Part I: Family
Their arms were linked as they approached the palanquin, but one of them would have to be the first to go up, and Sita knew it would be Urmila. It was only fair: she was younger, the soles of her feet probably lightly singed from walking across Dhadhi’s sun-drenched marble floors. Urmila had ignored her advice to spread a fine layer of dirt evenly across them, so fine it didn’t leave any traces. Urmila never used to ignore Sita’s advice, but since her fifteenth birthday celebrations last week, she’d taken more care over the shine of her hair, the paleness of her palms and soles, the glossiness of her ever-smiling lips. Now she was fussing with the pleats in her sari as the attendents lifted her up, pulling the silk tightly around her softening hips. Sita frowned.
“It was good to see you both, if only for a quick game,” Dhadhi said, still crisp and cool in her white widow’s garb while her granddaughter wilted inside the raised box that would soon take her back across the palace grounds to dinner with King Janak and Queen Sunaina. She took Sita’s hand and squeezed it lightly. “There will be such little time for games after your Choosing Ceremony.” She took her hand back to let an attendant begin the hoisting process. “Choose wisely, my little Furrow.”
Sita let herself be raised into the box, seating herself across from Urmila, who was re-doing her long, thick braid. When Sita sighed, she looked up. “We should visit Dhadhi more often,” she said mildly.
Sita remembered a time – five years ago, five weeks ago – when Urmila could almost read her mind; they hadn’t needed any tricks to win at cards, because they could read each other’s faces like mirrors. But Urmila couldn’t have misread her more wrongly now. Her hesitation must have shown in her face, because Urmila’s tone was more pressing when she continued, “She is our only remaining grandmother.”
“Your only remaining grandmother,” Sita grumbled.
Urmila’s practice in womanly decorum was clearly paying off, because she kept her arms at her sides, uncrossed. “Are you still hung up on that?”
Sita had known her entire life that she wasn’t truly one of the family – the King never stopped delighting in the story of how, before he’d had any children, he’d come across a baby lying in a field. “A more auspicious furrow I’d never seen!” was his refrain, and Sita knew he adored her. Though her relationship with Queen Sunaina was quieter – largely in part because the queen was quieter – she’d been as close to the daughter the queen gave birth to two years later as her cousins, sisters Mandavi and Shrutakirti, were to each other. If she’d always felt slightly apart, she’d also felt lucky: she’s never had Urmila’s worries about her looks, or Mandavi’s frustrations with her lessons, or Shrutakirti’s tendency to sleepwalk: all things the king laughed off as the family curses. It had only been when that stupid sage had come by three weeks ago with his offer that she’d understood what being found in a furrow really meant. Things weren’t always easy for the earth’s daughters, he’d told her, Urmila, and her parents over a dinner of lotus root curry, jasmine rice, and bitter melon. If she chose, Sita could disappear with him to a safe haven for the next fifteen years.
King Janak had been upset, incredulous. “She’s not disappearing – absolutely not! Why should she?”
The queen had put her hand on his forearm to quiet him; angering a sage could only result in bad luck. “She’s very clever, Janak,” she said, her voice quiet but steady. “Fifteen years of safety and relative solitude: think of how much she could study.” Sita had never heard the queen compliment her on her mind before; she hadn’t realized she’d noticed that Sita had outgrown the court tutor months ago. Fifteen more years of study sounded excellent: the king was renowned for his spiritual prowess, and though she hadn’t his genetic predisposition, she had his example. But relative solitude? Safety? She wasn’t sure. Her thoughts for the past three weeks had been about the potential of a carefully-chosen crowd, the thrill of a palace full of new faces, as Urmila had made it clear she expected her birthday to be recognized on a grand scale. She’d stared at the queen, trying to think. “Above all, at least she has a choice.”
She hadn’t had to make it that night. “You know where to find me,” Sage Valmiki had said, and gone back to his hermitage on the banks of the Ghaghara river.
Urmila cut through the silence with a huff. Sita tried to give her a mollifying smile, but it didn’t work. “It’s extremely bad manners to have a Choosing Ceremony less than a month after a birthday celebration, you know. All the boys will forget me.”
