Daya opens her eyes to the colors of dusk, though she smells and hears midday. Soft light picks out yellow and turquoise stones and the bright fire of Gul-Mohar flowers; but the heat is Surya at his fiercest, making all else pale before his glory.
She turns over, dazed and sluggish, listening to the distant clash of copper pots, breathing in spices cooked in coconut oil—then jerks upright. Why is she lazing in daylight hours? The Rajkumari, the princess, will be angry.
Why does her head hurt so? She puts a hand to it, feels something sticky. She brings her fingers to her face. Red. But only the Rajkumari and her fine ladies wear henna.
A sparrow hops into a patch of turquoise. His feathers turn as blue as the stones. Daya stares at him, then looks up into strips and swirls and diamonds of glowing color. Surya is almost overhead, a bright, veiled circle. The stones are not blue. The light is blue. And yellow, and red.
The sparrow hops up to Daya. Sparrows have never feared her. Perhaps they sense a kinship; she too is small and brown and plain. She wipes her fingers absently on her ghagra, looks at the stain they leave on the skirt. Blood. She must have fallen.
The sky is made of silk. Surya’s rays soften as they fall through it, taking on its brilliant colors; he holds back his fierceness in respect for the kingly cloth. Daya can imagine him running his fingers through it, as she used to when dressing the princess.
The walls of this new world are also silk, more silk than she ever thought to see. She is caged in a fortune and painted in colored light.
Her head is throbbing. She picks up a flower and twirls it. Four petals are pure red; the fifth is streaked with saffron lines, twisting like tiny rivers. Gul-Mohar. When the trees come into bloom, they seem ablaze. Like the red bird.
Daya once put a Gul-Mohar flower in her hair. The Rajkumari thought it was funny. “Look,” she told her other attendants. “A sparrow wearing peacock feathers to be beautiful!” Daya had worn the flower for its beauty, not her own, but she did not care that the other girls laughed, because she knew the princess loved her.
Daya stops twirling the flower, and looks up to keep the tears inside. There are crows squabbling in the tree above her. They do not seem to care how they look, though they were people in their last lives. She takes a breath, lets it out in a sigh, and shifts her gaze over to the peacock, who clearly does care. Her lips twitch. He is a little ridiculous, strutting around to outdo the other birds.
The peacock was presented to the Rajkumari by one of the first princes to court her, and his dance outdid that of any other bird in the palace. When he first spread out his tail feathers and swayed to music Daya could not hear, her breath caught. But the Rajkumari was not impressed, by either the gift or the prince.
She did not care for the singing fountain, either, or the ghagra woven from gold thread and embroidered with thousands of tiny pearls, or the magical flute whose music brought happiness, or the white mare with the silver mane and tail, or even the circlet carved from a single emerald. Nor did she care for the men they came with.
Every prince and king in the known lands had tried to court her, but she would have none of them. And Daya agreed, for who could be worthy of her princess?
• • • •
Then one day, the red bird came.
He flew into the women’s quarters, the size of a sparrow and the color of a Gul-Mohar bloom, bearing on his head a crest of feathers like small red leaves. At first he went unnoticed among the other wonders of the palace, but then he fluttered down in front of the Rana himself and started to sing, the song so sweet that a circle of silence grew around him.
Daya glanced up from her place at the Rajkumari’s feet. Her mistress had a little smile on her face. Priya, who was fanning her, was smiling, too. Daya sighed a little as she looked back to the bird; all was well.
The Rana himself had closed his eyes to listen; Daya did the same.
“Hear me, O great king,” she heard.
She looked around. Nothing but birdsong. She closed her eyes again, and heard, as if the bird were singing a tune to which she knew the words, “I come from the court of the Rainbow Prince, for the Rainbow Prince seeks a bride.”
Daya’s eyes came open, and she looked around. People looked bewildered, but for the Rana, whose eyes were closed, and the princess, who was glaring at the Rana. “What is it?” She snapped. He did not respond.
Daya whispered, “Close your eyes, my mistress, I think it is magic.” The Rajkumari’s hand came down on her shoulder, and Daya was pulled around. “How is it you know?”
