It had been ten years since the emperor's death, and the Rudjosai empire was still in mourning. Since the only heir to the empire had also vanished, the only one worthy to rule was Padishah Sedha, the then-young cousin of the emperor. The Rudjosayans all knew full well about his ambitions to conquer the neighboring realm, and everyone feared going to war. Fortunately for them, a law existed which dictated that when the royal bloodline was exhausted and a new one took over, the first new member of the royal family must be constantly advised by a council of sages, and nothing could be done without their approval.
"I still say that runt killed Emperor Indranil." Fadir, the cattle farmer of the North Village, had been saying the same thing for ten years, and always after just praying at their in-home shrine.
His wife Lasani, not looking away from her embroidery, droned, "Yes, dear."
"The sages were probably in on it, too, I bet. Wanted their share."
Lasani sighed and set her embroidery on her lap. "He died naturally, dear. There were no marks of any kind on him. Now, for the final time, let it be. Whatever the cause, there is nothing to be done about it now."
A young woman drifted into the room, dark eyes downcast as she entered into the shrine to pray. Fadir closed the door for her, then instinctively looked to his wife, awaiting the beginning of another familiar argument.
"We are telling her today," Lasani decided, taking up her embroidery in resolution.
"No, not today."
"As soon as she comes out of there, I am going to tell her."
He bent down over her. "Not today."
"She is twenty-six. It is past time she knew."
No matter how hard she tried, Kumari couldn't pray. She would kneel down on the damask pillow and stare into the ruby eyes of the golden idol, trying desperately to explain to herself why it looked so familiar. In her mind, she pictured it three times as big and adorned with colorful silk. And the musk-scented incense, though fulfilling, was thicker and stronger than she perceived it should be. She gazed into the idol's darkly shining eyes until her parents' argument reached its peak and snapped her from her meditation.
Emerging from the shrine as deftly as smoke, she halted as the two immediately fell silent and looked at her as though she were a lotus blossom dropping its petals.
"What?" Although that same look bombarded her every day, it still made her nervously twirl her long black hair between her fingers each time it loomed.
Fadir turned to Lasani, lifting his brow suggestively. She opened her mouth, but then clamped it shut and returned the brow raise. Finally, Kumari had had enough.
"For the past five years, you two have been doing that dance," she said. "This time, please, forgo your little silent duel and say what it is you are thinking! I have no nerve for it anymore."
Lasani reached to continue her embroidery, but Fadir swiped the cloth from her and scolded her with his eyes.
"Kumari, dove..." she began. But she could not make the other words follow. As if to gather her courage, she rose from her seat and approached her daughter, taking her hands. Kumari's wide, curious eyes swallowed any words that she tried to say. "It is nothing important," she finally said.
Fadir nodded, grinning warmly. "Nothing important."
And although Kumari's insatiable curiosity begged for more, she allowed the whole thing to at last come to some resolution.
"Into the stable loft!"
The unusual morning greeting promptly jerked Kumari from sleep. Before her eyes could even properly focus, her father gripped her wrist and pulled her out of bed. She asked to be allowed to at least change out of her night clothes, but Fadir didn't hear her, and she knew better than to question him. Stumbling out into an early, grey morning, she tried to keep up as her father led her to the stable and put her hand to the ladder to climb into the loft. She did so with difficulty, constantly stepping on her night robe as she climbed. Once at the top, she was further instructed to keep out of sight until he told her otherwise.
The musty odor of hay and the low moaning of the cattle fought to distract Kumari from thinking about how strangely her father was behaving. She laid back on the wood planking and stared at the cracks of light piercing through the roof, trying to find which clusters resembled star constellations. There was one near the apex that reminded her of Ibis Flight.
Before long, the stiff wood was becoming uncomfortable for her back, so she sat up."There's one!"
