Read The Mountain of Light Online

Authors: Indu Sundaresan

The Mountain of Light (5 page)

The light from the lantern dimmed, the glass encrusted with a swarm of moths that lit upon it and dashed away. The cicadas, which had begun their sharp chirping when the sun set, had increased their sounds. It was to this lullaby that Wafa slept, if she slept at all. She put down the letter and flicked a finger against the lantern, dislodging the moths for a few, brief seconds.

For all the loveliness, quiet, and repose in the Shalimar, this was merely a luxurious prison. Guards were stationed outside its perimeter. Nothing was allowed in without being inspected. Every servant was in the employ of the Maharajah.

The night air cooled suddenly, and Wafa, born and brought up among the snow-clad mountains of Afghanistan, shivered in this little bit of chill. She lay back on the pathway and looked up at the skies. Ranjit Singh had been very patient with them for five years—two when she had been here in Lahore, and these past three more since Shuja had been rescued from Kashmir and brought to her. Wafa spread her fingers out over the stone. The Maharajah could have killed them at any time and no one would have said nay. It was . . . almost his right, as their jailer, to do so. She had no illusions about Ranjit's generosity—the Kohinoor stayed his hand. If they died without telling him where it was, chances were that he would never find it, or that some minion would, and he would never possess it. So they kept their lives, because their hearts were tethered by a thin line of light to the diamond. A tiny fragment of light.

In the meantime, when the Maharajah was out of sorts, edgy, stopped their supplies of food or water, or sent them testy messages, Wafa had persuaded Shah Shuja to give up their other treasures. And so, they had sent him smaller
gemstones—diamonds, rubies, topazes; a gold- and jewel-encrusted
hukkah;
and finally, the entire state pavilion, a tent of the finest wool, embroidery in gold and silver thread on every inch of the fabric, a silver chair upon which Shuja had held court.

Wafa Begam rose from the pathway and walked up and down, leaving wet footprints on the sandstone that seemed to dry almost as soon as she made them. She glanced at her husband, and then at Ibrahim. As much as Ranjit Singh kept them alive for the sake of the Kohinoor, once he had it, their lives would be worth less than nothing.
Something
had to be done. What? Who would help them now? Whom could they turn to?

Her head jerked up when a thin whistle fractured the cacophony of the cicadas. The tune was familiar, one she had heard many years ago. A horse snorted outside the garden's walls. Wafa ran to the sound. The thick brick walls rose above her, faced with two rows of blind arches, rosebud merlons on the top. It was hard to see anything. And then, she heard a whoosh through the air, and a rock came tumbling over the edge of the wall, fell onto the grass with a small thud.

Wafa waited, her heart pounding in her chest. What was this? An attack? She nudged the rock with her foot. A brown paper was tied around it with a string. She ran back to the lamp with the rock, undid the knot, and spread out the paper on the pathway. The letter that had thus crudely come into the garden was in a rough Persian.

When she looked up again, her eyes were shining and all worry had fled. Wafa went to Shuja's bed and woke him with a kiss upon his forehead.

“Is it morning yet?” he asked.

“It might well be for us, my lord,” she said, holding out the letter to him.

•  •  •

Fakir Azizuddin pounded across the dry dirt of the
maidan
and came to a halt a few feet away from his king. The fort's walls loomed behind them, and golden light spilled out in a shifting pattern from the Shah Burj, from where Azizuddin had been commanded down.

Ranjit Singh's horse, Leili, snickered and bent her lovely head to nuzzle against Azizuddin's shoulder. He felt the touch of her wet, warm muzzle on his neck and patted Leili absently. She sniffed and drew back, shaking her head this way and that as the Maharajah let go of his reins and said with a laugh, “You haven't paid her enough attention, Azizuddin. She's upset with you. I suppose you have nothing to give her in that getup of yours?” When the minister shook his head, Ranjit slid his hand into the pouch hanging from his cummerbund and threw chunks of brown sugar—
jaggery
—to him.

Azizuddin caught each piece deftly, his fingers nipping at the air, and held out an open palm to the horse. Leili's rough tongue scraped the
jaggery
off his skin, and then she touched his head with hers.