The king had set it up; it was understood, she knew, that she could have put a stop to it, or changed any of the details, but she hadn’t. Couldn’t. When she had no idea what to do in their stead? Since it hadn’t been her intention to slight Urmila, she merely said, “I’m sorry. I know.” The bottom of Urmila’s sari had folded up over itself, and she straightened it out for her, hiding the rough edge. “But it’s still a ballroom full of princes.”
Urmila smirked. “And this time, we hold all the cards.”
Sita was relieved, surveying the scene, that it would decided by contest. The boys were much the same crowd as those at Urmila’s party, and now, instead of trying, at Urmila’s behest, to make her eyes smolder instead of smile as they stood in their silks and accepted paper cones of onion fritters and compliments on their silks, they leaned back on their balcony cushions above the fray. Urmila was ranking them by number of visible abdominal muscles, with added points for lashes so thick they were visible from their little balcony, and points off for gnarled toes that might be passed onto future children.
Sita remembered when the blood had spilled from between her legs. Even at twelve, she’d known it was a moment that called for Queen Sunaina’s tears of joy, rather than her own tears of frustrated pain. If she hadn’t been able to have children – who knew if the earth’s reproductive methods were replicable? – she would be with Valmiki today, safe somewhere. She wasn’t bleeding today, thankfully, or due to bleed soon – her cousin, Mandavi, who was sitting with her own sister on the balcony across the ballroom, would be starting tomorrow and her cheeks were peppered with the tell-tale spots.
“Should we take off points if their chests are visibly sweating?” Urmila asked, leaning over the carved mahogany railing. She turned her head back towards Sita without actually removing her eyes from their gentlemen guests. “Or add them on?”
When Sita didn’t answer, Urmila sat back and squeezed her hand. “No one’s been able to lift the bow so far.” It wasn’t wholly proper for Urmila to sound so happy about that, when messengers had started bringing in, at least thirty minutes ago, reports that citizens were assembling outside to grumble. They thought the king had set an impossible task to keep hold of his daughter, at the cost of what, no matter who she chose, would be an important political alliance. So far, none of the noblemen had audibly added to the accusations, but if rumors spread upward, it could be dangerous.
Sita hadn’t asked, but she knew the rumors were false. King Janak adored her, but he knew that if she hadn’t chosen marriage, the people would have cast off her royal pretensions as easily as they changed their worn-out shoes. She wasn’t like Urmila: a princess no matter what. A princess that could be loved enough to keep. “There’s a new entry.”
The doors underneath Mandavi and Shrutakirti’s balcony were being opened from the inside, which meant whoever it was had been deemed worthy of welcome when the day was almost half over. Things in Videha tended to happen on time. Even the flowers bloomed according to schedule, or the scientists induced them; otherwise, after all, the medicines they extracted wouldn’t be ready. Those who were in pain would turn to wine; those who were in despair would turn to dice. Kingdoms had fallen, she’d read, due to false comforts.
“Everyone’s here,” Urmila said, uncertainly. They both leaned forward this time, their eyes scanning past the trumpeters and narrow-shouldered youths with peacock-feather fans. The chariots had been left outside, of course, so the princes, whoever they were, didn’t tower over their attendants.
They were still, however, singular.
They were clearly brothers, both of their dhotis in contrasting shades of orange and green, and they both had the soft brown skin of the people of the heartland – the even, quiet brown of milk cake – and hair that fell in soft waves. The younger prince, half a step ahead of his brother, was chiseled, a faint sheen of sweat already highlighting the fact that he had all the muscles to make it straight to the top of Urmila’s list. The elder shone, too, but it wasn’t sweat. Sita wasn’t sure what it was. He must have caught the light, but it seemed, she felt, that he shone from the inside out. A smile played across his lips, willing but not yet fully developed, and then the two new princes looked up to where they sat.
“Sita,” Urmila whispered, and Sita saw her sister’s fists clench the balcony, her toes point, her eyes fix themselves on their target. “Sita,” she repeated, her voice urgent.