She turned her head and saw, parked on their lawn, a barred wagon full of young women. A handful of armed men stood near it, the royal symbol of a golden tiger on each of their tunics. One of them had dashed to the ladder and began to climb it. Standing up, bent against the low roof, she backed up to the other end of the loft. As soon as the soldier reached the top of the ladder, she grabbed the rope that opened the grain chute and slid down, burning her hands along the way. After briefly trying to shake off the pain, she unlatched the gate to the bull pen and, with a cry, slapped him on his back. The bull bleated loudly, reared its front legs, then bolted off into the mass of soldiers, his long, curved horns ahead of him. While the soldiers scattered, the one who had climbed the loft leaped down and threw his arms around her. She shouted and cried, she kicked furiously, but another soldier came to help detain her as the two dragged her to the wagon. Lasani begged with them to release her, and Fadir tried tearing them away, but the other soldiers kept them at bay, having managed to exterminate the raging bull.
Forced into the wagon and locked inside, she stared out one of the barred windows, reaching her hand out toward her parents. They approached to reach back, but it began to wheel away, the soldiers following on their horses. She watched, vision bleary with tears, as the wagon took her from her home. The last thing she saw before she was pulled completely from the sight was the once-mighty bull, lying on the ground dead with its glossy black eyes staring back at her.
Once her sobs calmed down, Kumari spoke with some of the other women to find out exactly what was going on. Her hunches were correct: they were being harvested for Padishah Sedha. It was one of the few allowances he had which the sages had no say in, so naturally he employed it whenever possible. So despite how badly her hands burned and stung, she felt somewhat grateful for it–having such a physical flaw could save her from being chosen.
Once they arrived at the palace, they were herded inside to a small chamber–a servant's quarters with only two chairs for thirty women. They were shut inside the room for three hours until finally the door opened and a soldier instructed them to line up in the hallway. Some of them whispered excitedly about the prospect of being with a Padishah. Others, like Kumari, remained quiet with their heads bowed.
"His Imperial Highness, Padishah Sedha," the soldier announced.
There he stood, at the end of the hallway, a magnificent figure: He was bare-chested, wearing a long tunic and pants, both of rich, purple silk and embroidered with gold. His red velvet shoes had soles of real gold, as proved by the commanding, bone-shivering clank they made as he walked. His long black hair was braided back with a golden ribbon woven into it. And though he was fiercely handsome, his intense, dark eyes flared like black flames, instilling fear in all he looked on. Kumari stared at him in fascination until the clank of his shoes twitched her head back down to stare at her bare feet.
Clang. "Too old." Though his voice was low, it was clear as two swords striking each other. Clang. "Too plain." Clang. "This one's pregnant, you idiot!" Clang.
Kumari's heart pounded harder and faster as she heard him approach. She bit her lip and winced at every clank of his shoes.
"Too young." Clang. "The eyes are too close together." Clang!
A shadow cast over her feet. Kumari couldn't move. A hand, bejeweled with rings, lifted her chin. She stared into Sedha's eyes, and his prying eyes stared back. After a moment, his glance traveled up her face and rested on the mole above her right eyebrow.
"This one," he decided. "Send the rest away."
A soldier immediately ushered Kumari to another room on the second floor–one of the royal bedchambers, so filled with plush cushions and flamboyant silk drapery that it was like being inside a cloud set in a twilight sky. Three female attendants worked to dress her, groom her, and paint her face. By the time she looked at herself in the glass, she could hardly recognize herself–dressed in a deep red sari with golden sandals, dripping with gold necklaces and jeweled rings; a ruby pin held up her finely-combed hair, and her face glowed with blush and red lip color. A doctor then entered to wrap her hands in soft, white linen that had been dipped in salve. No sooner was she made ready than Sedha came into the room, all five of the sages in tow. Seeing her, he smiled triumphantly.
"Just as I thought." He approached her and took her hand. Something about his touch made her jump. He then turned to the sages and declared, "Behold: Princess Nadi, daughter of former emperor Indranil, and heir to the Rudjosai Empire." Then, turning back to her, he added, "And my betrothed."
Kumari dropped his hand and backed away in alarm. The sages crowded around her, examining her face, many of them pointing out the definitive mole above her eyebrow and also stating the resemblance of the nose and the posture. They smiled and remarked how happy they were to see her alive and well, how much she had grown, how they had worried about her.
"Stop! Please, stop!" she cried. Admittedly, she had always had difficulty remembering her adolescence, but had no inclination of ever having been royalty.
"Where have you been, Your Highness?" one sage asked. "Were you abducted? By whom?"
