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In The Garden

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In The Garden

She was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen.

Walking by the open side of the classroom, in the charge of a nursemaid or handmaid, was a girl no older than he. Pale of face, with glorious long dark hair, she was striking in looks while her features had been carved with the precision of a master craftsman. She was, in short, perfect and Khurram turned and started to rise from his seat as if to follow her, mesmerised by her beauty.

The sound of an irritable throat being cleared was like a bucket of ice water, dousing the flames of his passion. Reluctantly, Khurram turned his attention back to his disapproving tutor.

"You are here to learn," said the tutor in a snapped off tone that suggested the very words themselves offended him.

Khurram scowled. "I will do as I wish."

"You will do as your father wishes," the tutor retorted. "And that means that when you are in this room you will pay attention."

Khurram scowled still and, for a moment, entertained a fantasy of what he would do to the tutor when he became Shah. Then, seeing that his iron-grey and stern-faced tutor was not of a mind to relent, he gave his attention back to the lesson. In the back of his mind, though, curiosity still burned.

She was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen – and he needed to know who she was.

~*~

It took him a week of surreptitious and not so surreptitious investigation.

Khurram was not used to having to work so hard for information. As the favoured prince of the palace, he normally had but to open his mouth and his questions were answered, his desires met. This was different. Lacking even a name, it would have been an impossible task, but for his position at court, and even then his final success felt like no small victory.

Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum. She was newly arrived at court, the daughter of one of the Persian nobles, and her arrival was clearly a signal that her father was seeking her betrothal. Her aunt was consort to Shah Jahangir, Khurram's father, which suggested the match being sought was one that would cement the family's position and power at court.

That prospect alone was almost enough to make Khurram lose all interest. As one of his father's favoured sons, he knew himself to be one of the targets of such a scheme. He had little enough desire to be betrothed. He had even less desire to be betrothed to the niece of Nur Jahan. To his young eyes, his father's consort was entirely too involved with the affairs of court and state. Too political. Too scheming. Too intent to be something a woman ought not to be. Why his father accepted her was beyond Khurram's comprehension – were he the Shah, he would have long since banished her and the rest of her family.

And yet, despite her aunt, Arjumand continued to intrigue him. Her lovely features remained a subject of his curiosity. She could not help who her aunt was, true, and that he had yet to see her aping her aunt's behaviour was a point in her favour. Too, her father, Asif Khan, seemed an able courtier and servant – someone who could be of use, come Khurram's elevation to the throne. But it wasn't her father or the potential political gains to be had that haunted his dreams. It was Arjumand herself.

While he had been able to learn her name and family connections, he had not yet contrived to actually speak with her. In fact, truth to be told, he had seen her but little. A glimpse here, a glance there. As befitted a young woman of court, she was seldom to be found in the places Khurram was expected to spend his time. She certainly was not being paraded about by her father like a prized pet as some girls were and much as that was a mark of her proper behaviour, it frustrated him. It meant that he couldn't simply cross paths with her.

It meant that he had to find where she would be and find some good reason for being there too.

~*~

It was nearly a month after Arjumand's arrival at court before Khurram managed to engineer a meeting.

His first thought had been to use his status at court to demand she attend him. Even he, however, recognised the inherent impropriety of such a move. It would break all manner of rules. It would, most likely, scandalise the court into the bargain – not something that Khurram was generally concerned by, admittedly, but since this was Nur Jahan's niece, any trouble would rebound on him twice over. Once from his father, and once from the shrill schemer who shared his father's bed. Additionally, something about forcing Arjumand to attend him struck him as wrong on some fundamental level. He wanted to meet her as an equal, not as a prince.

For reasons that Khurram chose not to examine, that seemed to be the most important aspect to their meeting.

With the official summons firmly rejected, he had considered all the places where they might reasonably meet. It was a short list – at least for the possibility of an 'accidental' meeting – and yet, for all that, it presented the perfect venue for just that sort of encounter: the palace gardens.

While they were not as extensive as some, they were a delightful space designed with the pleasing symmetry of their forebears. Khurram had spent many hours as a small boy simply running zigzag paths between the flowerbeds and frightening his nursemaid by springing over the widest ponds and canals. (She'd always feared he'd fall in; he'd known he never would.) And while he was now considered to be far too old for such behaviour, his childhood antics had given him a near perfect recall of all the garden's many paths and pools.

He also knew, from his investigations, that Arjumand liked to take a stroll in the early evening, just as the evening blooms were beginning to scent the air with their heady perfumes. It would be child's play to pick out a suitable location and with his knowledge of the garden, he had a ready-made topic of conversation for the meeting.

Decision made, it still took a number of days more before he could enact his plan and then a further handful of evenings spent wandering amongst the curry patta trees and jasmine bushes, their scents mingling to create a tantalising aroma.