Daya shook her head. “Accident, my mistress, nothing more. I closed my eyes simply for the pleasure, and I heard speech . . .”
The Rajkumari let go. Clumsy as always, Daya almost fell, missing several lines of the bird’s song. She closed her eyes to hear, “But this I must tell you. The Rainbow Prince will wed only a true beauty.”
The Rana replied, “He will surely find here what he seeks, for any man may see that none surpass the beauty of my only child.” He looked over at the Rajkumari, then back at the bird with a smile. “In the brightness of her eyes, in the whiteness of her face, in the poetry of her form, in the music of her movement, she is the loveliest girl ever to have graced a court.”
The Rajkumari smiled at this and asked sweetly, “But what is it my honored father in his wisdom has learned from this bird’s song?”
The Rana’s smile grew fond. “Dearest of all possible children,” he said, “I have heard of a great land, overflowing with riches, bursting with color and laughter and riches and music and joy and, and riches; ruled by one known as the Rainbow Prince. It is said—or sung, rather, by this most wondrous of messengers—that the Rainbow Prince is brave and generous, strong and noble, wise and fair—” he paused for a breath “—to look upon. He has also a court full of wonders—of which this bird is but the smallest example—and is therefore more than a mere mortal man; he seeks a bride, a beauty, and it is understandable that, that such a man would not settle for any maiden less lovely than yourself—” The Rana paused again “—and it may be perhaps that he is to your taste?”
Daya wondered how the bird had managed to say so much in so little a time. Truly his song must have been magical.
“If he is all the bird claims, O most beloved of fathers,” replied the Rajkumari, “then he is well to my taste. The bird is a fitting gift, and I shall keep it to sing to me in my chambers.”
The bird ruffled up his feathers, and the Rana looked dismayed. “Jewel of my land,” he cried, “treasure of our line, the bird is a messenger. It is known by all that messengers are inviolate.”
The Rajkumari smiled and tossed her head. “I shall have it as a treasured gift. It was surely meant as such, for it will tell me tales of my own dearest love, and how could I be other than miserable without some token of his esteem?”
At this the bird rose into the air, his tiny wings beating desperately, but a maid swung a peacock feather fan at him. It knocked him out of the air. Priya pulled her dupatta off her head and flung it over him: a shameful, immodest act before the Rana, but forgivable, in the Rajkumari’s service. Daya closed her eyes against the pitiful fluttering of the trapped bird’s wings.
The bird shrilled his words into the air. “O free me, free me, Rajkumari, someone! Have you no honor? This is unjust!”
Yet they caged him and took him away. The princess must not have heard his words.
In the evening, when Surya steered his chariot down behind the mountains, the Rajkumari retired to her chambers. Away from the men, she removed her dupatta and seated herself in front of a window. Daya unwound her glorious long hair from its braids and started to comb it. Her other attendants sat at her feet, and they had for a little while a comfortable silence. Then Priya asked the Rajkumari, “Will you take us with you, mistress, when you go to the Rainbow Prince’s court?”
The Rajkumari smiled. “I may, if you are good. I will certainly take Daya with me, for in such a court of wonders, I will need her to remind me that ordinary things exist!”
The other girls laughed.
Priya left the chamber and returned with the bird in a delicate golden cage. “Your gift, o light of my world,” she announced, and laid the cage on a table.
The Rajkumari clapped her hands together. “And is it not a handsome present? You shall also come with me, Priya. Come, bird, tell me of the Prince!”
The bird piped a brief, weak little tune. Daya leaned around the princess to see what was wrong.
He lay on the bottom of the cage, a little huddle of dull red feathers, wings bent forward, face hidden. Her breath drew sharply in. “Oh, my mistress, he is unwell,” she whispered.
The Rajkumari laughed. “Nonsense. The creature is pretending.”
Daya replied, “It does not seem so to me, Rajkumari,”
Priya cried angrily, “And who are you, who thinks herself wiser than the Rajkumari?”
The princess tossed her head. “Her name means mercy,” she said, “but it should mean stupidity. She knows nothing of subterfuge, so she believes this animal’s lie. And she has stopped combing my hair, and for that perhaps I shall leave her here when I depart for my new home.”