The Maharajah of the Punjab rubbed Leili's arched neck with his thick hands, gentle as though he held a child. He bent to whisper in her ear, to pat her flanks, and Azizuddin felt a flood of adoration choke his chest. It was like this no matter how many times he was in his sovereign's presence, and as Ranjit Singh's foreign minister, one of the few men he trusted implicitly, Azizuddin met with and saw him almost every day. Unless he was away from Lahore on the Maharajah's business.

Azizuddin had known Ranjit since 1799, the year the nineteen-year-old boy had conquered Lahore. Azizuddin's father had been a scholar in the city—their family had long ties to its history, and had served every ruler. For the first few days of his rule, Ranjit had kept the father by his side, and one day had been asked for and granted permission to bring the sons to the king. Azizuddin could still remember
that first meeting, clear as though it had been carved into his brain.

Ranjit Singh had not been—and still wasn't—a handsome man. Almost unprepossessing in fact. Short of stature, compact with thick-muscled legs and shoulders, a solid head crowned by a turban, his clothing so nondescript that he could have been a man on the street. No jewelry, no embroidery. Just a chunky dagger slipped into his cummerbund, its hilt caked with diamonds.

This
was their new king, Azizuddin had thought with wonder. This child—no, that he had amended in his head, because both Aziz and Ranjit were nineteen years old—this youth with a scraggly beard had managed to subjugate the greatest city on earth? His father, sage and old, had spoken eloquently at home of their sovereign, of his intelligence, of his very presence. Azizuddin had looked down at the floor, shifted uncomfortably on his feet, felt a frisson of unease that his father had been so taken in by this . . . impostor. And then Ranjit Singh had laughed, at something another courtier said. And the sound, pure and hearty, had wrapped itself around Azizuddin's heart. Even that laugh had the confidence and the power of a king.

They had talked then. Ranjit had asked Azizuddin what he had studied; he had listened to the answers and, with a charming, self-deprecating shrug, had declared that he himself was illiterate, and so in awe of anyone with a little learning. Would Azizuddin teach him? Yes, your Majesty, anytime. Come every day then. The questions had come pounding out of the Maharajah with a force and alacrity that had surprised even the young Azizuddin. There was nothing Ranjit Singh was not curious about. The sun, the moon, the stars, the country of America, the British in Europe, the philosophies in Sanskrit, in Persian, in Arabic, in Pashto. What and why and how and when—everything began here and ended here. Azizuddin read out loud to Ranjit every night, and every morning, and while
he struggled himself to remember the masses of information, it seemed to have soaked into his master's skin.

Devotion had come to rest in Fakir Azizuddin then, along with a fierce loyalty to this man who was, truly, meant to be king.

“What news?” Ranjit Singh asked now. His whisperings had brought peace to Leili, and she stood quiet, picking her feet off the ground in a gentle, rhythmic trot. On his horse, any horse, the Maharajah loomed larger than his normal self. It was as though he was one with the animal. He could persuade Leili to do almost anything; why, he had fought a war with an Afghani governor to win her, more than he had done for any of his wives. Leili was an Arabian of the purest stock, midnight black, with a white star upon her right flank and a blending of white on her high tail. When she had been brought into the Maharajah's stables, she had been finicky, demanding, snipping at her keepers with her strong, white teeth. Only Ranjit Singh had calmed her; one touch from him, one word, and her ears had quivered, her amber eyes had swung toward him, and from that day onward she would not allow anyone else to ride her.

“They wrestled, your Majesty,” Azizuddin said with a smile, thinking that he was himself much like the horse. They both had the same affection for this man.

Ranjit sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Again? And where is the Kohinoor?”

Azizuddin bit his lip. “I don't know, your Majesty. I've tried to find out. Two months”—he spread out his hands—“and I still don't know. I think the wife has it hidden somewhere. Perhaps Shah Shuja himself is unaware of where.”

The Maharajah ran his fingers through his beard, which was disheveled and to his waist, picked out now with strands of white hair. He was dressed as humbly as the first time Azizuddin had met him, in a long saffron-hued tunic, white pajamas,
his turban white, the same dagger in his cummerbund. There was a single ring of silver upon the middle finger of his right hand with an enormous pearl set in it, and no other jewelry. At one point, a few years ago, he had said to Aziz that he would wear the Kohinoor when he got it. When, not if, Azizuddin had noted, because, as in all else, Ranjit Singh had no doubts that the diamond belonged to him. After all these years of waiting, it was rightfully his.