Sita felt her stomach sink. She might be bound to the outcome of the bow task, but Urmila still retained her right to choose her husband. And, for the first time, Sita realized that it wasn’t that Urmila had extrasensory perception when it came to the male of the species. Sita found herself able to see, and she understood, now, that she’d spend her whole life watching Urmila and the luminous boy, and this feeling in her stomach might never, ever go away.
She turned her head to wave over their maid Shaila; she needed not to watch. “Who are they?”
Shaila was quiet, except when it came time for them to sing, and then her voice rang out powerfully, low, deep, and true. But now she let a high-pitched giggle escape before she responded. “The sons of Dasaratha of Kosala, princess. Lakshman and, at the back, Rama, the elder, who is called divine.”
“I see,” Sita said, her stomach growing tighter. She should turn back before Urmila fell off the balcony.
Urmila had not fallen; she’d barely moved. She was barely breathing. But as the newcomers found their place at the bow, the crowds splitting to make room, Sita saw that she wasn’t staring at the luminous boy; not at all. The look on Lakshman’s face mirrored Urmila’s exactly, his gaze locking with hers somewhere in the heavy air above the crowd. Rama, the luminous boy – Rama the divine, Sita tried out, silently – elbowed his brother to break the enchantment. Urmila drew a long breath as Lakshman crouched to prepare himself for the attempt.
When Sita angled herself towards the scene, she saw that though Lakshman had turned his attention away from them, Rama was still looking. She caught herself trying to catch his eyes, and then snapped her own shut. What was she doing? Whatever had happened to Urmila and Lakshman wouldn’t happen to her. But what if it did? Did she want it to? Rama had a beautiful physique, but classically so, in proportion, within the lines: there was no reason he’d be better able than anyone else to lift the bow. And what did she know of Kosala? She’d heard of them; they were expanding beyond their seat, on the river, at the edge of the great Gangetic plain, and the resource-rich forest.
She’d heard of Rama, she realized, though not by name, a long time ago, from a tutor whose tenure in the court had not long outlived his telling of the story of Dasaratha. King Dasaratha of Kosala, who’d given his daughter, Shanti, up for adoption when he was told that doing so would bring him sons. “And Shanti, the peaceful princess, went willingly,” the tutor had said. Urmila had burst into angry tears, and though Sita had busied herself with comforting her sister, she’d remembered sleeping fitfully that night, and several nights afterwards. Several nights for several years. Urmila might cry, but it was Sita who should feel in danger of being traded in.
No, there was no reason to want to feel as Urmila felt, to be entranced, as Urmila was entranced, by these Kosalan boys. Still, when Sita opened her eyes, and found Rama looking straight at her, she didn’t look away. Neither did he, his smile still nascent, his face still… true. Perfect, yes, and perfectly lit, but more than that. He held her gaze, and then turned to the bow even Urmila’s Lakshman had failed to lift.
And then, without screwing the smile from his face, he lifted it above his head.
The roar from the crowd was immediate, and jubilant. As the boys rushed in to congratulate the victor, Sita lost sight of Rama – until he appeared on Lakshman’s shoulders, seemingly unencumbered by the steady stream of marigolds being thrown at his person. For a long while, Rama looked down at the crowd: his peers at the center, the assorted kings and queens who’d decided to accompany their sons to what promised to be a good feast at the edges of the ballroom, and the people clustering up around the windows for another glimpse at the stranger who would now, almost certainly one day, become their king.
The phrase, “so it wasn’t fixed,” wafted in, and Sita exhaled. She reached out for Urmila’s hand, but Urmila was still clutching the balcony, trading glances with Lakshman like her balance depended on it, so instead Sita covered Urmila’s left hand with her own. She found her hand was shaking.
And then Rama looked up, at her, and he smiled broadly, expansively, a public smile that Sita recognized, but somehow still found sincere. Nothing from a face that true could be insincere. Aware all eyes were on her, she tried to give back the same smile, but as the tightness in his stomach dissipated, she found her smile widening into a grin.