On the third evening, he crossed paths with Arjumand and her handmaidens.

She was even more beautiful face to face than she'd been in the quick glimpses he'd seen of her around the palace. Khurram wanted to say something profound – or at least intelligent – but under her gentle gaze he found his mouth drying with shyness.

"It is a lovely evening for a stroll," he finally managed, inwardly cursing at the stilted nature of his words.

Arjumand offered him a smile. "It is, Prince Khurram. You must know these gardens well."

Startled by her use of his name, he could only flounder before finally mustering the most tentative of nods.

"Perhaps, another time, you might show me your favoured spots?"

"I...would like that," he answered, his voice finally beginning to return.

"Until then."

She offered him a delicate bow and before his recalcitrant tongue could find its words, she had moved on.

It had not been how Khurram had intended the meeting to progress. He felt certain that while he had left an impression on Arjumand, it had hardly been a positive one. And yet, she had permitted him the hope of a second meeting.

That second meeting came two days later. Once more their paths crossed in the early evening in the garden. This time Khurram felt pleased by his efforts. He managed to show her some of the places he'd played and managed to say things that sounded intelligent – though definitely not yet profound. It was a brief meeting still, but it ended leaving him with the feeling that Arjumand might not think him a complete fool.

The days spun together. Khurram continued to meet with Arjumand in the gardens, slowly but surely acquainting himself with her. Slowly, but surely, becoming more at home within her presence. Slowly but surely enabling her entourage to relax. She showed herself to be insightful and considerate and, in turn, he tried to do the same.

Insidiously their friendship grew and blossomed as the plants in the garden. Their meetings soon became the highlight of his days and he missed her on the days when it was impossible for them to meet and that led to an equally insidious thought began to take root: being married to Arjumand would not be onerous or a hardship.

On the day that idea reached full bloom in his mind, Khurram reacted with horror. He had no desire to be married – even if it was supposed to be his duty, to make sure he was possessed an heir for the day when he assumed the throne. But the idea refused to go away and he realised, to his chagrin, that the prospect of not spending his days with Arjumand was even more abhorrent.

That night, when he met with Arjumand, he told her the tales of his childhood exploits. Of leaping the ponds and canals and of his nursemaid's fears.

She smiled mischievously. "Do you think you might still clear them?" she asked.

"I do," Khurram replied. "For you, I would do anything."

She laughed lightly. "Then perhaps a demonstration?"

No sooner had she said it than, to shouts of surprise and consternation from the assorted handmaidens, Khurram set off at a run and leapt, like a Chital, clear across the canal they had, until that point, been meandering towards.

Behind him, he heard Arjumand laugh with delight. He turned and offered the deep bow of a successful showman.

"I think that I might try that," she called, and before anyone could stop her, she too had taken off at a run.

There was a moment of frozen horror, then several of the handmaidens set off after their charge, but she was too fast for them to catch. Meanwhile Khurram's heart was in his mouth. Surely, dressed as she was, she would never make such a leap. Surely she would land in the water, missing the far edge of the canal. Surely--

Arjumand's leap was not quite that of a Chital, but it was more than sufficient to clear the canal, though her landing was faltering and only Khurram's steadying hands prevented her from falling headlong into the sweet turf.

"I have always wished to try that but I have never dared before tonight," she said. "Thank you."

She might have said more, but the moment was broken by the sound of a splash and a yelp of dismay.

Glancing back, Khurram realised that, while one of the pursuing handmaidens had been able to halt before the canal, the other had not.

For a moment, Khurram was unsure of what to do. Then Arjumand began to chuckle – and it was a funny vision. The handmaiden, normally so self-possessed and neat was standing waist deep in the canal, water-lily petals in her hair. Khurram allowed himself a chuckle and then performed the chivalrous deed and aided her escape from the canal's watery clutches.

For his troubles, the woman glared daggers at him and stalked off in the direction of the palace. Her clothes and shoes soaked through so that each step went with a squelch and a sodden flap, which just made Arjumand laugh all the harder.

In that moment, Khurram knew himself utterly lost and completely in love.

"I should, perhaps, seek my bed," she said presently, as the rest of her retinue rejoined her by more conventional means. "It does draw late."

"That it does." Khurram offered his arm in courtly courtesy. "Permit me to escort you in?"

She laughed again and accepted the offer. "Of course."

They walked in towards the palace buildings, not speaking but enjoying each other's company. At the doorway, she started to step away, stopped and turned back.

"Until tomorrow?" she asked.

"Until tomorrow and every tomorrow," Khurram answered.

"I'd like that," said Arjumand. "Until then."

And with that, she was gone, taking Khurram's heart with her.