So, hesitantly, Azizuddin said, “Your Majesty, you have been generous, almost too generous with Shah Shuja. Why not just . . . um . . . end his life? And take the Kohinoor? It has to be somewhere in the Shalimar Gardens; we would find it, upturn every slab of stone in the gardens if need be.”

Leili stepped sideways, carrying her rider out of pale light that flowed from the apartments above, and Azizuddin could no longer see his king. His voice, though, came in a slow and thoughtful rumble. “Aziz, there's no use in taking life needlessly. I've never done so before; I don't intend to do so now.”

No, Aziz thought, he never had. In all the wars, the conquests, the battles, the life of every loser had been spared. Other kings in similar situations would not have been—and had not been—this kind. And, after all, Shah Shuja and his family had come to the Punjab in search of refuge, and though they had been granted it, they hadn't fulfilled the exact terms of their promise. The trophies they had sent were now stuffed into the Maharajah's overflowing Toshakhana, the treasury house. So why this hankering for the Kohinoor? He asked Ranjit Singh.

“Because it belongs here, Aziz. With me, in India. The Kohinoor
is
India—take it away from the country and the light departs along with it. You know that it was mined here, that even Hindu mythology puts it in the hands of the mortals as a gift from the gods?”

Azizuddin nodded. “But,” he said, a twinkle in his eye.

Ranjit Singh laughed into the dark night, that same rich sound that had thrilled the young Aziz. “But, I want it. I want to own it. I want to be the man who had the Kohinoor in his possession. I want to be the one who breaks the curse upon it—that only a woman could own it and keep her life. Hmmm”—now he turned reflective—“maybe that is why Wafa Begam has been able to keep it from me for so long. What is she like?”

The question took Azizuddin by surprise. “Why,” he said, and then stumbled over his words, “she has beauty, a strong voice—I've heard it more than once; her husband relies upon her. She halted the wrestling match today. They might have killed each other by the end of it, if she hadn't stopped it. She's a woman, your Majesty. What other terms could I possibly describe her by?”

“Shabbily done, Azizuddin. I wish I could see her myself.”

“Would you want to, your Majesty?”

“No . . . perhaps. For the last five years she has sent me sweet letters with honeyed words, knowing full well that I want the Kohinoor, and yet she's managed to keep it away from me. She has the saccharine tongue of a diplomat, Azizuddin. You'd do well to learn from this.”

Azizuddin nodded somberly. If it hadn't been for his disguise as the old gardener, he himself would never have seen Shuja's wife. For someone who had been brought up cloistered, who spent her whole life within the harem's walls, she had a knife-edge brain.

His attention was distracted when a torch flared to life on the outer edge of the
maidan
. The sudden flame stabbed the dark night sky before it settled into a more steady blaze. The man holding it walked toward them and then bent to the ground and set his torch upon a wooden peg, which caught fire. He kept on, heading in their direction, until a line of
gold, from pegs hammered into the ground, created a blazing stroke upon the dry earth.

“What is—”

“You'll see,” the Maharajah said. “Now!” he shouted.

At his voice, a man emerged from the darkness, astride a horse, riding hard toward the pegs. He had a spear in his outflung right hand, holding it well away from his body. As his horse charged, kicking up a blur of dust, he bent from his waist, his head level with the horse's head, and aimed the shining tip of his spear at the first peg. The tip went through the peg, and he lifted it into the air as he rode away and disappeared beyond the perimeter of light. Before a bemused Azizuddin could see a soldier on the side pull the flaming peg off the spear, the sound of horses' hooves thundered over the
maidan
and another man came into view.

In all, there were three men, and one by one, they sliced the pegs cleanly from the mud, not lessening the speed of their gallop, and riding away to divest their spears of the pegs before returning again. At the end of the demonstration, as each speared peg was extinguished, darkness pounced back over them. There was only the reek of spent fire, a bluish gray haze of smoke, and the tired canter of horses being led away.

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