King Janak and Queen Sunaina were parting the crowd, now, approaching their presumptive son-in-law, who slipped from his brother’s shoulders just as gracefully as he’d gone up, the bow still balanced in his left arm, visible to the people, a beacon. Sita saw beneath the king and queen’s faces a slight shock: the queen, she could tell, was impressed, and the king… she wasn’t sure. A loosening of the jowls meant he was relieved, the straightening of the shoulders meant he felt he was addressing an equal, and the narrowing of the eyes, well, those made Sita wonder. In most people, she knew, they meant suspicion, but the king was never unduly suspicious. Where others were shrewd, he was wise. Perhaps he was simply still counting up the advantages that would come to them from a match with the Kosalan kingdom. “Lakshman, Rama, we are glad you were able to stop in on your way home,” he told the princes, letting them bow first and then returning the gesture.
“We are, as well,” Lakshman said.
“I understand it would take your father and mothers several days to arrive,” the king said. By which the crowd would have returned home.
“They would, undoubtably, wish instead to spend those days readying Ayodhya for my wondrous bride,” Rama said, smoothly. So that instead, the crowd would stay and the alliances of all the countries that lay between and around Kosala and Videha could be re-cemented, strengthened, as the united province officially grew. Showing that Rama was a grown up, well-versed in statecraft, for all he seemed equal in age to Sita herself. Sita swallowed. Obviously she knew there would be a wedding after the ball – assuming someone had been able to pick up the bow – but as things slotted into place, she found her hand shaking more and more uncontrollably. It must have finally broken through Urmila’s captivated exterior; she felt her sister reach her fingers up and over, holding Sita’s nerves in place.
A royal palanquin was brought up between the king and the princes, and her Dhadhi helped out – not quite to floor level, but instead on a platform hastily assembled so that her head, at least, would reach above the crowd, on par with the bow. Rama folded his hands together and bowed to her, deeply, and Lakshman followed suit. “Then may I announce the nuptials of the beautiful Sita and the divine Rama officially begun!”
The night before their wedding, Sita and Rama sat side by side, in theory, in the ballroom now bedecked in fresh decoration of blue and green: dyed flowers, blown glass, an Apsaras theme of Urmila’s design. “No one else would be able to hold their own amongst golden nymph statuettes,” she’d said, when they’d spent a geography lesson circumspectly planning a few years ahead. “Certainly not me.” But Sita thought that tonight Urmila, making her way towards the center of the makeshift stage, outshone her commissions. As she led Mandavi, Shrutakirti, and some of the other noble Videhan girls in a slow, sinuous dance celebrating the joys of young lovers sharing their first monsoon, Sita could almost see the connection shimmering in the air between her eyes and Lakshman’s heart. That is what the nymphs were meant to do, she understood: evoke a feeling of connection, of bonds deeper than that of the blood, deeper than that of political alliance. They provoked the forging of the new bonds of matrimony, of the family chosen, not carried.
Between her left shoulder and Rama’s right, there sat a whole slew of attendants, Shaila leading the pack in continuing to stare at Rama with a glazed look in her eyes that was certainly not appropriate, but which passed uncommented upon at a wedding. It was not Rama’s fault his father had traded a daughter away for a son who, she couldn’t deny, was clearly worth any sacrifice. By all other accounts Dasaratha and his kingdom were joyful and open. If she joined the family, it was possible Rama might continued the outmoded tradition his father had enjoyed of taking additional wives, but he wouldn’t trade her away. She would be family. Catty-corner to her, the king and queen watched Urmila proudly, hand in hand, contented. The scene was perfect.
The scene was perfect, as long as she was the one seeing it. Sure: she looked the part. And the Videhans, proud of the electrifying young prince they’d gained, and the Kosalans, proud of the prosperous kingdom they’d annexed, would testify to her royalty now. But Valmiki had seen the promise of all of that, seen her with eyes more trenchant than most, and he’d told them that life could be difficult for the earth’s daughters. This life? For which King Janak had prepared her ever since he’d lifted her out of the ground? It was too late for nerves.
