A Princess and her Palace
By Priyanka Sacheti
Arts Illustrated Short Story Contest, Second Runner-up
Once upon a time, a wise man told a little princess, ‘All palaces are temporary: it is their destiny to ultimately crumble one day.’ The princess thought he was crazy to utter such words while standing inside a vast, magnificent palace – the only home she had known. She could not possibly imagine her palace being reduced to a dusty heap of ruins; it might happen to other palaces, but not hers. Yet, in the years to come, the wise man’s words remained in her mind.
The princess lived in one of the palace’s many towers. Sitting atop a hill, the palace soared high above the city, sharply glancing down at an intricate jigsaw puzzle of tiny houses. During sleepless nights, the princess would examine these houses, wondering about their inhabitants and the lives they led. What were the dreams that filled their sleep? What made them laugh or cry? What was their favourite meal? She hungered for this knowledge for she had never been to the city or met her people, having only seen the city from afar. Sometimes, her own city appeared even more distant than the moon.
The older she grew, the more she began to resent the palace. It was undoubtedly an incredible universe in itself but she longed to know of other worlds too. The exquisite gardens did not enchant her any more than the richly gilded rooms, courtyards and terraces. She became bored of pacing the same paths, smelling the same flowers, year after year. She was tired of meeting the same people, having the same conversation every day. Her parents, the King and the Queen, were particular that she pursue a rigorous education: yet, all that knowledge was not enough to distract her. What difference would it eventually make to her life if she studied poetry or astronomy? After all, was she not going to exchange one palace for another one once she got married?
It was only when she saw the palace by night that her feelings dramatically underwent a transformation. Her parents did not permit her to leave the palace unless it was absolutely vital and even then, she was tightly shut up inside palanquins. She became obsessed with the idea of seeing the palace by night. Along with her attendant, Meera she meticulously crafted a plan that would allow the princess to leave the palace. She donned a disguise, mounted her favourite horse, and rode away, pausing only when she was far enough to see the palace from a distance. She had deliberately chosen a full moon night to view the palace – and what she saw made her gasp in awe. It shimmered in myriad shades of undulating deep green and blue, like a slumbering sea. The longer she stared at it, the more fragile it appeared, as if it would crumble under her very touch. That night, upon her return, she again contemplated the sleeping houses below her. For them, the palace too must seem as distant as the moon, an unattainable, fantastical being.
The years slowly plodded by: the houses became tinier, looking increasingly squalid with each passing day. The princess often heard rumblings but Meera comforted her by saying it was only the earth having a tummy ache, clamouring for food after so many droughts. The palace meanwhile grew fatter and fatter, as if it were pregnant with an illicit secret. By now, she had sneaked out several times to see it at night. Each time she saw it, she experienced a mixture of reverence and an overwhelming, nameless feeling. Later, she recognised the latter as love.
One day, as she sat in the garden, her mother arrived, followed by a group of women, each carrying a veiled portrait. She did not need to ask what the portraits were and why her mother had brought them to her. The ladies unveiled each portrait with a quiet gravitas, reciting the subjects’ virtues, genealogy and the wealth and power of their kingdoms. Some were already kings while others were still princes. She wordlessly sat through the presentation, thinking that each man appeared and sounded the same with so little to distinguish one from the other. She rose, shut her eyes and randomly placed her finger on a portrait. ‘This is the man I will marry,’ she said.
She did not see her husband’s face until the day of their wedding. It was difficult to assess whether the portraitist had been exaggerating or downplaying his features for a dense veil of tuberoses and roses concealed his face. It was only after they completed the seven ceremonial steps around the fire and were pronounced husband and wife that she saw his face for the first time. They gazed into a mirror placed between them: their eyes met, looked away, and then met again. And she then recalled seeing the palace for the first time at night, being aware of something vastly bigger than herself and, yet, it belonged to her.
When she sat inside the palanquin to begin her journey to her new home and life, she started sobbing, only now grasping the enormity of the change ahead of her. As the palanquin made its way down the hill, taking her further away from the palace than ever before, she peeped out to see it for the last time. The next time she returned, she would no longer be the same woman who had once called this her home. But would the palace still be there? A frisson of fear rippled through her; where did that thought come from? She stared at the palace until her eyes ran dry, embroidering the image upon her memory, afraid that it would vanish the moment she looked away. And it was only when the palace finally did recede into the distance that she closed her eyes and sank into a dreamless sleep.
Priyanka Sacheti is a Bengaluru-based writer. She has been published in numerous publications with a special focus on art, gender, diaspora and identity. Her literary work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. She’s currently working on a poetry collection.