Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events of places or people alive or dead is entirely coincidental. NOTE: Time has been used liberally, and not all events that occurred during that time period happen in the same order in the novel.

Chapter One
Dancers

"Never again, never again!" A girl sat wailing in a corridor, her face grimy with tears, eyes as red as pomegranate seeds.

Anarkali passed her by, Another one of my fellow court dancers, she thought distastefully. She swung her hair raven black braid behind her shoulder. Studying the girl out of the corner of her eye as she passed her, she noted that her clothes were of a fine turquoise fabric, yet they had an unwashed look about them, like a fine seashell still coated with the sand from the sea. Something about the girl piqued her interest though. She twirled around gracefully, enjoying the feel of her filmy silver skirt blowing around her legs. "What never again?"

The girl turned her brown-eyed gaze on her. "Love," she whispered.

Anarkali snorted in incredulity and disdain. Never would she be caught in a state like this for a man! "Love? Surely you jest. That's what you're wailing about? Love?"

"When you find it, you'll die for it," responded the girl in her own defense.

"Ha. A silly idea some fool poets wrote about, and the idea, this fanciful idea, has caught the imagination of the world."

However, what the girl had said dying about love stuck in the back of her mind, which she sifted into the back. Still, she thought, what do I know? I am merely a seventeen year old slave, seventeen year old dancer! Although, Mother isn't too certain about the seventeen as it were, she added to herself as an afterthought.

Making her way to the harem, she quickly checked her appearance in the mirror which she wore on her forefinger. She had an uncommon face, with clear gray eyes, and a light dusky complexion. The gray eyes had been a gift from her father, whom she'd never known. I don't understand where people would call me beautiful, she mused. I certainly know I'm not unfortunate looking, but beauty? That's a word used to describe miracles like sunsets and forests and the brilliant blue sky.

She turned the bend and broke from her reverie when saw Ahmed. Anarkali had always been friends with him, since their mothers had begun working together in the palace as servants. She smiled at Ahmed and immediately her walk became a mock swaying one.

"Morning, Anarkali," he said nonchalantly, not even noticing her sway, locking his eyes with hers. Some had said that Anarkali would do well to marry
Ahmed, but had they suggested to that to one or the other they would have laughed.

Immediately, she dropped the sway, and she downcast her eyes, "Good morning, Ahmed." she murmured, pulling the chiffon veil that had slipped to her shoulders, over her face.

He raised a black eyebrow at her. "What are you up to, Anari?" He named her using a pet name.

"Why, nothing. Oh Ahmed, you should trust me more."

"If you say so," he said disbelievingly.

She gently blew her veil at him. "You really should believe me. I'm merely having a spot of fun before I have to begin this oh-so glorious duty which has befallen upon me. Well, I must be going, I have to meet up with some of the other girls in the garden later, Prince Salim will be dining there." She grumbled the last part.

"Ah, the Prince," Ahmed said all-knowingly.

"Oh, well, I must get going, tell Ummi I won't have breakfast with her today. Not that she will care," Anarkali, muttered under her breath.

"Your mother does care, Anari." He gave Anarkali a concerned look.

"I'm certain she does. Deep inside her heart, eh Ahmed?" She briskly walked away, the bells on her silver anklets jingling lightly.

The garden was one of the marvels of Fatehpur Sikhri. The city itself was a hot and dry one, recently built of red sandstone in an empty land, but upon entering the imperial gardens, or The Bagh, it became as cool as a Kashmiri spring. The Bagh was truly marvelous with water springing up from the lake through intricate pipes to keep the soil moist. Anarkali, when she had first come to Fatehpur Sikri had been charmed by the beautiful work so evident around the whole establishment. The towers were tall and rounded supported by columns and there was intricate carving evident at every corner. Anari quietly observed, whenever she chose to really see the palace, that it appeared to be a symbol of Mughal rule. The compromise between native India and it's Muslim rulers, what with the great deal of traditional Indian architectural style mixed with the delicate arabesque designs.
Instead of the light linen dress Anarkali had been clothed in when she'd been talking with Ahmed, she was in a tight silk shirt and pants which fit her like a second skin, hugging even the slightest hint of a curve. Over her legs was a gauzy violet skirt, similar to the one she had worn before, only better woven and much more dear. She always felt so uncomfortable, so bare, in those clothes. Had she had her way, she would be dressed comfortably in loose clothing where she would not be constantly worrying if she had accidentally torn something or not. But these tight dresses were required by the woman in charge of the court dancers, and Anarkali admitted, albeit reluctantly, that the dances would not seem the same if one was clothed in a figurative bag.

The men were seated on cushion which lay in a somewhat circular around the sandstone ground. They smoked from their hookahs, leaning leisurely against the short sandstone walls that surrounded the garden and prevented people from falling to the ground. These were not especially important fellows, most were young, friends of the prince, and would one day be powerful and would have to shoulder a great deal of responsibility. Until that day came, they would enjoy themselves, pleasuring themselves as they would. And they waited expectantly for the famed nautch girls of Fatehpur Sikri. Two or three of the girls began shuffling some graceful steps, as the music, which was comprised of drums and sitars, began. The others, Anarkali included, went around serving the Prince and his friends.

"Anarkali, here!" the Prince commanded. He adjusted his lilac colored silk turban which had begun skewed when he had sharply turned his head to call her.