"Were you in hiding from your father's assassin?"
"Did you run away?"
"Stop! No, I am not who you think I am! I come from the North Village. My father is a cattle farmer."
After an initial shock, the sages murmured amongst themselves. "That settles it," one concluded. "Loss of memory."
"Maybe even brainwashing," suggested another.
Sedha looked at her with a furrowed brow. "Do you not know yourself? Do you not know me?"
She was afraid to answer at first, but something in his eyes relaxed her. "I know I am a farmer's daughter, and that you are the Padishah."
He shook his head. "When you were born, your parents and my parents agreed that we would marry once we became of age. You were Princess Nadi then. And whatever you were the past ten years, you are Princess Nadi once again."
Kumari's eyes passed from one person to the next until she sank onto her round bed.
"But it cannot be," she whispered. "How can that be? How–When I cannot remember anything of it at all, when nothing looks familiar?"
His voice calm, Sedha offered his hand to her again. "Come with me. Do not be afraid."
Hesitantly, she accepted his hand and let him lead her out of the room. A few doors away, the hallway opened up into a larger hall where generations of family portraits were hung. At the very end was a portrait of Emperor Indranil, Empress Consort Pagni, and the Princess. Although the Princess was a child, Kumari had the chilling feeling that she was looking into a mirror. And, sure enough, the Princess had the same mole above her right eyebrow. Above all, looking at the late emperor's face, she felt a twinge of recognition.
Kumari and Sedha were married that night. In spite of how everything still felt awkward to her, seeing that portrait convinced her that it was the life she was meant to have. Also, Sedha behaved the exact opposite of everything Fadir had ever said of him: he was caring, attentive, and charming. And every time she was near him, she felt a rush of feeling that couldn't be denied, even with the lack of any memory of him.
For many days, she would go to the portrait gallery after lunch, sit across from the portrait of her family, and for hours would stare into the eyes of her father, waiting for her past to catch up with her. And though no recollections surfaced, it gave her time to think over the possibilities. On the seventh day, she had an epiphany.
Of course, she thought. I was kidnaped by Fadir–it makes absolute sense. For years, they always acted so strangely, as if they were hiding some secret. And they always spoke so badly of the Padishah, the one person alive who could identify me as I truly am!
Although it also made sense, she refused to believe that Fadir or Lasani could have assassinated Emperor Indranil. So at dinner, when Sedha asked his usual question about her progress in recovering her memories, she answered her usual reply, "Nothing yet," for fear that mentioning her foster parents' names would lead to them being punished.
A week after their marriage, Kumari and Sedha had to endure the formality of a crowning ceremony. Since they were married, they were eligible for their full titles: Emperor Sedha and Empress Consort Nadi. And in celebration of the Princess's return, their marriage, and their crowning, the sages arranged for them to throw a large party, inviting the people of Rudjosai to attend. The party was hosted in the imperial gardens at night, among the orange trees, the plumeria blooms, and the crystal teal fountains. Sedha took her by the arm and reintroduced her to all the members of nobility, each one exclaiming how good it was to see her again. Though no matter how much they seemed to know her, not one of them had a place in her memory. The first chance she was free, she separated from the party, into another part of the garden, laid on a stone bench, and found Ibis Flight in the night sky. She felt, just for a moment, that she was Kumari, a cattle farmer's daughter, lying in the hay loft.
"I am sorry if you have been overwhelmed."
Sitting up, she saw Sedha walking toward her, his soles like chimes singing against the stone pathway. He sat on the opposite end of the bench, allowing some distance between them.
"I have been anxious for you to remember everything, but perhaps I have been pushing you too hard," he continued.
She nodded. "It is a lot to take in, but...I have been anxious, too. I thought of praying to the gods for help, but..." She chuckled slightly. "This palace is so large, that I have yet to find the shrine."
For a moment, silence interrupted. They listened to the dull roar of the party guests and the faint hum of the band's music. In the midst of it, she dared to move closer beside him and lean her head on his shoulder. He responded by wrapping his arm around her. A tear fell down her cheek.
"I still cannot remember you," she said. "Yet I do remember loving you."
