The Jealous Heart
October 3—Samavati’s legs feel like at any moment they’ll refuse to carry her another step. In all these years of marriage she’s never had to face her husband in a formal audience, but yesterday, after several days of not seeing him, she was officially summoned to an audience in the palace. There was no mention of why.
“At least I’ll find out what’s going on,” she comments to Khujjuttara who limps painfully at her side as they walk to the palace. “I suppose that’s something.”
Udena’s change in attitude is stunning. After Kumara died, he was excessively attentive to Samavati. His clumsy efforts to please her were actually touching, though she wished they’d been inspired by an appreciation for herself rather than by the death of another woman’s son and the elevation of her own. She sighs. So it goes with palace life—it has nothing to do with who you are or what you want.
Such speculations aren’t on her mind now, however. Because not only is she worried about her husband’s absence from her life and the command performance about to come, but there’s something else she needs to discuss, something terrifying, and she doesn’t want to do it under these circumstances. A formal audience is the wrong setting.
Samavati and Khujjuttara have exhausted these subjects. There is nothing left to say. Samavati’s comment drifts like a wisp of smoke and dissolves into their tense silence, a silence that is broken only by the tinkling of the pebbles in the hollow silver beads of her anklets.
As they walk, her sari, turquoise and especially chosen because it is one of the king’s favorites, flashes in the sun. While in recent years Samavati has eased up on the elaborate toilette expected of a queen, today it has been deployed in full force. This morning her maids spent two-and-a-half hours tweezing, bathing, oiling and perfuming her body and arranging her long, dark hair in a perfect bun at the nape of her neck. Her eyes are bewitchingly lined with aromatic kol; her lips, hands and feet, rubbed with red lac; aromatic flowers are tucked into her hair; and a battery of jeweled bangles adorn her arms. Such is Samavati’s poor political arsenal—cosmetics, jewelry and a sari. She hopes it will please her husband and soften whatever is coming at her.
They walk through the public entrance, which is used on formal occasions. Khujjuttara stops in the hallway,while two servants open the wooden doors to admit the queen to the audience chamber. She has been in this splendid room only once, years ago. Making an effort to hide her sense of overwhelm, she walks with head high and with what she hopes is royal composure, up the long carpeted central aisle, up toward her husband who is seated in regal dignity on a glittering throne, elevated on a dais, at the other end of the room. In this silent chamber, the tinkle of the anklets is embarrassingly loud.
Uncharacteristically, Udena is alone. In deference to his wife, he has dispensed with the presence of advisors. And, too, he dismissed the scantily clad female servants with fans and fly whisks whose job it is to make the royal body comfortable. Besides, it’s October, the weather is delightfully cool and flies are largely absent.
As she approaches, she lowers her gaze appropriately, then bows before him. She doesn’t see him gazing appreciatively at her, and by the time she looks up, the royal face is contorted into a belligerent expression. A wall of fire and ice.
Gesturing for her to take the chair at floor level but not waiting until she’s seated, he booms, “Wife, what’s been going on at those meetings with the recluse? I demand the truth!”
“Yes, tell me—your own words—what does he want?”
Too impatient to wait for her response, he supplies, “I know what that scoundrel is trying to do. He’s trying to steal my wife, to lure you into joining the nuns, that’s what he wants. Go ahead, admit it!”