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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

The Star-Touched Queen

BOOK: The Star-Touched Queen
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This book would not exist without the help of so many. I don’t have the room to thank everyone who made an impact, but I’d like to give my sincerest thanks to the following.

To my parents (May and Hitesh), siblings (Monica and Jayesh) and cousins: Thank you for cross-country trips, Father Cat constructions, Amish excursions, bad Filipino accents, quests for the mythical “jetty,” boundless love and patience, sneaky-raptor attacks and wells of inspiration. I love you.

To Ba and Dadda (Vijya and Ramesh), Lalani (Apollonia), Kaki and Kaka (Alpa and Alpesh), Foi and Foua (Anita and Kamlesh): Thank you for your storytelling and patience, for picture books and piano-playing—you planted these stories in my head before I knew they were there. To Shiv and Pujan, Sohum, Kiran and Alisa: Thank you for your infinite sass, nose-tugs, affectionate interrogation, curiosity, and first reads. To Kavitha Nallathambhi: Thank you for taking on the mantle of talented older sister and inspiring me from a young age to write.

To Victoria Gilrane: Thank you for the phenomenon of our childhood, for 5
breakfasts, crinkled codfish, and eon-long phone calls. Niv Sekar: Thank you for tea and digestive cookies, meandering musings on fairy tales and art that always ended in laughter. Bismah Rahmat: Thank you for the smattering of French, lavish meals of scrambled eggs and chai on the reg., and forays into hip-hop slang.

To Ms. Diana Koscik, Mrs. Sandra Slider, Dr. Jim Morey, Dr. Harry Rusche, and Dr. Bonna Wescoat—I am deeply grateful for your wisdom, guidance, and instruction.

To my agent, Thao Le: Thank you for believing in this story, for countless reads, critiques, and bunny pictures to restore my sanity. To my editor, Eileen Rothschild: From our first phone call, I knew I couldn’t trust this book in anyone else’s hands. To the SMP team: I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with all of you.

To Terra LeMay: I am honored to call you my friend. Your countless reads, sharp insights, and fearless belief in me have shaped both this story and my writing. To Ella Dyson and Nicole Slaunwhite: Thank you for reading through my awful first drafts! Your comments helped me unearth what this story wanted to be. To Kat Howard: Thank you for the invaluable mentoring, amazing critiques, and thoughtful advice on everything from law school to writing.

To the fabulous bloggers who gave me a community and shared their excitement for this book. So many hugs and heartfelt thanks to: Rachel at A Perfection Called Books, Nicola W. at Queen of The BookShelves, Liran at Empress of Books, Kris at My Friends Are Fiction, Mishma at Chasing FaeryTales, Adriyanna Zimmerman at LifeWritings, Pili at InLoveWithHandmade, and Kit Cat at Let The Pages Reign.

And finally, to Aman Sharma Jaan. Thank you for the promise of midnight tea parties, fox ears in a nimbus of rain, improbable snow drifts, and lost cities. With you, magic is no fantasy.







Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret. It felt private, like I had peered through the veil of a hundred worlds. When I looked up, I could imagine—for a moment—what the sky hid from everyone else. I could see where the winds yawned with silver lips and curled themselves to sleep. I could glimpse the moon folding herself into crescents and half-smiles. When I looked up, I could imagine an existence as vast as the sky. Just as infinite. Just as unknown.

But today, there was no time to let my head wander. Duty kept my gaze fixed on the funeral pyre slowly winding its way toward the harem. I choked back a cough. Charred incense filled my lungs, thick and over-sweet with the smell of burning marigolds. Beside the pyre, mourners screeched and wept, tearing their hair and smearing ash across their faces. It was an impressive show, but their bored eyes betrayed them. Hired help, no doubt. Real grief had no place in my father’s court.

An ivory screen separated the harem from the funerary procession, but I caught snatches of him through the lattice. He wore a white
jacket, and around his throat coiled a necklace strung together with the birthstones of his children. There, by the crook of his neck, my birthstones—a handful of muted sapphires—caught the watery morning light. My father’s head was bent to the ear of a pale-faced courtier, his voice low. He wasn’t talking about the dead wife on the pyre. He probably didn’t even know her name. It was Padmavathi. She had a round face and used to sing in the morning, crooning to her swelling stomach with a secret smile. I never once heard her say a cruel thing about anyone. Not even me.

No, my father was discussing war. The shadow of it looms over us constantly, sometimes hidden. Always present. I only know of the war in glimpses, but I see its pall everywhere. I see war in my father’s face, pinching his cheeks sallow. I see war in the courtier’s brows, always bent in grief. I see war in the empty coffers, in the tents where once-spirited soldiers await the crematory grounds.

