THE MOON'S COMPLEXION
What do I want my bride to look like? Ashok closed his eyes and let his imagination run riot. Now let me see. She will be tiny, like a fragile, porcelain doll. She will have skin like golden turmeric. She will wear garlands of jasmine twined in her heavy black hair, which will flow down her back like rich palmyra syrup. Her eyes-large, widely set. Her lips-full and luscious. Wherever she is there will be the scent of sandalwood and roses.
Ashok sighed. He was a Maharaja with the pick of his kingdom to choose from.
He chided himself for such idle thoughts. What does it matter if her teeth stick out a little, and her body is, well, less than perfection, so long as her character suits?
He started to reflect on the personality of his imaginary bride.
She must have a sense of humor and be open-minded. She must be very practical-it wouldn't do to have two dreamers in the family-that would not bode well for the children. She must not talk incessantly. I could not tolerate a chatterbox. Oh yes-and her voice must be smooth, like a slow tune on a tenor sax. I couldn't be doing with a woman who had a voice like... He struggled to find a suitable image and chuckled when he found one. …like a band at an Indian wedding. She should be well read, and it should be possible to discuss matters of the world with her.
Ashok started to doze. He let the papers fall from the hammock. But as he drifted into sleep, it was not an Eastern princess with turmeric skin who filled his dreams. It was the green-eyed girl with tumbling auburn locks, who had sat next to him on the aeroplane; the girl who had asked him for his telephone number.
Alone once more, Hannah locked the door and leant against it with a sigh. She looked at her fingers. Trembling again. She cursed. Simply didn't make sense. Hadn't made sense for the past year.
She took a deep breath. Well, be that as it may. She had to get to the bottom of it. Whatever the game was, it was serious enough for someone to have followed her here. So OK, let him come. She needed to face him. But, she conceded to herself, she had to have backup.
Right-plan of campaign-first get to Bangalore.
She smiled. That uncharacteristic impulsiveness had won again when she had asked Mr. Reddy to get her a ticket to Bangalore. Why hadn't she said Colombo? It would have made much more sense. But Hannah hadn't even decided whether she would bother to get in touch with her half-brother in Sri Lanka. They'd never met. There had been no contact between them. She didn't even know if he'd want to see her. In any case, Sri Lanka was across the sea. She needed someone who knew India, someone who would not draw suspicion. If her unknown enemy knew so much about her, who's to say he hadn't found out about big brother George? So, Bangalore it was.
Checking through her documents, she pulled a scrap of card out of her wallet and felt a flush of satisfaction. Still got what it takes, girl, she told herself. He didn't suspect a thing. Hard work though.
He didn't seem at all keen. It was now or never when the plane touched down in Delhi. But I got there in the end.
The piece of card in her hand had a Bangalore telephone number scribbled on it and underneath it a name.
WHAT HAPPENS TO HANNAH?
DOES ASHOK FIND LOVE IN BANGALORE?
WHAT IS THE MYSTERIOUS CONNECTION BETWEEN THEM?
TO FIND THE ANSWERS BUY THE BOOK...OUT NOW
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DARSHAN a journey
Desire, according to my mother, at least in the context of sex, was a false friend, seriously to be avoided. Desire had brought my parents together and desire had driven them apart. Of course, my mother never said as much, because she never talked about my father. But I had long ago learnt to read between the lines of my mother's hang-ups. The more she railed against desire, the more determined I was to escape the life she and my grandmother had planned for me: a safe life; a calculated life; a life without pain; a passionless life.
Around me in the oak-panelled dining hall, the sounds of conversation and cutlery blurred into a background of white noise, against which the truth invaded me, uninvited and unwelcome. I was lonely.
Two weeks earlier I'd arrived in Oxford bursting with hope and enthusiasm. I was eighteen, poised on the edge of the third millennium. Oxford would be my home for the next three years, and three years is forever, when you are young. I'd come to study history, but that was of minor importance. Freedom called and with it countless pleasures, taboo in the land of the Kama Sutra, but tasted in tantalising paperbacks from Bangalore's overflowing bookshops on Mahatma Gandhi Road. I was hungering for a relationship of my own choosing. And a link with my father's land. As I'd watched the red soil of India fade into a memory, I'd wiped away tears of excitement and anticipation, shrugging off the idea that they might also be tears of parting grief. I'd laughed when I recalled Amma's warning. Remember: India is your home. It has been your home since you were ten. You belong here, not in Europe. You will never be a child of the West. I was convinced that my mother was wrong, as always. The UK was to restore my heritage, to change me back into Sara Davis. When I stepped off the plane at Heathrow I had no doubts. I had returned from exile.