Ashamed, Daya drew back and continued with her task.
But later, after the Rajkumari and the other girls were asleep, she returned to the cage and watched the little red bird. He looked back with one dull black eye, not moving. His beak opened, but the sound coming out of it was little more than a wheeze. The cage was lined with feathers.
It was a fragile thing, that cage; strong enough to hold a bird, but no barrier to even a small girl. Daya grasped two bars and pulled them apart, then reached in and picked the bird up. His heart trembled against her hands. She took him out to the courtyard and set him down, aware that it was probably too late.
As the night air brushed his feathers, the bird’s head came up and he cocked it at Daya. His eyes were bright again, and he stood, then took to the air. Thrilled, Daya watched until he was lost in the branches of a flowerng tree.
His voice came to her in song more lovely than ever, and she hurriedly closed her eyes. “You are gentle, little sparrow, and kind. You will do nicely.”
Daya said, “My Rajkumari did not know how ill you were. I am sure she meant you no harm.”
The bird trilled a laugh. “Ah, did she not?”
Daya shook her head, turned, pushed aside the beaded curtain and returned indoors—
and came face to face with the Rajkumari. The birdsong had woken her.
And so it was that Daya found herself caged.
The princess was angrier than Daya had ever seen. She woke the whole palace, even the men, to give her orders.
It was done while she slept. Her people worked through the night, and they did not wake her until it was done. Those who were not sewing silk were felling trees to drive into the ground as pillars. Their work was lit by candles and lanterns. They all had bloodied hands before the night was out.
When the Rajkumari rose, she inspected the cage. Then she had Daya thrown in to be its first prisoner. Graceless as ever, Daya hit her head.
• • • •
A flap of the cage opens, a bright wedge of outside world appearing for a moment, then narrowing again to nothing.
It leaves a net inside, full of birds struggling to get free. Daya hurries over to help them before any lose tail feathers or eyes. She is slow and clumsy, her bloody fingers fumbling with the knots, and the birds scratch her as she releases them. The first few scratches are painful, but she realizes that she has earned this pain. After all, it is her fault they are trapped.
She frees them all with quickening breath, fearing the flash of red that will tell her that her little friend has been caught. Even now she hopes he will go free, though she hates the part of herself that could choose to defy the Rajkumari.
But the red bird showed her that the world could be wondrous, and she does not want to see that die. It does not occur to her, just then, to wonder how a cage would kill someone.
She releases seven crows, a bulbul, and four sparrows into captivity, then retreats to the cover of a Gul-Mohar tree and stares up into the flowers. At first, the red flowers and green leaves are yellowed by the silk above, but soon they begin to look normal. When she glances around again, everything seems too blue. She goes back to the warmth of the flowers. Their beauty is not tainted by captivity. They do not suffer.
A speck of red falls away from its branch far above. She watches as it comes closer, her eyes held by the color and movement. Then, with growing dread, she realizes that it is bigger than it should be. She tells herself it is merely a large flower. It has to be.
Just a flower.
But he unfurls wings to break his fall, flaps once, and lands in her lap, and all hope fails. She has betrayed her Rajkumari; she has given up her future; she has brought innocents into captivity with her; and all of it was futile. The red bird is caught, and now he will die.
A drop of water falls on the red bird’s head. A tear. “Oh, little friend.” She scrubs at her face. “I am sorry.”
He cocks his head at her, his eyes still bright. He could not have been here long. Then he tilts his head back, and she hurriedly closes her eyes to listen.
“Stop crying, child,” the song tells her, “I will free you.”
“Free me? It is not for myself that I fear, but for you!”
There is a pause. “But why?”
“It is you who cannot live in a cage!”
“Ah. —So it is.” His tone is embarrassed. “Though it comes to my notice that they have neglected to feed you. You cannot live in this cage either, Daya, not for long.”
She cannot deny it. But . . . “I am nobody. If you die, then with you dies your music, your magic.”
She can feel his wings flutter against her lap, an irritated movement. “Nobody? Perhaps. But I shall I make you somebody, child.”
She can feel tears leaking from her eyes again. “Even your magic cannot make me somebody.”
“You underestimate my magic.”