Two days after the party, Kumari assumed her usual position in front of her family portrait. She was slowly beginning to remember her father–the way he smiled, the way he laughed, the way he scolded her–but nothing more. Her eyes becoming tired, she decided to wander the palace again, to explore undiscovered rooms. There was one room tucked away next to the library with a door on which was painted a mural of a god. Finally, she had found the shrine. She opened the door and walked onto a floor tiled with ivory. The walls were covered with pure white tapestries. And sitting in the middle of the shrine was a stand on which the golden idol was displayed–three times larger than the one at her previous home, and adorned with colorful silk. No sooner had her eyes met the ruby orbs of the idol, than all her memories ambushed her at once until...
"I cannot do it," Princess Nadi said. She was holding a gilded incense stand in which Sedha had lodged an incense stick.
"He has threatened to break the betrothal," Sedha said. "If you do not do this, then we have no chance of happiness. The apothecary promised me that it will be entirely painless and humane."
Trembling and holding back tears, Nadi walked down the hall to the shrine, and switched its incense with hers. She then sat up in her room, watching the sun from her window in order to determine the time. Mere minutes passed until she burst out of her room and ran down the stairs to the shrine. Upon opening the door, she found her father lying lifeless on the floor in a cloud of incense smoke. She cried out in anguish, then collapsed to the floor in tears.
A number of soldiers immediately dashed to her, having heard her loud cry. They all asked her what was wrong, but she couldn't speak through the tears. Moments later, Sedha appeared. Seeing her kneeling down just outside the shrine, he immediately knew what was wrong. He helped her to her feet and hurried her away from the soldiers before she could confess anything. Sitting her down in a private study, he embraced her and tried to talk her into calming down.
"It was for the best, Nadi," he said. "We had no choice."
"I killed him," she gasped. "I remember everything now. After I put the incense in the shrine, I walked away, but I realized that I just could not allow it to happen. I tried to go back and retrieve the incense, but it was too late." Nadi wiped her falling tears on her linen-wrapped hands. "I was so scared and ashamed that I just started running. When I got tired of running, I fell asleep. And when I woke, I had forgotten everything. I killed him; I killed my father."
"But we are together now, just as we wanted."
"Yes; of course I wanted it. But not that way."
Since Nadi had recovered her memories and her self, the sages were no longer necessary as a council. They were merely advisors, and so Sedha and Nadi had regained full power. Sedha's first action as full Emperor was to prepare the militia to conquer the neighboring realm. But Nadi rebutted him, proclaiming that not only was it unnecessary, but that the people of Rudjosai had no desire to go to war, and that to force them to do so could cause them to lose the people's loyalty. Sedha said that he respected her feelings for the people, but commented that she was too attached to them, probably as a result of living as a farmer's daughter for ten years. He explained the benefits of expanding their empire and how they would both rule it side-by-side.
"Why wait for an expansion?" she asked. "Let us start now–ruling side-by-side. And let us start by discussing other action besides war."
Neither of them would back down. So after days of debating the subject, Nadi decided to include the problem in her prayers as she made her daily visit to the shrine. Though it took some time to return to the scene of her sin, she was determined to meditate there every day and to pray for forgiveness for what she had done to her father.
While she prayed, she inhaled the soft, sweet scent of sandalwood and frangipani that burned from the incense stick. But today, it smelled different somehow–there was one extra scent that she couldn't quite place. And the more she thought about it, the dizzier and foggier her mind became. The ruby eyes of the idol flashed, drawing her from the spell. Now she recognized the smell. She tried to stand, but her legs gave out beneath her. Falling to her stomach, she tried to crawl across the slick, ivory floor. In one desperate reach, she grasped the door handle and pulled it open. She laid across the threshold and tried to inhale the clean air. Her lungs breathed sharply at first, then slowly she began to feel better. Clang. Clang. Clang. Looking up from the ground, she saw Sedha kneeling before her. He lifted her chin, his eyes full of remorse. She reached up and held his hand, quirking a half-smile.
"You came back," she said. "You could not go through with it."
He kissed her and stroked her hair. "Yes, I came back." Then he grabbed her by the arm, pulled her to her feet, thrust her back into the shrine, and held the door shut. "I knew you would escape," he added.