Like a liberated prisoner, at first I'd feasted on the sights, sounds and smells of my newfound independence. No grandmother around to threaten me with marriage. No Auntie Bina to tell me to go to temple. No cousin Sanjeev to tease me about boys. No Uncle Girish to lecture me on the need to work instead of play. No Amma to fill me with her complexes and fears. I could do whatever I wanted. Now, so soon after my optimistic arrival, reality painted a different picture of university life.
I'd escaped all right, but to what, I wondered, as I picked at the julienne carrots and baby potatoes on my plate. Could things get any worse? A formal college luncheon in honour of the new intake, the invitation had stated. Some honour. Wild Alaskan salmon and no vegetarian option.
On my right a boy talked soccer with his other neighbour, his back turned to me. I smiled at the girl on my left.
'Hi, I'm Sara,' I said.
She looked at my plate. 'No fish? Are you a veggie? I'm a veggie too. But fish is okay.'
'Actually, fish isn't a vege … '
'I lived on burgers before I became a veggie. Couldn't touch meat now. Don't suppose the stuff from the kebab van counts, does it?'
'I really don't …'
'I mean, by the time they've finished with it … No idea what it started out as, have you?'
'I'm afraid I …'
'Turkey, probably …' She giggled. If it was meant to be funny, I didn't get it.
The unaccustomed odour of fish, coupled with my futile attempts to break into the girl's monologue, made me feel nauseous. I was gripped by a feeling that I'd got off the bus at the wrong stop and found myself on the dark side of the moon.
As I played with my insipid meal (how I longed for a few chillies), I faced up to my situation. Up until then I'd tried hard to fit in, socialising with fellow students whose lifestyles and attitudes were very different from those ancient values inculcated in me in India. Even the way they spoke was strange to me. Sometimes their language shocked me. Some took drugs and most of them hung out around pubs and bars. The women wore short skirts that stretched my boundaries of decency. The men were still boys, preening themselves like adolescent peacocks.
In India my family connections and my rebelliousness had earned me respect. Here I was a gauche, anonymous little foreigner. I found myself hankering after the safe cell of my maternal home in Malleshwaram, a select suburb of Bangalore.
My thoughts turned to Kamala, my best friend in India. How innocent we had been, like characters in a children's play. I missed her a lot. Yet since my arrival in Oxford I had not contacted her. I had my heart set on a different kind of soul mate. I dreamt of romance, a future seething with passion, in defiance of all that my mother had tried to instil into me.
But where was the shining cavalier, who would sweep me off my feet? Not among this lot, surely? I'd find him one day, I was certain of that. Simply a question of biding my time. Now I promised myself that I'd write to Kamala as soon as I could escape from the dining hall.
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1. THE DEPARTURE
'Vasa's Curse, what's the meaning of this, girl? Come and look. Quickly.'
Maara was sprawled on a straw pallet on the floor of the Mariner cottage she shared with her uncle down by the harbour of Shoogmunimera.
She was admiring the bruise on her left arm, where a Conqueror guard in the palace kitchen had pinched her that day. He'd been furious because she could not perform culinary miracles with the meagre ingredients she'd been given for cooking the palace meals for his leader, Udus the Reformer.
'Huh? What?' She snapped out of her daydreaming and realised her uncle was calling her. He was standing at the cottage window.
'Get up, girl. Over here. Now.'
He was certainly agitated. Maara scrambled to her feet and ran across to the window.
She gasped. 'What are they doing? Where are they going?'
Open-mouthed she stared at the stream of soldiers passing by their door in the fading evening light. Conqueror soldiers, the terrible army founded by the tyrannous father of Udus, Shoog the Awesome, who had invaded from the Land Beyond and taken the city by force a hundred years ago.
Maara scarcely dared to believe what her eyes were telling her.
'It looks as if they're leaving,' she muttered.