She shakes her head, eyes still closed. “I am not beautiful, nor graceful, nor even loyal. While I served the Rajkumari, I had a place in the world, but I lost that place along with her trust. I deserve this death. I am a traitor, and doubly a traitor in wishing, even now, that you had never been caught.”
“I let them catch me.”
“But why?” She stares at the bird for a moment before closing her eyes again. He looks no worse than he did a few minutes before. She wonders if the size of the cage helps him. “Why would you risk such a thing?”
“Did you really think those incompetents could catch me against my will? I did it for you.”
“I want you to come with me. Forget your Rajkumari; I can take you away to the land of the Rainbow Prince.”
She shakes her head. “I cannot fly away, little bird. Can your magic take me away from all this? You could not even free yourself!”
“I did not choose to free myself.”
“You . . . but then I did not need to free you, to betray . . .?” She opens her eyes, and the music fades into notes. The little bird stops singing and glares up at her with one bright black eye. She closes her eyes again.
“The Rainbow Prince does not wish the powers of his realm to be generally known.”
“Then why tell me?”
“Because you’ll be coming with me.”
Daya catches her breath in fear. “And what will the Rajkumari do with me there?”
The bird laughs again. “What makes you think your petty mistress will ever hold power there?”
“Will not the bride of the Rainbow Prince hold power?”
“Certainly, but she will not be your Rajkumari. The Rainbow Prince has no use for such a girl so vain; it is mercy that his land stands in need of.”
Daya almost opens her eyes, then, in protest. “My princess is not vain!” she cries. “She is so very lovely, how could she not know her own beauty?”
“Her beauty is a shallow and fleeting thing. In five years, she will have it no longer, and her selfishness will be merely ridiculous.”
“Three times you have insulted her now. It is not so!”
“No? For her pleasure alone she has caged a messenger, her own maidservant, and hundreds of helpless birds. She has no honor.”
Daya shakes her head. His words turn everything upside down. “I don’t believe you,” she shouts. “You are wrong!”
And then she hears a familiar voice. “Who is wrong, Daya? Tell me, to whom do you speak?”
She starts, and her eyes fly open. The Rajkumari stands almost above her, just beyond the reach of overhanging branches. Branches might catch at the embroidery on her choli. She is flanked by guards, not courtly ladies at all but strangers, muscular women in warriors’ saris. Daya freezes.
The Rajkumari’s voice cuts into her fear. “Come here, Daya. I asked you a question.” Daya can feel the little bird crouching down into her lap, his heart beating faster against her leg.
Daya has none of the Rajkumari’s grace. She is a disheveled, dirty, plain girl, and she knows it, and at that moment it is her strength. She rises, catches her foot in her ghagra, and stumbles, kicking up dust and setting the skirt to wild flapping. She staggers forward, trips, falls heavily to the ground. She has a vague impression of fluttering wings.
The Rajkumari laughs, harshly. Daya scrambles to her feet, sinks to her knees. “My princess, I was arguing with myself. Part of me believed you would simply leave me to die here, and I was telling that part she was wrong. And she was; you are here.”
There is a small silence, and Daya hopes, wildly, that her words are true, that the Rajkumari is still somehow the friend she had as a child.
But the Rajkumari looks down with disdain. “Why would I be here for you?” she says. “No more lies, girl. The red bird. I heard its song. You know where it is. Return it to me, and you shall go free.”
“Rajkumari, I do not know.” It is the truth. Daya realizes it is not the only truth that has been spoken this day.
“I do not.” Daya stands, holding her arms out, and comes slowly forward, showing that the red bird is nowhere on her person, hoping that he will take the time to flee.
The princess grasps her shoulders and shakes her. “Tell me where it is.”
Daya looks at her feet.
“Look for it,” the Rajkumari tells her women. “A red bird should be easy to find.”
They search, and Daya’s heart fails. One goes behind her to search the tree. Her eyes follow the other, who strides into a patch of blue, straight through a flock of sparrows. They rise in a cheeping, fluttering cloud before her. Two crows hop cawing out of her path. There are no other birds nearby; all the wild ones are on the far side of the cage. Daya sees no red bird, only brown and black, and she fears he is hiding in the Gul-Mohar tree.