“Too late,” Urmila said the following evening, lolling on the bed as Shaila and the others unwrapped the sari Sita had worn as she’d stepped with Rama seven times around the nuptial fire, “and too lonely.”
Sita had looked up from her tears, then. No one had chastised her – it was considered proper for the bride to cry at the end of the ceremony, though in this case she’d have one more night at home before setting off with the Kosalan contingent – and she’d found herself, even behind the closed doors of her bedroom, unable to stop. “It’s loneliness I’m afraid of, Urmila,” she confessed. “What if I’m not ready to leave all of you?”
Anya, Urmila’s maid, clucked. “Crazy girl. I’d cling to that Rama like a creeper to a willow trunk.”
Sita forced her eyes not to widen, but she couldn’t stop the heat from rising in places she’d never felt warm before. She dabbed at her tears with the heavy flower garland Rama had placed around her neck.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Urmila said.
This was no time for Urmila to adopt her newfound womanly blasé. Sita sighed. “Urmila, I’m scared. I know you think it’s all a big adventure, and Rama certainly seems nice, but…”
“No,” Urmila said, rising up from the bed and impeding the maids’ progress with a hug. “You don’t have to worry because you won’t be going alone. I’m going to speak to Mummy and Papa at dinner. I want Lakshman. We’ll do it quickly, tomorrow morning, and then you won’t have to be alone, Sita, because I’ll be coming with you.”
Sita raised her eyebrows. “I know you find him attractive…” At Urmila’s impatient expression, she quickly added, “and that he finds you attractive,” though this didn’t seem, for once, to help, “but why give up the chance to have your own ceremony? You had it all planned out, remember? A dew-drop theme?” With diamonds for dew-drops, so that no one would think back to Sita’s ceremony and find Urmila’s in any way lacking. With a diamond-studded sari, so that Urmila would have her own chance in the spotlight.
Urmila waved her words away. “The ceremony is to help me choose, right? But I’ve chosen, Sita. I know.” Her impatience settled into a calm that Sita hadn’t seen on her sister’s face for a long time, that Sita wanted so badly for herself she could feel her yearning escaping her almost in the form of a soul escaping.
“Kosala will have Videha, then,” Sita mused, “whenever you marry. This whole thing: it wasn’t necessary at all.” I’m not necessary at all, she thought. It was her first day as part of her chosen family, and already she was a disappointment.
What Sita had once imagined would be a quiet farewell dinner had been, with Urmila’s pronouncement, one of heightened emotion and furious pleas, but when the Kosalan contingent showed up at the palace gates the next morning packed and ready to set off, a tousled King Janak held up his palm. “We must,” he began, and the entire capital leaned in to hear their rarely-flustered monarch cough politely in the middle of a royal pronouncement, “make Kosala aware of some additional requirements before we allow you to take our Sita.”
Rama raised one eyebrow – his right – and said, “the marriage has taken place, and I look forward to escorting my wife home. But, please, King Janak, continue. I cannot imagine requests we would choose not to honor.” Lakshman stood next to him, clearly at attention, though his hands moved not more than a millimeter towards his bow and arrow, and he bounced not more than a centimeter upwards on the balls of his feet.
A bleary-eyed Queen Sunaina glanced backwards, and Sita found Urmila pushing them through the throng of courtiers surrounding the king and queen so that they were at the front lines. The king cleared his throat. “We must give to you seventy extra chariots, twelve additional elephants, fourteen more horses, and four supplemental chests of silks and jewels. For Princess Urmila. Who will be marrying Prince Lakshman. This morning.”
“Yes!” Lakshman cried, his bow thrust in the air, his knees crashing to the floor.
The king smiled. “Well, then, we shall –”
Rama held his hand up, lower than the king’s, but steady. “We are four brothers,” he said, “and have no deeper desire than to tie ourselves inextricably to your beautiful country and its women. But we have each, us brothers, chosen monogamy. Did I see two demi-princesses at the wedding yesterday?”
