...Out in the courtyard, the same full moon that had hung above Paru’s hut is now higher in the sky.

    Clutching the jewel in one hand, Jahangir half-walks, half-runs

along the deserted walkways. His lightly-coloured clothes stand

out in the moonlight. He is headed towards the Fort’s gates. He

stops short as he comes face-to-face with the sentries at the gates.

He turns and runs back before the sentries see him. He runs

across the Fort, unable to stop. It helps his thoughts, which are

flying at breakneck speed.

    He is in a courtyard that adjoins the top of the Fort walls. The

moon hangs over the river in the distance, making it gleam. Nur

stands on the wall, looking out. She seems to be waiting for

someone or something.

    Jahangir stops abruptly. She seems to calm him. He takes a

measured step forward.

    Nur continues to look out, apparently uninterested in the

source of the footsteps that have now stopped. Jahangir and Nur

stand against the sky, the moon and the river behind them.

Finally, Nur turns her head. She sees Jahangir and bows deeply.

    “Who are you?” Jahangir says.

    “I am Hamida Begum’s attendant,” Nur replies. Her voice is

unhurried, contemplative.

    “I am Prince Salim,” he says, also calmly.

    Nur nods slightly. They gaze at each other.

    “It is very late, Hamida Begum’s Servant. What brings you out

here?”

    “Forgive me, Your Highness. It is a full moon night. The

animals are restless in their stables... and the lunatics.”

    “Yes...” Jahangir says. “The lunatics are especially dangerous.”

He thinks for a second. “The animals will calm down when the

sun starts to rise. But the lunatics can start chains of events that

refuse to stop.”

    “I was afraid of that, my Lord. When I came out here.”

    “I am afraid too,” Jahangir says. “It makes me shiver. I can

barely keep my breath straight.”

    Her gaze is soft, empathising. “I would wish to share your

burden, Your Highness. But it seems every soul is alone with its

destiny.”

    A thrill runs through Jahangir. It is as if she can divine every

part of him. They look at each other unable to stop. He has the

same pleading, apologetic look as at the Choosing, as of one in

too much trouble to explain.

    “I have often seen you leave the Fort with a sketch-pad and

charcoals, Hamida Begum’s Servant,” Jahangir says at last. “What

do you do when you go out like that?” 

    “I take pleasure in the shape and the form of the houses,” she

says eagerly. “I draw the houses. I especially like the bazaar. The way it flows and causes new houses to be built. Sometimes I draw

the people. And the animals.”

    “You draw animals?”

    “Sometimes.”

    “The guards at the gate must know you very well,” Jahangir

says.

    “Yes, they do... but I have permission. From Hamida Begum.

And... from the Prime Minister...” She gestures, embarrassed. “He

is my father...”

    “Alas,” Jahangir says. “I do not have the same permissions that

you do, Hamida Begum’s Servant. Though I would like very

Jahangir and Nur

much to do what you do... visit the city and draw houses... but

unfortunately my movements would cause a stir. I... I wonder if I

could borrow your clothes?”

    “My clothes?” she says surprised.

    “A spare set of your clothes. Yes. If you should have them,

somewhere.”

    Nur regards him seriously. “That should not be a problem.”

    “And... and a sketch-pad, if you would. With charcoals.”

    She walks in front along the walkways. He follows in silence.

    They reach the edge of the dense living quarters of the harem.

    “These are the... harem quarters,” she says. “If Your Highness

would wait.”

    “Of course.” Jahangir waits. Nur returns with a folded black

burkha, a sketch-pad, and charcoals.

    Jahangir awkwardly unfolds the burkha.

    Nur watches him struggling with it. “If Your Highness should

need a horse to ride up to the houses — in order to draw them —

you can hire one not three hundred yards from the gate.”

    “Ah yes, I forgot! A horse would be very useful,” Jahangir says

gratefully.

    “The man’s name is Sandhu,” Nur says. “Your Highness can

wake him up.”

    Jahangir fumbles with the burkha, dropping the sketch-pad.

    “If I may take your leave, Your Highness,” she says.

    “Yes, yes!” Jahangir says, wearing the burkha.

    Nur bows, and slips into the darkness.

    Some time later, a figure carrying a sketch-pad, looking like

Nur in her burkha, arrives at the gates. The guard barely looks

up. The figure emerges into the street, through the side-door next

to the gates. The burkha-covered figure makes its way to

Sandhu’s stable. It jumps onto a horse and takes off at a gallop. The horse’s hooves clatter on the empty streets.

    In Paru’s hut, the moonlight comes in through the partially ajar

door. The dead girl is still lying there, her eyes peering questioningly into the darkness. Paru’s corner of the hut has been completely emptied. Paru, Maharaj, the Snake Charmer are all gone. The shelf Paru had crammed her clothes into has been emptied. The scroll is gone.

    The door creaks open. Sword first, the figure in the black

burkha enters the hut.

Read an Excerpt

 

    - Jahangir

      and Nur

 

    - Paru