It was not a bad life.
The heat was withering. For the first several weeks, she had been nearly prostrate with it, all the life and vigor drained from her limbs by the dry, stifling heat. The servants had worked themselves into frenzies attending her, bringing water, handling fans, providing shade, cajoling her into cool baths. Sick with the heat, she had even been ill for three days, unable to stand, collapsed listless and stupefied in her room. In the end, it had been her maids' tears, the girls coming weeping and terrified to beg at her feet through the translator for her to take food and water, for wouldn't they be punished mercilessly were their new mistress to die?
At that, ashamed and humiliated to be such a burden on anyone, she had risen from what she had been sure would be her deathbed, choked down whatever her relieved maids chose to bring her, and lived.
They stopped bringing her good English clothing soon after her recovery. Protests were lost on them, the translator shaking his head in polite but insistent refusal. Instead, they offered her silks and jewels, foreign finery that she blushed to consider. But they were immovable; she would wear the dress of her new home, or she would go naked.
Not that it would have mattered too greatly. Her new home, though luxurious beyond anything she could imagine, to the point where it seemed to even be needlessly hedonistic, was circumscribed. Beautiful with its gardens and courtyards and fountains, it was a locked paradise. The high walls of her house were her borders, and, while everything she could want was brought to her at the slightest suggestion, her servants, mostly women but including one man she had only recently learned was a eunuch (at the same time learning what a eunuch was), stood between her and the door, and she was not allowed to go out. From the voices she occasionally heard from the other side of the wall, the noises of metal and footsteps, she suspected that guards also patrolled the walls, never seen but always there.
She had not been surprised. He had spoken to her of such things, explaining that once in his country, she would have to follow his laws and his rules, and one of them was that, once brought into the women's quarters of his house, she would never be allowed to leave unless in his company or by his command. To this, as to a number of other things he had warned her against, she had consented.
It was not a bad life. Truly, she could have done far worse. Waited on hand and foot, swathed in silks and covered in jewels, living in opulence far surpassing anything England had to offer, and knowing both respect and affection - how far she had come, from that impoverished little girl on a cold shore, holding a bucket of clams.
And he was not a cruel man. Inscrutable, willful, and demanding, yes, but also kind, humorous, and generous. He wanted his way, but was not selfish when he got it. Easily made fractious, but never with her. No. With her, he was...he was...
He had made promises. She did not expect him to keep a one of them, not forever. But he had kept them so far, and she allowed herself some hope. He said he would never look at another woman again, and that one he had broken almost immediately. He said he would never take another wife, nor a concubine, and this he had yet to make false. His eye easily wandered, but, she noticed, it wandered most frequently to herself.
Her decision had not been taken lightly. The death of her mistress had struck her a harder blow than she had thought, and with none to stand beside her, Al too poor and - well, others - too rich, she had been more vulnerable than she had thought herself. And when he came to the station, with none of his usual to-do and tucket but quietly, with dignity, in a fine coat and gentleman's top hat, his dark skin and the great ruby in the top buttonhole of his shirt, and said to her frankly, bluntly, If you will have me, she had felt faint and afraid and spoken before she had thought.
He was kind. He was so kind. He put her up in rooms in a respectable place with a respectable matron, and never visited after seven-thirty. When he came, they were not frivolous, but spoke of what was to come. He explained what he could of his country to her, of his place in it and what her place would be. That was when he made his promises, his warnings, his guarantees. He had done her best to prepare her. And he had never spoken of love, excepting once, that on the last day, in a harsh, abrupt manner that seemed out of place in his usual carefree manner, and the thought, the shameful, degrading thought, that thrummed through her like a bloodless shot, was No, not love, not with him.
But then, at their wedding, after the long way by ship and then by elephant, her glasses left behind in her trunk, at the mess of noise and color and people and her loosened, uncontrollable hair that had been their wedding, he had looked at her, when everyone else had been looking elsewhere, looked at her, and it had occurred to her that she really did not know him at all.
And now, when he came to her rooms, when affairs of state did not take him from them, he looked at her in the oddest ways, as if he could not quite believe what he was looking at. He touched her quite intimately, on her neck and her wrist and at her ear, and smiled a slow, secret smile as he placed his palm and spread his fingers over the growing roundness of her waist.
He was beautiful, she learned, more so than most men. He treated her well though she was completely in his power, with no one to protect her. He was a prince, but did not treat her as what she was, a maid. Oh, of course - she was no longer a maid. She was a princess, a princess of India. Of course.
And if he was not exactly whom she had thought of, not whom she'd longed for so desperately, if his hair was not the gold of sunlight and his eyes not the green of the sea...
No. His eyes were black, fathomless, and Delphian, his hair the black of soot, soft as cat's fur when he laid his head in her lap as if he himself were a kitten begging for attention. He loved her, she suspected, whispering in her ear every night and every morning, Man ashegheto hastam.
Hakim and Emma.
He loved her.
It was not a bad life.