"Yes, your highness?" she mumbled, trying not to notice the Prince's obvious admiration, and not for those assets Anarkali would ideally like to be admired for. More than anything, she wished he would take that turban of his, hold his breath, and begin to breathe when the turban turned the color of the sun on a bright day.

"Dance for me," he ordered, taking lazy a sip of the pomegranate juice. The light reflected off his many jeweled rings, throwing colors in the air as if they were petals blown by the wind.

She closed her eyes and began her swaying steps, slowly turning and moving her hips seductively. She decided she didn't especially wish to emphasize her hips today, she began a more intricate dance which involved a great deal of hand movements. It told a story making the movements infinitely more platonic yet, heat rose in Anarkali's cheeks, as it always did when she did her dances in front of men. The speed of her dance picked up, and within several minutes she was a blurring mass of scarlet and violet cloth.

"Enough!" Prince Salim finally said, taking another luxurious sip of the juice, while a servant lazily fanned and shaded him. "Anarkali, you have a certain talent. By that I mean, you are not completely unfortunate at the art of dance, but, nonetheless, some practice will do you good. I believe performing for my friends and me at lunch, and at dinner, everyday until I tell you to stop will do you a spot of good."

Her gray eyes flashed, but she gave him a meek, "Yes, your highness." She bowed to him in the traditional manner. Flicking her gaze upward, she could tell by his expression he was disappointed she wasn't more excited. Or that she wasn't singing at this great opportunity he had afforded her at oh, so much cost to himself. Conceited little fool, she thought contemptuously.

He turned around, apparently ignoring her, but Anarkali thought that she saw him looking at her once or twice, but shook it off as tricks of her mind. Why, if the Prince gave me so much as a second look I would run away to Persia and set myself up as a spice merchant. And marry a shoe.
After the breakfast was over, the dancers went to their private garden. In no way did it rival the nobles' gardens or the gardens of the women of the harem, but it was a quiet and relaxing place nonetheless. A small orchard of pomegranate trees, which were in full blossom, shadowed a fair-sized pool. All the dancers had stripped down, Anarkali among them, and had leapt into the pool- a break from the already hot day. Anarkali distantly though about if the water was truly clean, but the relief from the heat chased away all such thoughts that may wish to make her leave this delightful place.

"Anari! Pass the soap!" Gul, a dark eyed dancer, shouted at her. The girl's wet curls floated around her like a halo.

"Get it yourself, Gul!" Anarkali called back peevishly, not wishing to toss the small circle of rose soap across the clear water.

Gul splashed water at her, swimming over to take the soap away from its owner. "The prince?" she asked in the same tone Ahmed had.

"How did you know?" Anarkali frowned, and submerged her head in the water and blew bubbles of frustration. When she came up, the beads of water sparkled on her skin and in her hair like pearls sliding of a string.

"Oh Anari, forget him. What are your issues with him anyway?" Gul attempted her best listening face, placing her elbow on the water acting as if it were a table and opening her eyes wide as if to absorb all of Anari's thoughts through her eyes.

"Gul! You are so innocent sometimes." Anarkali smacked the water in frustration, wishing to bunch it up and wring it.

Gul gave her a mischievous grin, trying to calm Anari down in an unassuming manner. Gul knew how to handle her friend. "Court dancer and innocent? That is a first!"

Anarkali swam over to a more secluded corner, and gestured for Gul to join her.

"Well?" Gul looked at her questioningly, once the two of them were safely in the corner.

Suddenly, Anarkali shook her head, and turned around slowly. Behind them was the Mistress of the Dancers. The fat woman looked at them through startlingly light eyes, from her dark face. The white hair swung in a fat braid past her large hips.

"Miss Anarkali!" she snapped. The woman did not understand the idea of speaking softly. She either snapped or simpered.

"Yes ma'am?" Anarkali replied meekly. She had learned long ago that confrontation with the woman would lead to nothing except punishment.

Gul rolled her eyes; everyone cowered from the Mistress of the Dancers, except Gul. And Gul's reason was simple. She was the best dancer in the palace, and they couldn't afford to lose her. Although sometimes she failed to recognize that despite her talent, she was not indispensable.

"Miss Gul!"

Gul looked up at her through heavy lidded eyes, and gave her a lazy look, which said "Continue, if you must."

Fatima frowned at Gul, her beady eyes narrowing. Anarkali had never noticed how much Fatima looked like a fat bird, what with her pointy nose and squat frame. "You Miss Gul, think too highly of your value to the Empire. However, for some reason, the two of you have been added to Prince Salim's harem, you will attend to him in any manner he wishes. If I get any complaints from him, you may say hello to my little friend, the whip."

By Allah, she is forward,
thought Anarkali. I wouldn't be surprised to see her with a short broom pushing us into his private room. She smiled at the image.

However, Gul had several complaints, and she voiced them without any respect toward the old lady's authority. "Not any manner. I may be a dancer, but even we have a certain honor. I will dance, yes, but I must have a certain amount of clothing. That's all the action he's getting from me, dancing. Understand?"

"I agree with Gul." Anarkali loved how the two of them generally had the same emotions concerning everything.

The white haired woman, look at the both of them, and sighed. "Very well, I will inform him of the decision. Dancers," she muttered underneath her breath, and stalked away, her very ample waist jiggling in her tight green bodice.

Gul turned to Anarkali, "So, what are your problems with the Prince? You simply you cannot hint at something like this and leave me to wait for so long!"

"Sorry to disappoint you Gul, but I have no problems, none at all." She closed her eyes and wished it were true. Well, no problems I can truly describe.