At the exact moment when her future was being decided, Padma was deep in conversation with Maharani Trinetra, whom she found fascinating. The maharani had a lot of interesting news about the decadence of the late Delhi Sultanate and more than a few outrageous scandals to share. Padma particularly enjoyed the stories about Balban’s grandson, the late Sultan Kaiqubad, since they involved his ladies of pleasure who pranced half-naked through the streets of Delhi to the accompaniment of much music and merriment.

“They say Kaiqubad was stricken down by a nasty disease that left him paralysed and gibbering like an infected monkey!” the maharani told her with ghoulish relish. “The diseased sultan’s power-hungry courtiers placed his three-year-old son, Kayumas, on the throne, hoping to rule in his stead, but Jalaluddin Khalji, who had been one of Balban’s generals, ordered his own sons to do the dirty work and rid the realm of both the imbecilic father and infant son, before appointing himself as the shah of Delhi. With the sultans gone, the shahs were poised to wreak havoc!”

As Padma sipped the delicious badam sheera, listening with bated breath, the maharani filled her in with all the gossip, including all the juicy details about the latest shah’s capture of the Delhi throne. He seemed terrifying and Padma shivered involuntarily.

“Our spies tell us he is a peculiar man. After he ascended the throne, Alauddin rounded up everyone who had betrayed the old regime, confiscated their property and sentenced them to death. And these were the very same people he had bribed!” The maharani’s brows twitched with amusement. “Isn’t it the traitor cannot abide fellow traitors?”

Padma, who was listening with rapt attention, ventured her opinion. “I feel sorry for the poor man!” Seeing that her audience was taken aback, she hastened to clarify. “People envy kings but what is the point of a crown and throne when it is accursed and stained with the blood of innocent people? The shah had his king, who was also his kin, murdered. Since he is treacherous, he cannot trust anyone. He assumes everyone will have the same character as him. His guilt will cast a gloomy pall over his reign. Everywhere he looks, he will see fear and revulsion. To add to that, there will always be people who will want him dead. He will never be at peace.”

“But power and gold will always be worth it...” the maharani insisted.

“To each his own.” Padma shrugged. “I wonder how he can look his wife in the eye after murdering her father and imprisoning her mother!”

“Let us hope his wife does us all a favour and sticks a jewelled dagger into her husband’s ribs while he sleeps!”

“Let us hope not, Maharani Ma!” Padma shuddered. “I can’t understand revenge. Remember Draupadi? She wanted to avenge her humiliation by bathing her hair in the blood of the man who had disrobed her. Surely water would have served the purpose just as well? Because of her obstinacy, not only Dushasana but her own sons, brother, father and countless others were killed as well!” Padma paused. “But going back to the subject, if the Mongols keep the shah busy for the rest of his days, he will not have time to think about us Rajputs, which would be much appreciated.”

The maharani liked what she saw. Mahisamara’s daughter had a good heart and was intelligent as well. It would have been nice if this beautiful young girl had been her child! The gods had blessed her with many sons and some had survived infancy, growing to manhood. Now they were all so preoccupied with their wives and concubines, they had no time for their mother. She wondered if she should bring up a certain delicate topic, the one her husband had discussed with the men.

“My dear, I’d like to know what you think of something...’ she began, offering Padma a spicy kachori. The girl was so slender! Didn’t her mother know that men preferred curvaceous women so that they didn’t feel like they were taking a prickly twig to bed? But her bosom showed promise, and she was the loveliest young girl the maharani had ever seen.

“You have probably heard of the young Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor?”

“Yes, Maharani Ma,” Padma replied absent-mindedly as she accepted the treat.

“He is the direct descendant of Bappa Rawal and I am told he is even more heroic and twice as good-looking,” said the queen. “More importantly, he is a refined man with none of the vices and debauched habits which one associates with a ruler who came to power so young. They say he is humble and respectful of his elders. What do you think about him?”

The maharani had never seen the Rawal or even interested herself in him until recently, but nevertheless, she was confident he was a decent and clean-cut young man.

Whatever he was or wasn’t, there was only one thing she was certain of – Rawal Ratan Singh was without a doubt the luckiest man in the world. She carefully studied Padma’s face for a reaction.

Padma, who had bitten into a chilli, gasped and reached out for a sip of her sweet drink. When the heat in her cheeks had cooled, she replied, “I am sure he is a wonderful man but why would I think of him? And Your Highness was going to tell me more about the new shah’s somewhat complicated relationship with his wife and mother-in-law...”

Maharani Trinetra had been about to tell Padma a little something about the Rawal’s somewhat complicated relationship with his first wife, Nagmati, but decided against it. It wouldn’t be right to terrify the bride-to-be. Instead, she launched into a colourful anecdote about Malika Jahan, the new shah’s wife, and her tendency to beat up his favourites in the harem.

Padma gasped in horror and the queen decided that even her dramatic flourishes were adorable. Once again, she couldn’t help thinking that Rawal Ratan Singh was indeed very fortunate. This girl was special and any man with sense would know that a good wife was all he needed to make his way through the battlefield that was life. And the creator simply did not make them more special than Padmavati of Siwana.

As for Padma, she had not been as distracted as she had led the maharani to believe when she had mentioned Rawal Ratan Singh. Hadn’t her uncle mentioned him as well during their journey here? For reasons she could not understand, her heart beat a little faster when that particular name was mentioned.

A few days ago, she had known absolutely nothing about either Alauddin Khalji or Rawal Ratan Singh. But now they were all that was being discussed. A strange presentiment filled her being. She would have dwelt on what the fates had in store for her, but the maharani’s maids had offered her a platter of milk sweets and Padma allowed herself to momentarily forget about the men who would soon be entwined with her own destiny.

Excerpted with permission from Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen, Anuja Chandramouli, Juggernaut.