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Vol. 2, No. 2

Erotomorphia
by Claire Messud

~

Baburshahnistan's subjects turned out in droves to the polling stations. Referendum day was a national holiday, and the roads and airwaves were thick with festivity. Many walked miles across torturous terrain; others arrived on rusty bicycles, their children perched on the handlebars. Provision had been made for the illiterate and the blind, to whom the referendum questions were read aloud; provision had been made for the lame, who were ferried to and from the stations in grunting blue buses with tasseled curtains on the windows. In the capital, where Prince Ravi and his American guests strolled the streets, the exuberant throng cheered their monarch, waving flags and placards decorated with his likeness.
    The January weather was clear and crisp, and the snow-capped mountains glimmered on the horizon. Isabella, whose hand was clasped and whose cheek was kissed by hundreds of tearful, joyful citizens, understood fully for the first time what Ravi had meant when he spoke of the love of his subjects. Even her father, that impassioned advocate of democracy, was moved to say, "If they don't want Wexco, they shouldn't have Wexco"--with only a slight pang for the fate of his substantial holdings.

 

~

"What do you think of our visitors?" Ravi asked his mother that afternoon, after her nap. "Do they change your mind about Americans?"
    "I know you too well. You can't fool me."
    Dewi, who stood alongside them, coughed slightly. "Your mother means to say--"
    The Queen Mother waved him silent. "He told me." She tightened her cashmere shawl around her shoulders. "This fine councillor of yours informed me months ago."
    "When?"
    "Not long after your return from the United States. He also knows you: when you so selfishly and irresponsibly gave your closest adviser the slip for the afternoon, he could tell it was not mere frivolity."
    "And?"
    "All autumn, you did not speak of it. All autumn, you took no action. What can a mother do? I thought, then, your intentions could not be serious--you would have told me, I thought, if they were. So, it was left to me to find alternatives, to fill the space in your heart."
    "How could I speak to you about it, when I haven't even spoken to her?"
    "You're a monarch, for heaven's sake. Behave accordingly."
    "You don't disapprove?"
    "Of course I disapprove. She is a foreigner, and a divorcée in the bargain--although a very charming one. I disapprove entirely. But as your faithful Dewi has reminded me--constantly, constantly, over the months, with such lack of tact that I've considered having him beheaded--you rule the country, not I." She smiled, half sour, half genuine. "Your father and I, you know, made a love match. His mother disapproved most gravely."
    "I don't act rashly, Mother."
    "Perhaps you should. Perhaps the time has come."

 

~

At twilight, Ravi took Isabella up to the palace roof to watch the sun set, bloody, behind the mountains, and to see the crowds across the city gathering, in all its hidden squares, to celebrate. Fires and strings of lights twinkled in the penumbra; the whine of zithers and the patter of drums could be heard, carried on the chill breeze.
    "You're right," Isabella said. "I couldn't have imagined Baburshahnistan. It's a magnificent country."
    "I only need someone to rule it with me." Ravi's smile was wistful, less perfectly gleaming than Isabella recalled.
    She, with a gulp and a skip of her heart, tried to respond with appropriate detachment. "Rumor has it your mom's on to that."
    "We had a talk. She may allow me some freedom, now."
    "The right woman's out there. I always remember what you said to me, about not fighting your fate. I've been trying to live by it."
    "Indeed." Prince Ravi shuddered nervously. "Are you cold?"
    "I'm fine." Isabella held her arms against her chest. "Tell me, though--what's wrong? This is a wonderful day. You've done a remarkable thing. Your people adore you. You should be over the moon."
    "Ah, but the adoration of a people . . ."
    "I know. It's like with my dad. We get on much better--but it's not--you know. It's lonely, right?"
    "You are lonely, too?" Ravi, as he asked this, sounded like a hopeful child.
    "Of course."
    "I wasn't, you know. Until last summer."
    "It's your age, maybe?"
    "No. It isn't that."
    They were quiet, awkward, side by side upon the parapet in the jasmine-scented air, while the music swelled beneath them.
    "We'd better go in," Isabella said. "Your guests will be arriving. Another Baburshahnistani hoedown--like the one where we met."
    "Not your idea of a good time, as I recall?"
    "Oh no," Isabella blushed, relieved that Ravi could not see her in the dark. "This is absolutely my idea of a good time. Can't imagine a better. In fact," she laughed, "this is my best ever time."
    Then, in what both suspected was a breach of royal etiquette, Ravi kissed her. On the marble terrace, beneath the stars, above the crowds, with the music all around them. And then, when they were done, he kissed her again, or she kissed him. More accurately, they kissed each other. They were listening to each other's movements before they made them; they moved in concert.
    "You won't go?" Ravi asked.
    "Am I likely to cut off my hands?" Isabella answered. "Or your nose?"

 

~

Isabella Greengrass, as she wrote often to Agnes, found the transformation into a princess easier than she might have imagined. There was only one tiara involved, and that only on rare occasions. The Queen Mum was crabby, but "secretly a gem," Isabella told her friend. She learned the rules of cricket, but was relieved to discover that Ravi did not expect her to enjoy the game. Rather, he encouraged her to develop her own interests: she set up an agency to bring medical care to the poor, as she had, so long before, dreamed of doing; she became a great patron of the arts, and thrilled her subjects by appearing, occasionally, in theatrical performances; and she introduced, to Baburshahnistan, an appreciation for its spectacular and unspoiled environment, while always trying, like her husband, to balance this concern with the prosperity and well-being of the country's people. Isabella's happiness, to her great pleasure, made her father happy; and when the Senator retired from politics, he came to spend six months a year in Baburshahnistan, as one of a handful of Wexco consultants to the nation's thriving domestically run oil wells. His seat in the Senate was taken by none other than Elliott Morton, who had been much altered by the beliefs of his Shell Oil-executive wife, and who was, to no one but Isabella's surprise, elected on a conservative platform.
    "I suppose it was inevitable," she said to Ravi, upon reading of this election in the Baburshahnistani Times. "I always told you," replied her beloved husband, planting a kiss on her creamy brow, "the guy's a fool."

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