.

A crossbow bolt whizzed by his ear.

In the sudden silence, a soldier said, “She’s armed, you know. Besides, the Chhatrapati would have our ears, and other parts too, if we hurt a woman.”

A different bandit sneered, “Your Chhatrapati’s in Akbarabad!”

And Shivaji called in the voice they all knew, “Would you care to place a wager on that?”

Jivdhan Fort, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

Nara left Shivaji to his men and escorted the village girl home—and returned with her the next day. They both wore the flower garlands of the newly married, and prince Sambhaji’s fingers were sticky with wedding sweets.

The girl thanked Shivaji for what she kindly termed a rescue; Nara said only, “Wish us well?”

“Of course,” said the Chhatrapati. But he looked puzzled.

Nara took him a little distance away. “You wonder what she saw in me, when she did not look twice at you?”

“Put that way, it lacks a certain humility, doesn’t it.”

“But you see,” Nara said, “you’re a man.”

Tipu Sultan’s harem, Mysore; 1202 H / 1788 AD

“Such things don’t happen,” the Shahzadi said. But there was no scorn left in her voice now, only misery.

Her sister made a face. “Thankfully!”

The lady Claudine said nothing at all.

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

The ambassador’s lips were a flat line of outrage. But he did not speak, and he did not rise to leave. Yet.

Maîtresse Vaucanson stared too, and listened with fingers covering her lips, but Jahanara thought—maybe—she saw hope in those wide eyes.

Jivdhan Fort, The Deccan; 1077 H / 1666 AD

“But this is heresy,” sputtered Shivaji.

“In what faith?” Nara said. “In the last ten years, when I had time and more for reading, I learned that no prophet wastes words on women. Yes, Himangi and I prefer women; we particularly prefer each other. And if appearances matter so much that I can stop your mind by having breasts, then Aurangzeb has won.”

“It’s not at all—”

“But it is.” Nara unwrapped her turban and used it to rub the last of the ash from her hands and face; tarnish and soot came away with it to reveal gleaming silver, lush enamel, emeralds. “You will never defeat my little brother, and nor shall I, unless we can work together.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

“If you are about to claim Sapphic tendencies in my aunt Claudine,” the ambassador said with brittle formality, “then I beg you to reconsider. Slander does not encourage alliance.” He rose, bowed slightly. “Maîtresse, it is time for us to withdraw.”

“I believe, excellency,” said Madeleine Vaucanson quietly, “that I have questions yet for the Padishah Begum.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

Abida was in the tower room when they returned, quietly embroidering a shawl. She glanced up and said in French, “I take it your revelations left him less than pleased.”

Jahanara inclined her head.

“Does he know we live here?”

“He didn’t stay to find out. You and Claudine have my sympathies for owning so unmannerly a nephew.” A smile stole over Jahanara’s face. Her hand found Madeleine’s, tugged her forward. “But allow me, Shahzadi, to introduce to you a very dear friend, whose correspondence I have treasured for some years.”

Red Fort, Akbarabad; 1219 H / 1805 AD

“I’ll be unwelcome at the embassy.”

“If that’s where you want to be, I’ll see that you are welcome,” Jahanara said. “Though . . . I hope you know that you could stay. Here. In any capacity you choose.”

Madeleine laughed softly and murmured, “Is this hesitation I hear? From the Padishah Begum, who commands all this?”

Jahanara echoed the laugh, gestured round at the chaos of the Zenana Mina Bazaar. “Only God commands this,” she said, “and even He must have trouble with it.” The clash of human perfumes and fragrant machine oils and sweat, of vivid silks on jade and copper mannequins and carpets against the red stone wall, of anklets and bangles and hawking cries and haggling, responded not at all to her august presence. And every voice, sweet or shrill or wine-rough, was female. “It was more decorous in my youth; a show for the Padishah and his harem. Now the merchants practically own it.”

“And this is how you like it.” Madeleine glanced sideways at Jahanara, thoughtful, her nose and chin sharp in profile.

“Full of life? Yes.”

Jahanara’s gears skipped and stuttered then as Madeleine’s fingers touched hers, feather-light. “I’ll stay. As weaver, as inventor, as your . . . friend. But aren’t you worried?”