'Don't be ridiculous,' her uncle replied.
'But they must be - look.'
They watched in stunned silence.
At first came the cavalry. Even the horses looked old and half starved, ribs protruding through emaciated bodies, eyes sunk deep into their skulls. The skinny horsemen astride them were mere reflections of the arrogant, stocky slave masters that had whipped the people into compliance that very afternoon. Their hairless heads, once cosseted in elegant, plumed fur caps, were exposed to the bitter winter wind and the usual grey-green of their skin had taken on a painful-looking red glow.
After them came the infantrymen, heads bowed and dragging their feet as if every step were a colossal effort. Their crimson uniforms were worn and faded. Golden buttons were tarnished.
Maara's head was filled with confusion. There had been no warning to the people of the city, - no siren, no bells, no proclamation. As evening wiped away the incandescence of another cold, pestilent day it appeared that the Conquerors were simply marching out of their lives.
Hour after hour through the night endless streams of soldiers clattered along the seashore.
'What's going on?' Maara whispered again and again, but her uncle shushed her, an uncharacteristic look of fear in his sea-blue Mariner eyes.
'Why don't we go out and follow them?'
'Are you mad?' He glared up at her. 'Pity your brain couldn't keep pace with your body.'
Maara shrugged. She was used to snide remarks from other Mariner Folk about her height, which was the only way in which her appearance differed from theirs. The girl, who wouldn't stop growing. Her uncle, who knew the truth, was usually protective, but when he was angry he sometimes lashed out too. Maara did not blame him. She knew she could be wilful and demanding. She marvelled that he had not put her out onto the streets long ago. Not every uncle would have given a home to the newborn child of his dead, misguided sister in such dangerous times.
Maara tried again. 'I could run up to the Trumpeters' house. They will know what's going on.'
He did not react. He seemed transfixed by the scene outside.
He gestured angrily to her to keep quiet and not interrupt his vigil. Maara saw her chance. She backed away leaving him standing like a statue at the window. Silently she threw on a cloak and around her neck she knotted a thin scarf- an heirloom from the mother she had never known. Then she slipped silently out of the cottage.
It was still dark, although midnight had passed hours ago. Keeping to the shadows in the moonlight, thrown first by the Mariner cottages, and then, further on, by the tall, half-ruined houses of Timekeepers and Scribes, Maara darted up the hill, flitting past endless rows of stumbling foot soldiers. If they noticed her, they showed no sign. They seemed intent only on keeping their tired bodies moving. Still, she kept a wary eye on them and made sure she stayed out of sight as far as possible.
She stopped outside a Scribe's crumbling brick home, palatial in size compared with Mariner dwellings and much larger than other Scribe houses, but smaller than its neighbour - a Timekeeper's massive abode. She glanced around and listened. No sound emanated from the buildings. Maara sensed the watchers behind the shuttered windows of the Timekeeper's house. The big Scribe house, that she knew so well, exuded only emptiness.
Its door pushed open easily as the lock had disintegrated long ago.
'Hallo,' she called softly. 'It's me, Maara. Where are you?' She ran from room to room of the cavernous house, lit only by moonshine, but found no-one. The Trumpeters were not at home. She ran back outside, into the path of the slow procession of soldiers. Looking at them she felt something akin to pity, not fear. They were a pathetic sight. They were incapable of doing any more harm.
Pulling herself up to her full height, she called to one of the men.
'Where are you going?'
'Home,' the soldier replied weakly. 'Home to the Land Beyond - to Cartethia.'
'What has happened?' she asked.
'It is over. Our time has come.'
Maara walked alongside, keeping pace with the soldier as the army clattered past the last of the tall houses and entered the old-town, where the huddled, stone homes of Anvil People crowded together on either side of the cobbled main street. On and on they stumbled, traversing the whole of the old-town, until eventually they reached the far side of the city, pouring out of the Northern Gate without a single backward glance. From a vantage point on the old-town wall Maara watched for hours in the night as the parade filed out, row upon row. She thought they would never end. But just as the first daylight smudged a pastel glow across the sky, the last stragglers disappeared into the mountains that separated the city from the Land Beyond.
