It was the kind of afternoon that poets dream of, resplendent with sunshine and the smells of jasmine and the sounds of fountains. Sadly, however, there were no poets in attendance to make note of it - only a girl, and her governess, busy with the day’s lessons.
Margaret took an experimental look at the page on the table in front of her and tried not to despair. They had been at this exercise for the better part of an hour and her own patience with the abacus was wearing thin - to say nothing of her student, who, though quite good at it, often turned up her nose at her mathematics exercises. "You must finish your sums before your aunt arrives," she urged, hoping this would put an end to both Roshanara's misery and hers, "or you'll make her angry by keeping her waiting."
"But why should I learn this?" Roshanara asked, "All my aunt wishes to do is marry me off to the next eligible man she can find, and he'll certainly have clerks to do this work. Or turn up his nose at a wife with dirty fingers," she added, inspecting her own hands, a little ink-spattered after the morning's exertions.
Margaret blinked at her young pupil in surprise. Roshanara had a mischievous streak, to be sure, but her words seemed to have a deeper meaning than her usual teasing. She tried to catch Roshanara's eye, but the girl was staring sullenly at her work now, as if glaring at it would make it disappear. "That doesn't sound like you," she began, trying to keep her voice light but unable to fully hide her concern. "You're not often one to back down from a challenge. And if it is truly your future husband that worries you, is there something that has brought this on? Surely your father would be able to choose better for you than a man who prefers an empty-headed wife."
The younger woman's face was fixed on her math problems, as if her stare might somehow hold the world at bay. "It's not Papa that worries me," Roshanara said finally. "It's Auntie."
Ah, yes. The redoubtable Qudsia Begum, Empress of Empresses, Flower of the Palace, Beloved of the Throne, mother to Prince Akbar, wife to Shah Alam - and cousin of Murad Beg, making her, at one stroke, one of the most powerful women in Delhi, and Roshanara's aunt besides. "Did your mother never interfere in your life, Miss Osbourne?" Roshanara asked plaintively. "Did she never...make up your mind for you when you'd already made it up yourself?"
Margaret considered her own mother, a mousy woman of forty who'd never stood up for anything in her life, raised four children on a pittance and turned a blind eye to all of her sons' faults while somewhat ignoring her daughters. "I think I had rather the opposite problem," she admitted, trying to be as light about it as possible.
It was a curious answer, and they both knew it. "What do you mean?" Roshanara asked immediately, unable to hide her curiosity. Her English governess was often so private, so closed-off, especially when it came to her family and her past. Papa said that was how the English were, but Roshanara often wondered if her brother's sudden departure had been such a blow for Miss Osbourne that it made her reluctant to trust others, even Roshanara herself.
The mathematics problems were now utterly forgotten as Margaret looked down at her lap, as if composing herself. "I only mean to say that my mother...did not take nearly as strong an interest in my life, my prospects, as your father and your aunt do. It may seem a burden, Roshanara, but they are merely looking out for your best interests. It is because they care, and that is not something to take lightly."
But Roshanara was not interested in the best interests of anyone at the moment. "If they truly cared, they'd let me make my own choices!" she declared, as if daring Miss Osbourne to contradict her.
Isn’t that what we all say, Margaret thought to herself, remembering a far away day when she had stamped her foot and claimed to know her own mind and boarded a ship to a foreign country without a second thought. And how many of us truly know what we want? This required gentleness. “Very well. If you could choose - if your father and your aunt asked you for your opinion - what would you desire in a husband?”
“Dancing,” Roshanara said with a smile, rising from her seat and spinning in the sunlight, her hands forming the mudras of the classical dances she loved so well.
“Good marriages are not founded on dancing, my dear,” Margaret said with a patient smile, admiring the eternal optimism of youth. “Nor, do I think, will your Aunt take that as an answer if she asked you.”
Roshanara sighed, looking beyond Margaret for a moment as if she could see her future there. "I want a man that is good," she said at last, her voice soft and almost wistful. "One that is kind, one that will look on me not as just someone to...bear his children--" She plucked at the saffron-colored fabric of her sari, the world of motherhood a distant horizon that she had not given serious thought to before now, a prospect of equal parts adventure and fear. "And he should be...well-read, and treat his servants well. And...I want a man who can see me as an equal. Who will love me, no matter what--the way I know Papa loved my mother." She blinked away a tear that had formed, unexpectedly, in the corner of her eye. Another dropped down her cheek before she could stop it. "I do not think that is so much to ask. But Auntie would see me with no choice in the matter, because she thinks that she knows best, always!"
“I think your aunt is concerned with a different realm of considerations,” Margaret offered, still trying to be gentle but mindful of the time. “When your father dies, you will inherit this house, and...the keeping of all its servants, and your father’s land. As the Empress, it is in her best interest, the interest of the empire, to see that a good steward is installed here as your husband. Someone who will rule all this,” she cast her arm around the courtyard, “wisely, and well.”
It might have been better for my mother, if she’d married such a man, and raised such sons , she thought to herself, instead of a spendthrift who lived beyond his means, and encouraged his sons to do the same. “You might mention that, when the topic comes up, and see if that does not win her over. And perhaps then she’ll give some thought to a man who does not mind dancing, and treats his servants well.”
The thought of such dynastic considerations seemed to sour the younger woman for a moment; her expression resembled that of someone who’d been asked to eat an entire lemon. But she did not make any further comment, the wheels of her mind turning in an altogether different direction.
“And you, Miss Osbourne? What would you desire in a husband?”
“What I want matters very little,” Margaret said quickly, the question raising up far too many ghosts for her own comfort. But Roshanara would not be swayed, the topic (and the promise of the mathematics lesson being completely abandoned) too tantalizing to ignore.
"No, you must, Miss Osbourne!" the younger woman protested, a smile sneaking past her lips despite her earlier tears. “I told you. It is only fair." She greatly admired her English governess, but sometimes it seemed that the woman was still so much a stranger to her. There was so much that Roshanara didn't know. Was Miss Osbourne simply, as Papa liked to say, a private person? Was it her English upbringing? Or was it the circumstances of her past that made her so reluctant to open up to Roshanara now?
She sat back in her chair, her proper posture forgotten, idly played with a lock of her hair and studying Miss Osbourne closely. "Or perhaps you would like me to guess?" she teased. "Would that be more fun?"
Miss Osbourne looked pale. “Your aunt -”
But Roshanara would not be swayed, cheered immensely by the prospects offered by the game. “General Castillion is a very agreeable man,” she went on, against her teacher’s objections, watching for a flicker of interest - but none came. “He has a good position, and surely he must be a good leader to gain the respect of his men, and the emperor. And he is handsome, in a way.” She did not really think this - General Castillion was as old as her father and going to gray, but she had not failed to notice that the General usually seemed to show up to her father’s house with some token for her governess that seemed, she thought, to go beyond the bounds of general sociability. “Or maybe Lieutenant Beecham is more agreeable?” she teased. “He is young, and a man of business, and he treats his servants well, and does not mind women of learning, and he is ever so good-looking-”
“That is enough of this,” Miss Osbourne said sharply, rising quickly from her chair, declaring the lesson, and the game, to be at an end. She struggled for a moment to remember her temper, and then said, with a distinct resignation in her voice, quieter now than before, “Perhaps you had better go wash your hands before your aunt arrives.”
It was most unlike Miss Osbourne to get upset, less likely still for her to raise her voice. And all it did was make Roshanara wonder, as she hastened to obey before her aunt’s arrival - was it Lieutenant Beecham she objected to, or the idea that they might, just perhaps, make a rather good match?