Marco lay awake, his body ramrod straight, his skin tight around each strained muscle. He was tired. Bone tired. Yet, although he pushed the limits physically, he could not shut her out. Leila stole into his thoughts. It didn’t matter what he tried to do. He’d laboured until the small hours of dawn picking grapes, spent the hot days hauling large baskets filled with the fruit which was destined to become the nectar of the Gods. He dug trenches, built structures to support the vines. Anything. Everything. Just to banish her from mind, body and soul.
Now, as he willed himself to fall into a state of oblivion, her image burned behind his eyelids, forever imprinted, it seemed. The night stretched as he berated himself for ever laying eyes on Leila Brown. It was his own damn fault, he knew. How could he have done the one thing he promised himself he wouldn’t do. He had prided himself on being thorough, prudent, practical. It seemed a cruel joke now, that all his efforts to accumulate wealth, standing and a reputation renowned for being hard and detached, were null and void.
Placing his hands behind his head, he tried to focus on something else. Business. He’d taken a short leave of absence from his true business operations, leaving a capable Bianca at the helm. Instead, he concentrated on Almanacarre. He’d worked these fields before. When his mother had left and his father died shortly afterwards, Chimenti had put him to work in the vineyards. It was his salvation, really. Through the toil, he’d been able to overcome some of his darkest moments. The sheer physical process helped him deal with the emotional. When Chimenti had practically banished him from Almanacarre, his newfound home, and he was painfully rejected by Maria, he had found himself on the streets of Florence. But he did not stay there for long. Grit and hard work landed him a stable position as deliveryman. Again, he had abandoned himself to work rather than wallow in his new losses. With a skill finely tuned on the rough streets, he learnt how to haggle and negotiate. Soon he had developed a knack of pandering to the hordes of tourists that swarmed Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Sharing his knowledge of wine, he brought the true taste of Tuscany to zealous visitors. A year later, he had begun his own little enterprise, organising trips to wineries he’d established partnerships with, and exporting the finest wines to some of the top hotels and restaurants around the world. His little enterprise fledged into a booming empire. And by his 25th birthday, he could buy Almanacarre and set his sights further afield. All this was achieved through pure determination and will to escape his past, and more so his emotions.
Now here he was, bone weary and heart broken.
She had not signed the annulment papers. Yet he had sent them weeks ago. His heart kicked in his chest. Hope waning when he talked himself into believing that she was busy as Bismah had informed him only days ago. But, it surged gain. Could the fact that she had not signed the papers mean that she did not want their marriage to end?
No! It would not do to live in false hopes. No! Hastily he pulled himself up off the bed. In a matter of minutes, he was out the door, his jogging shoes fastened, his lungs filled with a burst of cool air before he ran off into the night.
Leila’s drawn smile seemed sufficient in reassuring the group of distinguished statesmen and women of the new policy changes. It seemed their approval was without hesitation, and Leila hid her surprise. That they would even consider her ideas, let alone approve of them, had left Leila with a sense of achievement. But somehow, she couldn’t shake away the cloud that seemed to follow her, even when she grew to appreciate the taste of success. “Your Highness,” Bismah said as he ushered her through the bowing group. Although this was the last meeting of the day, she had still to meet with the Queen in her quarters. Leila set a brisk pace as they hurried down the marble corridor past her quarters that led to the Queen’s wing. Fervently she eyed the passage toward her suite, wishing she could escape there.
As if reading her mind, Bismah offered, “I could inform the Queen of the day’s proceedings.” He sent her a side glance. “Your weariness is apparent.”
Bismah had been at her side since she arrived in Oudh, noting with concern her busy schedule and long days. He was certainly her right hand man. And with the Queen relinquishing more and more responsibility over to her, Bismah was nothing short of a Godsend. “It’s the heat,” she said absently. Though they had seen a fair amount of needed rain over the past weeks, Oudh’s summers were still stifling.
Bismah started to say something but decided to hold his tongue. Instead they strode silently through halls and corridors of the old palace, its rose-coloured marble walls a reminder that it was built as a tribute to the Heart of Oudh.
Just as they approached the finely carved doors that led into the west wing of the palace, Bismah paused. “Your Highness, I request a moment of your time, perhaps in the morning… to discuss … the matter of the annulment.” He hesitated.
Since her return to Oudh, Bismah treaded carefully around the subject of Marco and Leila appreciated it. With the annulment papers lying on her bedside table, a constant reminder that Marco had once again dictated the terms of their relationship, Leila knew she was delaying the inevitable.
Was it wrong to still want him? To yearn for his touch, his rare smile, his haunted eyes on hers? Was it wrong, when she knew he did not want her the same way she still wanted him?
She shook away the flare of emotions she had barely been able to contain these past few weeks. “Of course. I’ve just been so busy, it slipped my mind.” She did not sound as convincing as she hoped.
She continued, “I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I suppose Marco is anxious to get this marriage over and done with. I shall see to it first thing in the morning.”
Again, Bismah started to say something but stopped short. Instead, he reached out and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You have a lot on your mind, Your Highness,” he smiled. “Just look at what you’ve achieved in such a short period of time. Oudh has never been so hopeful… so confident of its future as it is now.” Bismah looked at her earnestly and Leila swallowed hard, and bit her lip against the tears.
“I think you give me too much credit. It is you who has really been the true champion of Oudh.” She smiled her affection for the bald small man who might have stood in the shadows during her meetings but had been pivotal in arranging ideas into cohesive arguments. Her eyes fell on the painting hanging on the wall behind Bismah. She was told that the subject of the painting, Prince Arman, was expertly captured in the painting.
“So life-like, it is as if the man were standing there,” Mira had once said.