The queen looked at Urmila, who was no longer listening, and Sita, who was. “We cannot choose for them,” she said, her voice soft.
Rama’s voice didn’t falter. “You can,” he said, “when it is right to do so. We shall have a triple wedding – two by proxy – and leave for Kosala this evening.”
Sita hung back as Urmila tried to sell her cousins on the delights of marriage to unseen brothers. “If they look anything like Lakshman, or even Rama, what do you have to complain about?”
“Or even Rama?” Shrutakirti said, catching Sita’s eye. Sita hurridly put a conspiratorial glint in her eye. She knew nothing would stop Urmila now, so she should feel calmer. “Even my mother was swooning over him yesterday, and she’s old.”
“Hush up about the looks and the swooning,” said Mandavi. “It’s a good match, and there’s no getting out of it – look at them down there,” and they all stuck their heads out the curtain shielding the ladies’ balcony from the main court’s view, “gleeful that they get to marry us off while keeping all six of the Arabian bays. What a deal your Rama has struck. Most valuable bow he’s ever lifted, I’ll wager.”
“We get to be together,” Sita said, apologetically.
“Great,” said Mandavi. “Instead of taking charge of a small kingdom, I get to sit on the sidelines of a big one. Just as I’ve done my whole life.” She smiled resignedly at Sita, and Sita felt awful. “It’s not that we wouldn’t have missed you, Sita.”
“You just wanted your own family,” she acknowledged.
“That, or a lick of whatever honey Urmila is tasting,” Shrutakirti said. Sita didn’t respond. For once, her own words reverberated in her crowded, spinning head. She’d been so afraid of leaving the king behind – the king, who’d pulled her out of a furrow, who’d loved her like no one else would ever have to love her… until now. She was married now, the heavy floral garland still pushing against her neck, the jasmine’s perfume still swirling up into her face. And Urmila would be there, and now Mandavi and Shrutakirti, but more than that: Rama. Her husband. Her family.
Valmiki had offered her a chance to study the world. But she was princess in the richest kingdom in the land: the world’s knowledge was hers for the taking. And Kosala, for all there must be a difference between richest and second richest (was it the second richest? There weren’t official rankings, perhaps; it was doing fine, at any rate) there would be scholars there, too, in the court and outside of it. They would help her untangle it all: separate what was worth knowing from what was pointless, identify why, even in Videha, people still drove themselves to excess with women and wine and hunting and dice and destabilized what had taken Janak and his familial line so long to put together. Identify what could make them happy. Identify what could make her happy. Scholars in the court could help her learn everything that would make her happy. Except for the one thing she couldn’t learn but from experience, from the inside. The thing that she knew was already making a difference. A family.
Goodbye, she said to the earth, her mother. I am ready, she said to Rama, who was waiting for her below, shining brighter than the sun even in the height of the day.
Though they could have taken the river route the entire way to Ayodhya, the Kosalans opted to bypass the great city of Patliputra by making their way, for the first three days, overland. Urmila and her cousins were annoyed, and Sita could understand: it was their first big trip outside of Videha, as well, and what better place to explore first than the jewel of the Ganges? She didn’t share their feelings, though. Since they had left the city limits, she’d felt her fear being replaced by a cool, airy energy. Being married was terrifying, but she was not facing it alone, and while Rama and Lakshman instructed the retinue to travel at a brisk pace, there was still time to look at what they passed. And there was plenty to look at.
“What, trees, and then another tree, and then another tree?”
