TO BE A MONSTERGAURI
Death stood on the other side of the chamber doors. Today I would meet it not in my usual armor of leather and chain mail, but in the armor of silk and cosmetics. One might think one armor was stronger than the other, but a red lip was its own scimitar and a kohl-darkened eye could aim true as a steel-tipped arrow.
Death might be waiting, but I was going to be a queen. I would have my throne if I had to carve a path of blood and bone to get it back.
Death could wait.
The bath was scalding, but after six months in a dungeon, it felt luxurious. Gauzy columns of fragrance spun slowly through the bath chambers, filling my lungs with an attar of roses. For a moment, thoughts of home choked me. Home, with the pockets of wildflowers and sandstone temples cut into the hills, with the people whose names I had come to murmur in my prayers before sleep. Home, where Nalini would have been waiting with a wry and inappropriate joke, her heart full of trust that I hadn’t deserved. But that home was gone. Skanda, my brother, would have made sure by now that no hearth in Bharata would welcome me.
The Ujijain attendant who was supposed to prepare me for my first—and probably last—meeting with the Prince of Ujijain didn’t speak. Then again, what do you say to those who are about to be sentenced to death? I knew what was coming. I’d gathered that much from the guards outside my dungeon. I wanted intelligence, so I faked whimpering nightmares. I’d practiced a limp. I’d let them think that my reputation was nothing more than rumor. I’d even let one of them touch my hair and tell me that perhaps he could be convinced to get me better food. I’m still proud that I sobbed instead of ripping out his throat with my teeth. It was worth it. People have a tendency to want to comfort small, broken-looking things. They told me they’d keep my death quick if I’d only smile for them one more time. I hated being told to smile. But now I knew the rotation of the guards’ schedule. I knew which ones nursed battle wounds and how they entered the palace. I knew that no sentinels guarded the eastern gate. I knew which soldiers grinned despite their bad knee. I knew how to escape.
My hair hung in wet ropes against my back as I slid into the silken robes. No coarse linens for the Princess of Bharata. Royalty has the strangest advantages. Silently, the attendant led me to an adjoining chamber where the silver walls formed gigantic polished mirrors.
Slender glass alembics filled with fragrant oils, tiny cruets of kohl and silk purses of pearl and carmine powder crowded a low table. Brushes of reeds and hewn ivory shaped like writing implements caught the light. Homesickness slashed through me. I had to clasp my hands together to stop from reaching out over the familiar cosmetics. The harem mothers had taught me how to use these. Under my mothers’ tutelage, I learned that beauty could be conjured. And under my and Nalini’s instruction, my mothers learned that death could hide in beauty.
In Bharata, Nalini had commissioned slim daggers that could be folded into jeweled hairpins. Together, we’d taught the mothers how to defend themselves. Before Nalini, I used to steal shears and sneak into the forge so the blacksmith could teach me about the balance of a sword. My father allowed me to learn alongside the soldiers, telling me that if I was bent on maiming something, then it might as well be the enemies of Bharata. When he died, Bharata’s training grounds became a refuge from Skanda. There, I was safe from him. And not just safe, but not hurting anyone. Being a soldier was the only way that I could keep safe the people I loved.
It was my way of making amends for what Skanda made me do.
The attendant yanked my chin. She took a tool—the wrong one, I noticed—and scraped the red pigment onto my lips.
“Allow me—” I started, but she shut me up.
“If you speak, I will make sure that my hand slips when I use that sharp tool around your eyes.”
Princess or not, I was still the enemy. I respected her fury. Her loyalty. But if she messed up my cosmetics, that was a different story. I closed my eyes, trying not to flinch under the attendant’s ministrations. I tried to picture myself anywhere but here, and memory mercifully plucked me from my own thoughts and took me back to when I was ten years old, sobbing because my sister, Maya, had left Bharata.
Mother Dhina had dried my tears, scooped me onto her lap and let me watch as she applied her cosmetics for the day.
This is how we protect ourselves, beti. Whatever insults or hurts are thrown at our face, these are our barriers. No matter how broken we feel, it is only the paint that aches.
We can always wash it away.
A soft brush swept across my cheek, scattering a fine dust of pulverized pearls across my skin. I knew, from the harem mothers, that the powder could make skin look as incandescent as a thousand mornings. I also knew that if the powder got in your eyes, the grit would make you weep and temporarily rob you of sight.
The scent of the powder fell over me like a worn and familiar cloak. I inhaled deeply, and I was sixteen again, preparing for the palace’s monsoon celebration. Arjun said I looked like a lantern and I’d stuck my tongue out at him. Nalini was there too, defiantly wearing the garb of her own people: a red patterned sash around a silk-spun salwar kameez sewn with thousands of moon-shaped mirrors.