One brave sparrow returns to the ground, and, slowly, the others join him. She watches them despairingly. But one bears a crest on his head, a line of feathers no sparrow could own. She looks away, at the pond, wondering how he could have made himself brown. More magic?
Losing patience, the Rajkumari pushes her away. She falls again. The princess calls the nearest guard from the tree, and orders her to catch a bird. Any bird.
The guard walks into the sparrows and they rise again, scolding. She waits for them to come down, but they fly a little distance from her before settling. They are not that tame. But crows are. After all, who would hurt a sacred bird? She catches one as he hops lazily to one side, and brings him cawing to the princess.
The Rajkumari glares at Daya. “Your stubbornness drives me to this,” she hisses. Then, to the woman: “Wring its neck.”
The guards’s eyes widen in horror. Daya cries out, scrambles to her feet. “You cannot kill a crow!”
“Then show me where the red bird is.”
Daya is caught. Crows are people, and she cannot let this one die. But the red bird is also a person. How can she choose between their lives?
The Rajkumari snaps, “Do it!” The guard looks frightened, but takes the crow in a firmer grip. Daya stares. She cannot speak, nor hold her silence.
A blur of red feathers swoops down and the guard cries out. The crow flaps away, cawing; the guard does not even try to catch it. She is looking at her hand, at the blood running red between his thumb and fingers.
As the bird flies from yellow light into blue, his feathers turn brown. He lands among the sparrows, almost another sparrow; when he takes off again, the whole flock rises with him and he is lost to sight. The Rajkumari looks from the flock to Daya, her face more terrible than beautiful.
And in that moment Daya knows who to stand with; and she knows what to do.
She steps forward. “My princess,” she says softly. “I beg you, do not harm them. I will bring you the red bird; only leave the cage so he will come to me, and I will capture him for you.”
The Rajkumari’s eyes narrow. “And what do you expect in return?” she asks.
Daya keeps her eyes humbly lowered. “For myself, nothing,” she replies. “I know I have offended you; I cannot expect forgiveness. Only release the birds.”
“Except for the red bird, which is mine.”
The princess is silent, but Daya feels the weight of her eyes. She continues to look at her feet.
“Very well.” The Rajkumari turns to leave. The guard follows her, holding one hand close to her chest. The other guard, noticing from across the cage, returns to her position. And Daya is alone again.
Not entirely alone. Soon the flock of sparrows settles near her. She walks up to them. A few birds take flight, but they settle again. Daya is no threat. Daya has never been a threat.
The red bird flutters to her shoulder. She closes her eyes and hears him ask, “And what is it you plan? What I see in you is not defeat.”
She replies firmly, “You must trust me.”
“I must, must I? Tell me your plan.”
“Trust me. When you can leave, do.”
She cups her hands out in front of her, and he flutters down into them. She closes them over him. His heart hammers against her hands. He is small, and helpless, and trapped. Daya knows what that is like.
She opens her eyes to find the door flap of the cage. He asks, “And what of you?”
She blinks, surprised that she can still understand him, then shakes her head. “There is nothing you can do. Tell your Prince, if you will; perhaps he will extend mercy to me.”
His song pauses for a moment before it returns. “The Rainbow Prince is known for justice, not mercy. No, the power to break your bonds is in you; no other can do that. But if you truly want to leave this life, I will help.”
She realizes that she does want to leave. For all the years and all the love she gave her Rajkumari, it was the bird who judged truly. She has nothing left here. And since the bird spoke true about the princess, Daya trusts him.
He sings again to her as she approaches the door to the cage, and the music is sweet, coaxing. “Daya. I came seeking true beauty. I found it. Come with me.” Her eyes widen at this, and she almost drops him. But she is near the edge of the prison, now, and the Rajkumari has seen her.
Two guards pull back the silk and pin it back. Daya squints against the sudden afternoon brightness, and approaches.
The Rajkumari steps into the gap. Daya draws close and murmurs, “My princess.” The Rajkumari smiles, triumphant.
Daya does not smile. “My name means mercy, and so I must be kind—” She extends cupped hands “—to all living beings.” She opens her hands, raising them to the sky. The bird flutters out and up beyond her reach.
