Jey guys, sorry for the long wait for this update. It's been a difficult chapter to write a) because university has been hectic this semester and b) I'm getting closer to a big turning point in the story that I just wanted to get to and write about. But as I didn't want to rush this chapter, it's taken a while to be satisfied with it. Hopefully I can get to the really meaty part of the plot and update a lot more regularly! All my thanks for your continued readership and patience!
Asha returned to the palace the next morning. A palanquin drawn by four sturdy bearers arrived at the door just a few hours after dawn, ready to convey her back; her luggage would be sent on later. In many ways, she felt as if she was reliving her first journey to the palace, in her first moments of being a Caged Bird.
Of course, it was so very different now.
She and her father said their goodbyes there and then at the door, the cat watching them lazily as it sat in a pool of sunlight in the courtyard. Under the watchful eye of the bearers, they made it quick. A simple farewell from both of them, an embrace and a kiss on the forehead from her father (although Asha had to lean down so that this could be achieved).
The weather was, not unusually, hot. Now that the year was well into the spring months, the flowers and trees in the public gardens were in bloom, with the fragrances of the plants wafting through the warm air. Equally as expected was the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces – the people of the city didn't seem ever to miss an opportunity to sell something to someone. But Asha did not, for once, draw back the curtains of the palanquin to watch the activity. Instead she fanned herself to ward off the stifling heat, and ate a bowl of dates that had been thoughtfully provided, even if they were rapidly drying out.
When they returned to the palace, Daros was standing among the guards on the main steps waiting for her. She descended elegantly, and walked up to meet him.
"How kind of you to meet me, your Majesty," she said formally, as she had to. They were not married yet, and even afterwards, their relations in public would always be bound by protocol.
"I am glad to see you return," he said softly "The King was deeply moved by your mother's plight. He hopes she did not suffer too much."
"I can only hope that my return to her soothed her pain," Asha said "Her funeral was a great comfort to us."
Daros nodded and turned back to go up the stairs. Asha came after him, with Hamani following at her right a step or two behind. They walked slowly up the steps and into the series of airy reception halls. Finely dressed lords of the council were scattered around the halls, talking in pairs or groups; they glanced at them, bowed at Daros and stared after Asha and her pretty maid. Thankfully, Asha saw no-one that she recognised.
They halted outside the approach to the throne room, and Daros whispered to her "The King would like to welcome you back to the palace, and offer his condolences."
Asha nodded, and they waited in silence until the petitioners that had come ahead of them had been ushered out of the king's presence. Two blue-robed retainers came forward and led them through the tiled hall, pulling the curtains out of the way so that the small procession could approach the throne.
Asha thought the king was not looking well. His face was pale, and his eyes bloodshot, his stomach was protruding further than ever, and he shifted uncomfortably as he sat. When he spoke, his voice was cracked and breathy.
"We welcome you back us, my dear. All the palace has been desolate with the news of your mother. I regret to say that I did not meet her personally, but all of us know her reputation as a woman of breeding, dignity and service."
Service to what? Asha thought. What a hideous way to describe my mother's life.
"Suffice to say, we hope that she went to her rest peacefully. We have offered our condolences to your father."
Inwardly, Asha sneered. But she said "I thank your Majesty for your sympathies. I apologise for having been away from the palace for these past weeks."
"You did everything a good daughter should; no one could have done any more. Nevertheless, it is right that you have returned so promptly to sit at the side of my eldest son. Now, I'm sure that you would both like to get re-acquainted."
Asha bowed low to the king, and he waved a veined hand. Daros and Asha bowed again and walked carefully backwards until a hanging dropped, obscuring the king from their view. They turned and walked together through the palace, and Daros slipped an arm around Asha's waist. Walking comfortably side by side, she waited until they were back in their apartments to broach her question.
"The king is not well, is he?"
Daros looked sidelong at her as he poured wine into two goblets. "No. The doctors are concerned about his heart – too much good food and wine they say."
Asha accepted the goblet from him. "What is their prognosis?"
He sighed. "Officially, I shouldn't know, and I shouldn't be telling anyone else. But…two, three months perhaps, no longer than that until…well, you understand. My father called to his side last week to tell me this."
"How is he…I mean, is he afraid?"
"I think any man would be afraid in facing death. But I know that he has confidence in me. I just wish I had confidence in myself."
Asha took his hand and kissed it. "Do not worry. Your father is wise to trust you. He is fortunate to have such a capable heir."
He smiled "And I am lucky to have found a capable queen." He handed her a goblet. "A toast to your mother's memory."
Asha had a lump in her throat as she accepted the goblet; she swallowed painfully. "And to your father's health."
