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Madhumalli felt the baby move inside her, and looked down at her enormous belly. Her son was awake and kicking. Unbidden, tears welled in her eyes; tears of frustration, of anger against fate. She didn’t want the shadow of her stars to fall on her child, who deserved better. As the first-born son of King Ambujakshan, he deserved far more than she could give him. A tiny sob escaped her, and the handmaiden who was massaging her swollen feet with the oil of the karbolia fruit looked up quickly.
“Are you in pain, my lady?”
“No,” lied Madhumalli, though she was in constant pain these days. No one could know what the real state of her health was, or be given a chance to even guess what she knew was about to happen. She had to stay silent.
“Let me bring you some Madhupak, my lady. It might help you sleep,” said the handmaiden.
Night had settled over Neelmahal Palace, and a warm, sultry breeze blew the gossamer-like curtains in Madhumalli’s chambers. She had not slept for several nights, but it was not the discomfort of pregnancy that kept her awake, and no amount of the potent Madhupak would help. Madhumalli had wrestled with the question of her unborn son for uneasy hours on end, trying to assuage her conscience over the step she was planning to take. What she was going to do was not honourable and she knew that. But she had to consider her son’s future, and those of countless innocent people, which were linked to his. What was written could not be changed, her father had said to her. She had to take the step she was dreading, knowing full well what the consequences would be. She wondered if her father would have approved of her desperate plan, but for her own peace of mind, decided not to go down that road.
Madhumalli rose from her bed with difficulty and drew an ornate chunni over her shoulders. Her brocade ghagara trailed on the floor behind her as she took slow, heavy steps towards the door.
“Go and tell the Queen that I wish to have speech with her,” she said to the guard at her door.
He looked startled at this unprecedented command, but left quickly to do her bidding.
“The Queen, my lady?” said her handmaiden, as surprised as the guard but less discreet. “It is close to midnight, will she …?”
“Will she see me?” said Madhumalli, a bold little smile dancing on her lips. “Will the Queen of Kamalkund condescend to see her husband’s pregnant mistress in the middle of the night? Oh, I think she will.”
Madhumalli’s confidence was not misplaced. When they arrived at the Queen’s chambers, they found Chandrabha sitting upright in a high-backed chair by a window. Madhumalli had never seen the Queen up close, and realised with a pang that she was a very beautiful woman. She signaled to her handmaiden to leave.
Despite Madhumalli’s advanced pregnancy and obvious discomfort, Chandrabha did not ask her to sit. “What is it you wish to say?” she asked formally.
An emerald dove fluttered in through an open window and perched on a cushion on the floor, cooing sweetly at Madhumalli, as if trying to offer her some comfort.
“I have come,” said Madhumalli, looking her lover’s wife straight in the eye, “to offer you a deal.”