“Let her be, Kirti,” said Mandavi. They had all been assigned a carriage together, the new princesses, although Urmila and Lakshman had been an entangled mess of limbs since they’d entered the forest proper. Sita knew Urmila would never allow herself to be seen as so flirtatious, so affectionate, in a town, however small, and she wondered at how the forest could seem so freeing to both of them in such different ways. Rama had nodded to her as they finished breakfast, and smiled, but hadn’t made any move to invite her to join him; whenever she looked back he was engrossed in conversation with a courtier or had his neck buried in a scroll, attending to affairs of state. She hadn’t minded, exactly – there was time. Instead she took out her notebook of bound banana leaves, which up until now had held only her naïve childhood experiments like rules for more aerodynamic kites, and drew anything unfamiliar. And, yes, many of them were trees – she hadn’t realized that her conception of the forest, the one she’d gotten from day trips to other parts of Videha, had been so regionally-specific. There was a tree to her left – ah, they were about to pass it, she had to be quick – with tiny yellow flowers she imagined would sell well as adornments in any case, but maybe there was something else to them. Maybe they could be fermented into wine that left a different type of intoxication, the type of intoxication currently casting its spell over both her and Urmila so distinctly. Maybe if eaten it would restore rationality to gamblers in thrall. Maybe it could feed the poor so effectively there were no poor people at all in this part of the forest.
Maybe the bark could be burned to create a powder that could be used on the face for cosmetic purposes. Sita wasn’t entirely sure how to square her understanding of cosmetics with her understanding of womanizing as the third of the four excesses; wouldn’t it make sense if women simply made themselves less alluring? She knew it wasn’t ‘done’ for women to appear in public with facial spots or scarring unpowdered, but then, that was an easy fix. What about the safflower seed paste Queen Sunaina had taught them to use ahead of Urmila’s tenth birthday to rub away hair? She’d called it ‘excess hair,’ but King Janak’s barbers let the hair above his upper lip alone. She’d noticed that the Kosalan women – at least those that traveled with the retinue, so at least the common citizens – seemed to use it, too. It wasn’t a comforting thought, per se; if they had arcane beauty rituals, too, would they all be the same, or would there be another set of rules to learn? What if Rama’s mothers thought she was ugly? Surely Rama, at least, thought she was presentable – he would have said something, right?
She shook thoughts of Ayodhya and what was to come out of her head; she was here now, and she was free of cosmetics, and no one seemed terribly vexed. And there was a plant she had never seen before, but did recognize: Queen Sunaina had mentioned that low, light green bush with its wide purple flowers – she’d mentioned eating the petals, sugared, at her wedding celebration, and then hardly ever being able to find it since she’d come to Videha. The bush was growing close enough to the side of the path that Sita might be able to grab it if she leaned out, and so she extended her arm, and then her back, and then her knees, and – “Oof.” But, Sita realized, she hadn’t fallen out of the carriage; it had stopped, just in time, and she’d merely fallen back in with a cluster of flowers in her left fist. “Thank you,” she said to the charioteer.
But he wasn’t listening, and nor were Mandavi or Shrutakirti. Instead, the three of them had turned to face the chariot where Lakshman and Urmila had been showering one another with fluttery kisses. It occurred to Sita that all of the horses had been stopped, not just theirs. And that Urmila and Rama were standing outside of the final two chariots – the princes’ chariots – looking exceptionally tense. Lakshman was harder to find until Sita looked at the ground between them.
She ran towards her sister. “What’s happened?” she asked as she moved, but until she got to Rama’s chariot, no one answered. Finally, a girl about her own age, carrying a flagon of ice-cold water, informed her that Lakshman had been bitten by a snake – and a strange one, whose antidote they did not carry.
“We never should have tried to go through the forest,” she said, “but for wanting to shield our newest acquisitions from prying eyes.”
“Geeta!” hissed another flagon-bearer, old enough to be her father, and Sita’s father at that.
Cosmetics, wine – none of them were going to solve this. Sita approached her sister and grabbed her hand. “I’m here,” she whispered.
“Look at him,” Urmila said, her voice betraying her emotion, but her body free of sobs.
Sita did; he was pale, and his muscles looked pointless and silly splayed out on the roadway. The snake was long gone, but she could see the bite, just under his ear, now the epicenter of destruction. “Wait,” she said. “I know that bite.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rama, but it was Geeta who asked the right question. “So what’s the antidote?”
Still, she had to answer her husband first. “It’s not local to Videha, either, but a snake was brought to the palace, once, as a gift from Queen Sunaina’s parents’…” No, she had to answer Geeta. “A tincture of cashews and… this.” She held out her left hand, flowers drooping.