They drank deeply. Zahn came trotting through a door to welcome Asha home, and she put down the goblet and picked him up. She stroked his soft fur absently. Seeming to realise that her heart was not in it, he struggled and she put him down; watching with a smile as he leapt up onto a divan and looked at her plaintively.
"He is happy to see you home," whispered Daros, putting his hand on her shoulder "You're so tense! Perhaps we shall call for a musician to come and entertain us. Would you like that?"
Asha felt suddenly very tired. "I'm sorry; I'm so lethargic just now. And I still have a lot to think about."
Daros put a hand to her head. "You don't feel ill, do you? You may have caught a chill in the necropolis…"
"Maybe. I think I just need to rest."
He brushed her cheek. "Go and rest then," he said softly "Maybe this evening we can take a walk in the gardens."
She smiled a little "Yes that would be wonderful. Thank you Daros."
She patted Zahn on the head and walked to the bedroom, shutting the door quietly. She changed into a simple cotton shift and got into bed. It was strange. She didn't feel tired exactly; just that she should lie down and be still for a time. So much had happened in the last few weeks, and she had thought so much about her short life.
It seemed that she'd only been in bed a minute or so, but the next thing she knew the door opened and Daros stepped through, followed by a servant carrying a tray with bowls of fruit and goblets of sweet water on it. Daros sat on the bed next to her, and picked up a pomegranate and a knife, slicing it in half and offered one half to her. The servant gave them both cotton napkins and withdrew. Asha scooped the flesh of the pomegranate out and ate it in her hand greedily.
"Did you have a good rest?" Daros asked, chuckling at the mess of red juice and pips around her mouth.
Asha nodded, although she still felt exhausted.
"Once we've finished we'll go to the gardens. The spring flowers are quite beautiful."
"Do you think so?"
"This is what I'm told by my mother," he laughed "Personally, I have little patience for flowers."
Asha picked up a pear and chewed it reflectively. "I wish we could go out into the gardens at night. I wish we could explore the palace like that again. To think that it was only a few months ago that we did that. It all seems so different now."
Daros laughed a little "Yes. We must behave respectably now. No more midnight jaunts. No more exploring the ruins of the ancient palaces. We must behave according to our new roles."
"I wish that we did not have to."
He sighed. "Do you feel any better? Do you feel up to a little evening's walk?"
Asha licked her fingers and then rubbed at her face with the napkin. "Certainly; I should like to enjoy the beautiful spring blooms!"
"You're making fun of me." Daros said solemnly.
"Not at all. I believe you too will come to enjoy them as much as I plan to."
She got dressed, while Daros tickled Zahn behind the ears and finished off his water. Then they left their apartment and walked off through the palace together. Soon they arrived, Asha was slightly disappointed to see, at the Walled Gardens, full of orderly beds and closely clipped trees with peacocks and pheasants making their stately way through the orchards. After about half an hour of looking at the flowers, they stopped by one of the ornamental ponds, where goldfish and carp swam dreamily in the clear water. They sat on a marble bench and listened to the songbirds singing sleepily in the fruit trees.
"Tomorrow you will return to your studies, and I to mine." Daros commented after a little while.
A thought struck Asha "What is it you are being taught?"
"Politics, economics and other such things; when I was young I thought all there was to kingship was a strong sword-arm and a commanding voice. Now I know very differently. I need to learn about our allies, our vassals and our enemies. Now that the Kingdom is at its greatest ever extent, it is very difficult to wage wars. Fortunately we have enjoyed a time of almost unprecedented peace of late. The Khishanan tribes have been pacified, and the nomads of the Empty Desert bought off. I have no illusions of military grandeur, nor any notions of extending our rule across the world."
"But you can fight? With a sword?"
"Of course! And with bow, and spear; on horseback and on foot. My training has been very comprehensive."
"I wish I could fight."
"Why would you need to fight?" he laughed "Better to leave fighting to men."
Asha said nothing.
"You've been a little taciturn all day. What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry. It has been so strange, seeing my mother so ill and my father so frail…But I truly am sorry. I should think no more of these sad events."
He bit his lip. "It is not my place to limit your grieving or tell you how you should feel. It is your own affair."
"I feel…I feel that there is so much that I regret not being able to do anymore. I regret not being at home through the remainder of my childhood. I regret not being able to explore the palace in secret with you in the night…"
"But surely it could be said that your life follows a trajectory that continues to improve. Yes, you were taken from your home and sent into honourable servitude here, but then we met. We explored the palace by night and the qualities I found in you made me choose you as my future queen. And although you find your existence stifling now and your mother dead, soon you will be the queen of the mightiest empire in the world, and have a place in history as the queen of a great king of the Parsi!"
"You are right," Asha said woodenly, though in her heart she was not sure. She pulled her scarf around her shoulders "It's getting colder. Perhaps we should go inside."
"Let's go then." Daros took her hand and took her back inside the Palace.