The Rajkumari’s eyes follow it, widening. Then they come down to glare at Daya.
That look would have made her cringe, once. Now she meets it coldly. “You see,” she says, “I have learned something today: Compassion is not a weakness.” She can feel, behind her, building inside the cage, the power of a thousand birds who have just seen one of their own fly free.
Daya drops to the ground just as wings beat over her, through the space she had been in. It is an age before the sound fades and she dares stand again.
The Rajkumari has mud in her hair and angry tears in her eyes. Blood runs down her face and wells from a rip in her choli, and her ghagra is muddy and torn. It tangles her feet as she tries to rise. And Daya did not warn her.
The sight gives Daya little joy. She offers a hand.
The Rajkumari stares up at it with real hatred. She chokes, “You—” and she starts to cry.
Daya lets her hand fall. She is dry-eyed. “I know you now,” she whispers. “You are just a girl, just another girl.”
“You!” The Rajkumari stumbles to her feet, spits blood. “What gives you the right—” Then she whirls, to glare at the guards. “The cliff. Throw her off the cliff! If her precious birds can save her then, she may have her life.”
The Rajkumari is just another girl, but her word is law.
But Daya does not believe she will do it. Until she finds herself in the air, falling, she does not believe it will be real.
The cliff is high. She has time to wonder if the birds will help her, and time to know that they will not even try. They have flown to their lives, and care nothing for Daya.
But then she hears the mad flutter of tiny wings, and the song of the red bird. The Rainbow Prince. And she knows he is come to save her.
“Now you must trust me.” The notes are blown away by the wind, but still she can hear the words. “I promised I would take you to my land.”
He thinks she has true beauty. She does not know what magic he will do, but she knows he will do something.
“And in my land you shall be queen, for my land has need of mercy.”
The ground rushes closer, closer, jagged black, and she is scared; but she trusts him. With all her heart she trusts him.
Then she hits the rocks. The world spins, sun-bright, though thunder crashes distant in her ears. She tastes blood.
He flutters close, a red smear across white pain. “Remember,” he sings cheerfully, “that you shall be queen.”
How—? The world whirls. The red bird—he opened her eyes. He spoke of honor.
But he also pretended to be dying in the golden cage. He let her free him, not caring what it would do to her. And he came back to talk her into blaming the Rajkumari.
She screams; her body makes only a broken gurgle.
“Pain is temporary,” he tells her.
Pain is everything. Pain laces in lightning streaks through her head, her heart, her shattered hands. She cannot feel her legs. He is wrong. She must tell him so. She tries to take a breath, but there is no air.
“My realm is free of sensation, and you will be there always.” He says this as though it is a promise, his voice bright in the fading world.
She falls into the realm between lives, cringing with the last of her death, and sees the red bird shift. There before her is a man wearing red. He is the only color in a world of shifting greys, and he stands out like blood on the rocks. He grasps her arm. Smiles.
Her arm is as grey as his realm.
“Did I not tell you that I would bring you into my land?” he asks. “Never say I lied to you; I never would.”
• • • •
He does not love me, of course. He does not know love. Only Dharma; only justice. I am his wife because his land needs mercy to balance his harsh rule, no more, and since I brought myself here there is no injustice in keeping me trapped.
Do you understand yet?
He is kind to me, as you were not, though he has no warmth or care. He needs my power. He cannot force me to serve. But you were right about him, as he was about you; and I, I was betrayed in you both.
My power here is simple: I may send you on to another life, or leave you to misery unending. That is my choice. It is mine because you sent me here, and because the Rainbow Prince binds me here, away from the sun and the sky. Away from the colors and sounds and smells, the sensations that made life bearable.
I am not so innocent as I was. I finally learned the lesson that you had guessed and the Rainbow Prince knew: Dharma is empty, and Daya is a game. Power too often used is weakened. I have had years to understand this, and years, princess, to think about what to do with you.
I know it is unjust. That you were only the spoiled child we let you become. The one I should hate is my lord and husband—and I do, though he merely acted in his nature. But justice is not my domain, and you shall have no mercy here.
For I have power over you, as I do not over him. What else do I have, after all?
Spread the word!