Huzur Badshah was a slim man of medium height, with a long neck, oval face, dusky skin, aquiline nose, high cheekbones and a white beard. He was reclining against the bolsters on his shahnasheen, the huqqah pipe in his hand, a faint smile on his lips and a spiritual radiance emanating from his face. The jewels in his crown and around his neck were twinkling and dazzling his attendants.

The whisk bearer stood behind him with the yak tail morchal, and the attendants were standing at attention. The Malika was sitting on the settee with a jewel-studded huqqah pipe in her hand too.

There was a sense of peace when the sounds of screaming came floating in. The Badshah indicated with a wave of his hand and the jasolinis and khwajasaras went out to find out who was the impertinent person daring to make a ruckus so close to the imperial tent.

Even the Malika sat up a little straighter, listening attentively. “Huzur Jahanpanah, may your glory and dignity last forever, it is nothing to worry about,” said the khwajasara after presenting his kornish. “Just one of the young girls, who fell into the river. She’s been rescued and is now resting.”

“Hmm,” came the royal response but the Malika was more curious. “Who was it?”

“Her name is Shahzadi Falak Ara, Alampanah,” said the khwajasara. The Malika had heard the name but couldn’t immediately place it and said sharply, “Who is she?”

“She is a shahzadi. Her mother was the concubine Dil Ruba, who died in childbirth. The shahzadi has been brought up by her milk mother and attendant Mubarak, in the mahal,” came the khwajasara’s reply. “They say she’s very pretty, but anyone who has seen you, Your Highness, has much higher standards of beauty. These buds blossom for a day or so and fade away, not like the lasting beauty of my Queen,” the khwajasara added in a bid to keep the Empress’s temper sweetened. She was known to be short-tempered.

“Send her my summons to come for the morning meal in the mahal tomorrow,” came the commands from the Badshah. He had remembered the strong, musky fragrance and taste of Dil Ruba, whose name literally meant “one who attracts the heart”, or “sweetheart”. He had forgotten all about her. After he had married the extremely beautiful, seventeen-year-old Zeenat Mahal, he had no eyes for anyone else. Of course, orders had been given for the daughter to be looked after, an allowance fixed as was his wont with his concubines and their offspring. Though the darogha-e mahal or mahaldar would give him a daily report on the welfare, actions and movements of the various relatives and inmates of the mahal, he had never specifically asked about Falak Ara, but he would now.

This was not unusual, for the mid-morning meal eaten in the Badi Baithak was a well-attended affair. The Badshah would invite the current favourite sons, daughters and women in the haram. However, this was the first time that he had invited someone he had never met before.

The khwajasara turned to one of the jasolinis and quietly told her to convey the Badshah’s summons to Falak Ara.

Brimming with excitement and anticipation not just to convey the message to the tent where Falak Ara was resting but to others as this was too juicy a morsel to not be chewed on thoroughly and regurgitated in gossip, she presented her salutations to the imperial couple and backed out of the tent.

There are rows and rows of tents along the eastern wall of the Fort, on the reti, for the royal ladies to rest in, offer prayers, eat and gossip. Many young children and girls were still running around but the ladies had retired to their tent for the afternoon meal. They would reappear after sundown when it became a little cooler.

The jasolini enquired and was directed to the tent which Falak Ara was sharing with some other young princesses. The tent was quiet as the girls and their attendants were still shaken by the near-death experience of their peer, and Falak Ara was lost in contemplation of those hands on her chest and the look in her rescuer’s eyes. Who was he, where is he now? were questions jostling in her mind.

“Salam Shahzadi sahiba, wake up, for your destiny definitely has woken up,” she said breathlessly.

“Are you in your senses, what gibberish are you spouting, and can’t you see the shahzadi is resting? You jasolinis are too much, you think you are important just because you wear a uniform,” an exasperated Mubarak started muttering.

“Ai Mubarak, get up, you will surely give me that ring on your finger when you hear the news I have brought.”

Now alert, Mubarak replied, “May God prevent all troubles, quickly tell me what is it? And this ring was given to me by my late mistress, it’s never coming off my finger.”

The jasolini and Mubarak were old friends and so she could take liberties with her, that she wouldn’t otherwise when she went to convey royal messages.

“First, you give me that ring, then I will tell you,” she teased Mubarak.

“Oh yes! I am a newborn babe to fall for your tricks. I know you have been eyeing this ring forever but it’s not coming off my finger. You are a good-for-nothing wretch who is just trying to take advantage of a poor woman’s moment of weakness and gratitude at her darling’s rescue,” said an emotional Mubarak.

“Arre Mubarak today your name is truly blessed,” said the jasolini, playing on the meaning of the term “mubarak”. “I will never tease you at such a time. You and I have been friends since we were knee-high. I bring you glad tidings. Huzur Alampanah has requested the presence of Shahzadi Falak Ara for tomorrow morning’s meal in the Badi Baithak.”

“Am I dead or dreaming?” Mubarak was excited, astonished, dumbfounded, incredulous and above all, supremely happy, as she could see her dreams coming true, but still had no idea if this was reality or still a dream. She was jumping up and down in excitement and blabbering, tears flowing down her cheek, hugging the jasolini and kissing her hands and face and blessing her, “May Allah bless you with such plenty that you forget where you have stored it all.”

Excerpted with permission from A Firestorm in Paradise: A Novel on the 1857 Uprising, Rana Safvi, Penguin India.