Nadi struggled with the door, but couldn't get it open. "Why are you doing this?"
"For the good of the empire, Nadi. You will not allow it to grow."
Having no luck with the door, she turned around, tore the incense stick from its mount, and crushed it beneath her sandal, extinguishing it. Still, the existing smoke that shrouded the room began to cloud her mind again. She continued talking, trying to stay awake. "That was all you ever wanted from the start–you wanted to kill...my father to assume power, and...you needed me to grant you full power. Now...that you have it, you can be rid...of me."
"You must understand, Nadi, that I do love you, and always have."
"But not enough!"
When Sedha opened the door, Nadi was motionless on the floor. He bent down and kissed her forehead, then decided to retire to bed, sure that someone would find her by the time he woke the next morning.
The morning sunlight cast into the room as the servant drew the curtains open. The sudden light woke Sedha from his uneasy sleep. Upon opening his eyes, what he saw made him jump: his bed was surrounded by soldiers, all brandishing their scimitars.
"What are you all doing?" he demanded.
The assembly parted, and Nadi approached his bed. "Arrest him," she ordered.
"I am your Emperor," Sedha insisted. "She is just a woman."
"You are charged with the murder of Emperor Indranil and attempted murder of the Empress."
"You murdered the emperor!"
"You did! It was your doing! And I have the proof of it!"
A handful of soldiers brought forth an elderly man in labor wear.
"This man has confessed to selling poisonous incense to you," Nadi said, "and on several occasions. That same incense was found in the shrine in which the Emperor was found dead and in which I was found unconscious."
Their eyes penetrated one another. Finally, Sedha presented his hands to be shackled by the nearest soldier, who immediately took him away. But before he was out of sight, Nadi added, "And this is for the good of the kingdom–all for the best."
After he was taken away along with the apothecary, one of the soldiers asked if Sedha was to be executed, to which she replied, "He will serve a life sentence, alive, in a dungeon cell. I have no desire to be a murderer."
Fadir stepped out of the shrine and watched his wife work. Cutting a thread, she unfurled the long length of cloth, the embroidery shimmering in the sunlight shining through the window.
"It is finished," she said. But rather than triumphant, she sounded sorrowful. "I finally finished it, but she is not here to wear it."
Fadir chuckled. "She always remarked on how slow you worked, but admitted that it was second-to-none quality."
A knock on the door interrupted their awkward conversation. It was a royal soldier.
"Her Imperial Highness, Empress Regnant Nadi, requests an audience with you and your wife at the palace," he announced.
Fadir looked back to his wife, confused.
"The word I used was 'requests', not 'desires'," the soldier sighed impatiently. "You are to come now."
As Fadir and Lasani stepped outside to board the carriage, they saw that all their cattle were being herded.
"What is going on, here?" Fadir demanded. "Are you stealing our cattle?"
"Not stealing–transporting. Enough questions: get in."
After Lasani whispered a request for him to avoid trouble, Fadir obeyed and climbed into the carriage, followed by his wife. When they arrived at the palace, they were ushered to a throne room. Rising from their bows, they saw Nadi for the first time, sitting tall on the throne, shining in her rich adornments. But her eyes were warm and looked down lovingly at them.
"Kumari!" Lasani declared in a shout of joy.
Nadi nodded, a smile creeping across her face. "You took me in and gave me a home, and now, I wish to do the same for you."
In gladness, the couple embraced each other. They then turned to Nadi, but her raiment reminded them to keep their distance. As a result, Nadi stepped down from her throne to embrace them.
"I am still Kumari," she said. "I was then, I am now, and I will always be."
Once again, Nadi sat across from her family portrait. She looked on the mother she never knew, the father she had murdered, and the child she had once forgotten. Two servants entered into the hall, carrying another portrait, one that they hung on the wall next to her family portrait–it was of a young woman, and no one else: a young woman with the red mark of marriage on her forehead, with her father's seal ring on her healed hands, and with her mother's bold, beautiful eyes. The portrait was captioned by an engraving on a gold plate on the bottom of the frame:
Empress Regnant Nadi
**I wrote this over a decade ago while in college. I keep thinking of turning it into a longer story, but it works pretty well as is.