Leila saw the vivid resemblance again, but she knew confronting Bismah about it once more would only yield the same result – a nervous laugh and then complete denial.
What she knew without a doubt was that he saw the true potential of Oudh and its people far before she had. It was the reason he was so hard on her in the beginning. She understood that now. “I see now what you see about this land, and I am glad we are all slowly making a difference.”
He shifted uneasily. “Your Highness, the Queen awaits.” He dismissed further talk as he indicated to a guard posted outside the door. In a flourish, the moustached guard threw wide the heavy doors.
Later that evening, too hot and fatigued to find peace in slumber, Leila entered her grandmother’s lush garden. It was cool there and the rushing river that once was a trickling stream, filled the night with its energetic song. Leila sat on the cool stone bench, mesmerised by the swaying blooms ruffled by a slight warm breeze, and the rustle of leaves in the heavily laden branches of the shadowed trees. Carefully clutching the sheaf of papers to her breast, she allowed herself to be distracted by her beautiful surroundings, if only for a moment. Crippling her enjoyment were the dark thoughts that intruded on her search for serenity and peace. Marco! Her heart juddered in her chest. She should hate him, she knew.
She finally held the papers in front of her and read through the documents. “Total willful exclusion of marriage, a defective marriage…” Could her marriage to Marco be reduced to this? Terms that she did not even understand? Leila shut her eyes in frustration. She should hate him. But her heart leapt at the memories that flashed through her mind. When did she fall in love with Marco? She was done asking herself how. Because, despite the fact that he had seemed to play her like a broken fiddle, she had found herself yearning for the man that had decided to buy her for the price of a ruby and then send her on her way when he tired of her.
Lost in the battle of her thoughts, she did not register the Queen’s arrival until she heard her voice.
“Leila, my child.”
Leila stood up with a start, the sheaf of papers falling onto the still wet ground.
“I startled you, are those papers important?” Her grandmother asked as Leila cautiously scooped the sodden sheaths from the muddy puddle, shook off the mud and placed them on the arm of the bench. Leila shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it grandmother.”
The Queen eyed her carefully as they sat. “Could you not sleep?” Leila shook her head again.
“I’ve been concerned, you look fragile my child. I had thought when you arrived that the added responsibility would be good for you, you know, to get your mind away from the situation with your Marco. But perhaps I was wrong. You look like you’ve been run ragged.”
The excuse Leila had ready on the tip of her tongue seemed ridiculous in response. Could she blame her weariness on the stifling heat again?
“Marco has requested I finalise the annulment.” Leila admitted as she stared at her hands, muddy now.
“Aaah, I see.” The Queen took Leila’s hand in hers. “I see,” she repeated, “And is that what you’ve been doing?”
Leila sighed. Pulling her knees up to meet her chin, she rested her head on the Queen’s shoulder. “No, and I’ve ruined the papers it seems.” She indicated the wet pages that moulded itself to the arm of the bench.
“Perhaps it’s a sign.”
Leila picked up her head and glanced at her grandmother’s smiling face.
“Perhaps it is a sign that it cannot be finalised with a signature on a piece of paper. If I know you, my child, then I know that you are not ready to let go. Closure is not a few angry words flung at each other. Closure comes with explanation, an understanding and acknowledgement of feelings. You will forever wonder.” Leila stared at her grandmother’s profile.
“What are you saying?”
The Queen turned to Leila. “I think you know.” Wizened eyes settled on Leila.
“But…” Leila started to say.
“My child I know the cost of playing the waiting game. I too hesitated. When my heart was breaking, I didn’t listen to it and years were wasted. Years that I wish I had with you and Aranya.”
“But I have responsibilities. Oudh is finally rebuilding itself. And I feel like I’ve only now come to realise my place here.”
Her grandmother smiled. Her eyes glittered in the silver light of the moon.
“Oudh can wait. Let me tell you what many have realised already, the heart of Oudh, my Leila, isn’t a ruby… it is you, my child. You will always have a place here.”
At Leila’s quizzical look, the Queen took her hand in hers again and held them between warm palms.
“You’ve brought much hope to us. Now it is time to find your happiness too. Besides, Bismah can handle things for a while.”
Leila debated whether to bring the subject of Bismah up. Deciding it was the perfect moment, she bit her lip and said, “About Bismah. There’s a painting in the gallery of Prince Arman. I can’t help but see the strong resemblance Bismah bears to him. Bismah laughed it off when I first mentioned it. But…” The Queen sighed.
“You are as perceptive and insightful as a future queen should be.” The queen’s lip quivered and for a moment, Leila saw the vestige of the fragile woman she had met more than a year ago.
“Bismah is the illegitimate son of Prince Arman and a seamstress, Yasna. But under Oudhian law, he is not recognised as part of the royal family or even an heir for that matter.”
“Shouldn’t the same law have applied to me?”
“Bismah was born out of wedlock, my child.” A tightness remained in the old woman’s features.
“I consider him my grandchild, it is just that he will never be officially regarded as such. He prefers that it remain a secret.” The lines on her face deepened.
“We have to look at changing some of those laws.”
But the old queen shook her head. “Some laws are not that easy to change. I know you want to move quickly on certain matters. I see the reasoning behind it. But you must know that there will be some things that need to be handled carefully and over time. Traditions are interwoven in some of the laws, you will need to consider them too.” A small smile tugged at the Queen’s lips. “As I know you will.”
A few raindrops scattered across the garden. And Leila lifted her head to the cool splashes. She had seen the children play in the rain earlier in the day, their outstretched arms reached to the heavens, their squeals of joy at the simple delight. She longed to join them.
“It is time to call it a night, I suppose. Seems I have a long journey to undertake tomorrow.”
The Queen’s face broke into a wider smile. “I’m glad to hear of it.”