I leaned closer to catch his words, only to be yanked back.

“Get away from there,” Mother Dhina hissed. “It’s not right for you to stand at the front.”

My jaw tightened, but I stepped back without a word. I couldn’t risk giving the wives more venom. They may have covered their lips with silk, but their words were unsheathed daggers. According to the royal physician, childbirth had killed Padmavathi, but no one believed him. In the eyes of the court, there was only one killer—


*   *   *

In Bharata, no one believed in ghosts because the dead never lingered. Lives were remade instantly, souls unzipped and tipped into the streaked brilliance of a tiger, a
with lacquered eyes or a raja with a lap full of jewels. I couldn’t decide whether I thought reincarnation was a scare tactic or a hopeful message.
Do this, so you won’t come back as a cockroach
Give alms to the poor, and in your next life you’ll be rich.
It made all good deeds seem suspect.

Even then, it was a comfort to know that there were no ghosts in my country. It meant that I was alive. To everyone else, I was a dead girl walking. But I was no ghost. I was no spectral imprint of something that had lived and died and couldn’t leave this place behind. It meant I still had a chance at life.

By the time the funerary procession ended, the sun had barely begun to edge its way across the sky. The mourners had dispersed as soon as the royal announcement ended and only the flames presided over Padmavathi’s burial. When the noonday bell rang throughout the palace, even the smells—smoke and petals, salt and jasmine—had disappeared, scraped up by the wind and carried far into the shadowless realm of the dead.

Before me, the halls of the harem glittered, sharp as a predator’s eyes. Light clung to the curved torsos of statuettes and skimmed the reflections from still pools of water. In the distance, the great double doors of the harem yawned open and the mellow midday heat crept in from the outside. I could never trust the stillness of the harem.

Behind me, the living quarters and personal rooms of the harem wives and my half-sisters had melted into shadow. The caretakers had set the children of the royal nursery to sleep. The tutors had begun droning to the betrothed princesses about the lands and ancestries of their soon-to-be husbands.

I had my own appointment. My “tutor of the week.” Poor things. They never lasted long; whether that was their decision or mine just depended on the person. It wasn’t that I disliked learning. It was simply that they couldn’t teach me what I wanted to know. My real place of study hovered above their heads. Literally.

Outside, the thunder of clashing gongs drifted through the harem walls. Parrots scattered from their naps, launching into the air with a huff and a screech. The familiar shuffle of pointed shoes, golden tassels and nervous voices melted into a low murmur. All of my father’s councilors were making their way to the throne room for his announcement.

Within moments, my father would reveal his solution for dealing with the rebel kingdoms. My heart jostled. Father, while never on time, was nonetheless efficient. He wouldn’t waste time on the frivolities of the court, which meant that I had a limited amount of time to get to the throne room and I still had to deal with the most recent tutor. I prayed he was a simpleton. Better yet—superstitious.

Father once said the real language of diplomacy was in the space between words. He said silence was key to politics.

Silence, I had learned, was also key to spying.

I slipped off anything noisy—gold bracelets, dangling earrings—and stashed them behind a stone carving of a mynah bird. Navigating through the harem was like stepping into a riddle. Niches filled with statues of gods and goddesses with plangent eyes and backs arced in a forgotten reel of a half-dance leaned out into the halls. Light refracted off crystal platters piled with blooms the bright color of new blood, and flickering
cast smoke against the mirrors, leaving the halls a snarl of mist and petals. I touched the sharp corners. I liked the feeling of stone beneath my fingers, of something that pushed back to remind me of my own solidity.

As I rounded the last corner, the harem wives’ sharp laughter leapt into the halls, sending prickles across my arm. The harem wives’ habits never changed. It was the one thing I liked about them. My whole life was crafted around their boredom. I could probably set my heartbeat to the hours they whittled away exchanging gossip.

Before I could run past them, a name rooted me to the spot … my own. At least, I thought I heard it. I couldn’t be sure. No matter how much I wanted to plant one foot in front of the other and leave them behind, I couldn’t.

I held my breath and stepped backward, pressing my ear as close to the curtains as I could.

“It’s a pity,” said a voice sultry from years spent smoking the rose-scented water pipes.

Mother Dhina. She ruled the harem with an iron fist. She may not have given the Raja any sons, but she had one enduring quality: life. She had survived seven pregnancies, two stillbirths and a sweating sickness that claimed eight wives in the past three years. Her word was law.

BOOK: The Star-Touched Queen
3.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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