“There will be rumors,” Jahanara said evenly. “But there are always rumors. The Mesdames will find reasons to withdraw. Small loss; I only tolerated them in the hope that you would follow.” Her hand’s sensors buzzed as though from heat. The glittering bazaar seemed distant. “The Europeans have decried oriental decadence before, and Persia and half the Ottoman states call me heretic. So long as they hate one another more than me, I doubt—”

A shriek made them jump together; a monkey ran by, dragging a jute sack trailing sugar. The girl who chased after, to much laughter, was not much bigger than the monkey and scarcely less ragged. Jahanara stopped her with a hand on her thin shoulder; offered a coin. Wide eyes, a quick salutation, a quicker snatch and escape.

“So . . .” Madeleine glanced at Jahanara, smiled. “Nothing to worry about?”

“Oh, I never said that.” Jahanara watched the girl dart away between a woman sewing seams with a pedal-driven machine and a copper naga whose tiny clockwork wares climbed into pots to scrub them. “But suspicions should fall only on me, and are nothing new.”

“Easy enough,” Madeleine said, “to fool men who think men alone have desires. But on the subject of men alone, I must confess I found your tale of Devanagar incomplete. So many sons’ stories. What did Shah Jahan’s mechanical daughter make of it?”

“A distant reflection.” Jahanara led Madeleine through a scalloped gate, out from the fort’s great walls. The world opened up: an expanse of river nearly white under unbounded sky; smells of smoke and sulphur and long-dead fish; stark shadows unblurred by filigree windows. Relative solitude. The Taj Mahal loomed huge and perfect, gleaming as though the sun shone only for Shah Jahan’s buried dreams. “My father . . .” She shook her head. “There’s nothing to tell. Oh, I’d been trading with Devanagar for years. I could show you sheets of sapphire with holes in the shape of gears, books on architecture and artifice and the nature of stars, letters that, in the hands of the learned, might make gold as strong as steel . . .”

“He didn’t appreciate them?”

“I never showed him. He wouldn’t have understood.” Jahanara pointed across the river, to the smokestacks that grayed out the hot blue sky and then to the colorful Firangi Quarter next to them. “Do you know, I hadn’t noticed how close together the British and French flags fly. I must grant the Englishmen an audience tomorrow and let your ambassador wonder.”

But Madeleine had pulled away. “Do you even want to be understood?”

A twist of the heartspring, sudden, painful. “What do you mean?”

“You say you wanted—but all this is yours. You could have sent for me, not just for some weaver, if . . .” The tip of her tongue touched her lip. “Did you want me here at all?”

“More than anything.” Jahanara’s tone was calm as ever. Her eyebrows came together, but with enamel stiffness. “By your own will, Madeleine, not my bidding.”

“I might not have come.”

Jahanara looked away, into the Taj’s shattered reflection. “Then I would have continued alone.”

“Alone.” A laugh like glass, breaking. “Surrounded by beautiful ladies, alone for want of—”

Jahanara stopped her with a finger to her lips. “You.” Her hand clenched, fell, aching to stroke those lips. “You, Madeleine, if not from the first letter then surely by the fifth. If my face were flesh, if it could show more of myself and less of others’ images, you would not doubt me.”

Silence, long and tense, and then Madeleine’s hand brushed against hers agains. She turned to look at river, smoke, sky. “Your face reflects all Akbarabad, Nara. Its colors in your skin make my fingers itch to weave your portrait.”

Relief; enormous, unbalancing. Jahanara murmured, “With red stone in one cheek and smokestacks in the other and a balloon from Fatehpur Sikri in my forehead like a Hindu tilak. But is that all they itch to do?”

And Madeleine’s laugh was soft and low and entirely delightful.

© 2011 by Shweta Narayan.
Originally published in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Shweta Narayan

Shweta NarayanShweta Narayan was born in India, has lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Scotland, and California, and feels kinship with shapeshifters and other liminal beings. Their short fiction and poetry have appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Tor.com, the 2012 Nebula Showcase anthology, and We See a Different Frontier. They’ve been mostly dead since 2010, but have a few stories and poems in the works again. Seven years is a traditional length for otherworldly imprisonment, so they’re hopeful. Shweta received an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, co-edits the speculative poetry zine Stone Telling, and feels old on tumblr at shwetanarayan.tumblr.com.