Not a soul was to be seen on the sea front, or on the street that wound past Maara's home when she returned to it. She let herself in. On the straw pallet that served as their seat during the day and her uncle's bed at night, he had fallen asleep after his long vigil.
She peered out of the frosted window. The sea was restless beneath the pale winter sun. Ugly grey waves splashed uneasily against long-abandoned fishing boats drawn up on the sand. The silence, apart from the occasional soft snore from her uncle, was eerie. So different from the dreaded daily morning sound that had punctuated the fourteen years of Maara's life until today.
For the past half-century the hideous wail of sirens had ordered the citizens out of their beds and onto the streets each morning. Some would head for the factories and furnaces to manufacture weapons for the enemy. Others made their way into the surrounding countryside. Here they were harnessed to the plough for eighteen hours each day to till the soil and grow crops for the occupying troops, whilst their own people starved.
Maara struggled to understand what had happened. Was her torment really over? From the age of three she had been a palace kitchen-girl. The other Mariner children of her age were forced to clean farm and foundry machinery inaccessible to larger folk. But Maara was too tall. Instead she worked alongside captured child-slaves, taken from their homes when their parents had fallen foul of the Conquerors. The slaves were marched to the palace daily from their prisons in the Child Improvement Centres. Maara counted herself lucky. Her uncle had managed not to offend the Conquerors, so she had been allowed to live at home.
Lately she had been beaten frequently for failing to create sumptuous meals from the dwindling supplies. Meals that she was forbidden, on pain of death, from tasting. But today no siren ordered her to leave her uncle's house and hurry up the hill and through the old-town to the palace.
'Did I dream it?' Maara turned from the window as she addressed her uncle. But he slept on, unaware that she had returned. Unaware, probably, that she had even been away.
Then she decided to do what she always did, when she felt alone and confused.
She slipped back out of the cottage and made her way to the quay. There she wandered along the deserted jetties to a small sailboat hidden amongst the Mariners' fishing boats, away from the eyes of the Conquerors. Her uncle had made it for her when times were less harsh and there was wood to spare.
Maara clambered on board, the little craft swaying in the water, unsettling her uncle's neighbouring fishing boat. She eased herself on the wooden seat, tucking under her the folds of her coarse, brown goat-hair tunic - the garb issued by the Conquerors to the slave-citizens of Shoogmunimara, and the only type of clothing that most of them now owned.
Bending down, she tugged at the floor plank in front of her. After a few moments' struggle, it yielded, and she pulled it up, resting it against the seat edge.
She reached her hand down into the bowels of the boat, and pulled out a wad of rough, yellowing, curling papers. Blowing the dust off them, she settled back in her seat. It was a ritual she had followed many times. She ran her fingers lovingly over the top sheet, recalling the painstaking way the paper had been made, seven years ago when she was a still little girl: how she had secretly helped the Trumpeters mash old scraps of worn out clothing in great tubs of water, until the fibres floated free. Then they had sieved and beaten and flattened and dried them until at length a wonderful square of heavy paper resulted. Maara had never tired of the process.
She remembered how the Scribe, Arolan, had sat for hour after hour at the great stone table in the Trumpeters' house, writing with a quill-feather pen in his marvellous, swirly Scribe script. And finally and best of all, when each page was completed, Maara remembered with pride how it had been handed to her, and, hiding it beneath her cloak, she had hurried down to the harbour and added it to the cache already hidden in her boat.
'Remember, Maara, Scribe history is in your hands,' Arolan had told her. 'The Conquerors will not suspect you.'
'What will they do if they find out?' she had asked, a sense of adventure banishing any fear.
'They must never find out, my child. You are very special, Maara. A child with three blessings. That is why we have entrusted this great work to your care, although you are so young.'
Arolan's words made no sense to Maara, but she liked the idea of being special, and of having three blessings, whatever they might be.
'May I read the story, Arolan?'
'Yes, Maara. You alone, among all the Mariners, know the secret of reading. Use it well, and learn the story of how the Scribes came to Shoogmunimera, which was called Ambamar before the time of the Conquerors. One day it may save your life, and that of others.'
Now, after an incomprehensible night watching the Conquerors leave her land, Maara tucked her feet under the seat of the skiff and began, as she had done many times, to read the fantastic tale inscribed on the yellowed pages.
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