A year later, when Arjun became the general, I told him I meant to take the throne from Skanda. I had protected my people as much as I could from his reign. But I couldn’t stand by the edges. Not anymore. Without questioning, Arjun pledged his life and his soldiers to my cause. Six months after that, I made my move to take the throne from my brother. My brother was cunning, but he would protect his life before his reign. I thought that with Arjun and his forces supporting my bid for the throne, I could ensure a bloodless transfer of power.
I was wrong.
The night I tried to take the throne, I wore my best armor: blood red lips for the blood I wouldn’t shed and night-dark kohl for the secrecy I had gathered. I remembered the fear, how I had cursed under my breath, waiting with a handful of my best soldiers beneath a damp stone archway. I remembered the pale bloom of mushrooms tucked into the creases of stone, white as pearls and corpse skin. They were the only things I could see in the dark. I remembered emerging into the throne room. I had practiced my speech so many times that when I realized what had happened, I could summon no other words. But I remembered the bodies on the ground, the lightning breaking the night sky like an egg. I remembered Arjun’s face beside my brother: calm. He had known.
“Done,” said the attendant, holding a mirror to my face.
My eyes fluttered open. I grimaced at my reflection. The red pigment had crossed the boundaries of my lips, making them look thick and bloodstained. The kohl had been unevenly smudged. I looked bruised.
“It suits you, Princess,” said the attendant in a mockingly pandering voice. “Now smile and show me the famous dimpled smile of the Jewel of Bharata.”
Few knew that my “famous dimpled smile” was a scar. When I was nine, I had cut myself with a blunt pair of shears after pretending that the wooden sculpture of a raksha was real and that he meant to eat me. Fate smiles upon you, child. Even your scars are lovely, said Mother Dhina. As I got older, the scar reminded me of what people would choose to see if you let them. So I smiled at the attendant, and hoped that she saw a dimpled grin, and not the scar from a girl who started training with very sharp things from a very young age.
The attendant’s eyes traveled from my face to the sapphire necklace at the hollow of my throat. Instinctively, I clutched it.
She held out her palm. “The Prince will not like that you are wearing something he has not personally bestowed.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
It was the only thing I had from my sister, Maya. I would not part with it.
My sister’s necklace was more than a jewel. The day Maya returned to Bharata, I hadn’t recognized her. My sister had changed. As if she had torn off the filmy reality of one world and glimpsed something greater beneath it. And then she had disappeared, darting between the space of a moonbeam and a shadow. The necklace was a reminder to live for myself the way Maya had. But it was also a reminder of loss. Vast and unwieldy magic had stolen away my sister, and every time I looked at the pendant, I remembered not to place faith in things I couldn’t control. The necklace told me to place my faith in myself. Nothing and no one else. I didn’t just want to believe in everything the necklace meant. I needed those reminders. And I would die before I parted with it.
“I rather like the look of it myself. Maybe I’ll keep it,” said the attendant. “Give it. Now.”
The attendant grabbed at the necklace. Even though her arms were thin, her fingers were strong. She pinched my skin, scrabbling at the clasp.
“Give. It. To. Me,” she hissed. She aimed a bony elbow at my neck, but I blocked the jab.
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You can’t hurt me. The guards told me how weak you truly are. Besides, you are no one here,” said the attendant. Her eyes were bright, as if touched with fever. “Give me the necklace. What does it matter to you? After all you took? Isn’t that the least I can take away from you, one damned necklace?”
Her words stung. I took no pleasure in killing. But I had never hesitated to choose my life over another’s.
“My apologies,” I said hoarsely, knocking her hand away from my neck. I had been gentle before, careful not to harm the skinny and heartbroken thing standing in front of me. This time she lurched back, shock and fury lighting up her face.
Maybe the girl had lost her lover, or her betrothed, or her father or brother. I couldn’t let myself care. I’d learned that lesson young. Once, I had freed the birds in the harem menagerie. When Skanda found out, he covered my floor with ripped wings and told me the cage was the safest place for foolish birds. Another time, Skanda had punished Mother Dhina and forbade the palace cooks from sending her any dinner. I gave her half of mine. He starved me for a week. Those were just the instances where I was the only person hurt. My brother had taught me many things, but nothing more important than one: Selfishness meant survival.
Caring had cost my future. Caring had trapped me under Skanda’s thumb and forced my hand. Caring had robbed my throne and damned all I had held dear. That was all that mattered.
The attendant lunged forward, and I reacted. Hooking my foot behind her calf, I tugged. I swung out with my right fist—harder than I should have, harder than I needed to—until my hand connected with her face. She fell back with a hurt yelp, knocking over a slim golden table. A cloud of perfume burst in the air. In that moment, the world tasted like sugar and roses and blood. I stepped back, my chest heaving. I waited for her to stand and fight, but she didn’t. She sat there with her legs crossed beneath her, arms wrapped around her thin rib cage. She was sobbing.
“You took my brother. He was not yours to take. He was mine,” said the girl. Her voice sounded muddled. Young. Tears streaked her cheeks.
“You’re a monster,” she said.
I secured the necklace.
“We all have to be something.”
Copyright © 2017 by Roshani Chokshi