Isabella Greengrass put on a pair of red lucite cat-eyes: they gave her an expression at once vampish and dowdy, and accentuated the point of her delicate chin. The salesman nodded at her in the mirror. Isabella sighed, and took the glasses off. Next she chose an octagonal design, which lent her features an intellectual air. The salesman shot his starched cuffs and raised an eyebrow. But his client was not satisfied: her fingers roamed the selection laid out before her, and selected a heavy pair of horn-rims.
"You tried those on earlier."
"I know, I know. I just want to see--"
"It all depends what, uh, effect you want. Chic, professional, a little bohemian, perhaps. . .?" The young lady had been seated at the mirror for forty-five minutes, and had peered at her image through almost all the frames in the shop. The salesman did not believe she would come to a decision, and was irked.
"I just can't decide." Isabella's green eyes filled, and her curling lashes clumped, fetchingly, with tears. "I don't know what to look like."
"Might I suggest, in that case--"
Isabella pushed back the plum velveteen stool upon which she had been perched. "I have made up my mind," she said loudly, "not to make up my mind today."
"It's up to you." The salesman's lips curled in a venomous sneer. "If you knew your own style, then we might be of service."
Head high, Isabella strode out into the afternoon glare. Her vision was blurred by tears and myopia, but nothing in her dignified gait betrayed this confusion. She made her way to the littered plaza of Dupont Circle, and sat on one of the sagging benches there, as if to admire the murky fountain. Around her bustled clusters of people and pigeons. Cars whizzed around the circle, and in the distance the tootling pipes of an Andean band could be heard. Oblivious, Isabella Greengrass, of the luminous green eyes and the swan's neck, plucked at a hangnail and tried to quell her ragged breathing.
Isabella, who had left her only pair of glasses on the plane the week before, did not know what she wanted to look like; but this aesthetic doubt was merely a symptom of her greater disaffection. At twenty-seven, newly and unhappily resident in her father's Georgetown mansion, she did not know who she was. Not literally, of course: she was the only daughter of the silver-haired Senator William Greengrass, controversial scion of Capitol society; the soon-to-be-divorced wife of Elliott Morton, the up-and-coming San Francisco lawyer, whose work on behalf of environmental causes (and against the policies of Senator Greengrass) was already all but legend; and the stage actress of small but certain reputation, whose Nina in The Seagull had garnered such praise the previous season--she was well aware of these facts, which seemed, so baldly, to sum up her life. No, her uncertainty was of a more profound and far-reaching nature, which rendered any vision of the future as blurred and bleak as the fountain before her eyes.
In college, her best friend, Agnes, had coined a word for Isabella: an "erotomorph," one transformed by Eros. Isabella was a young woman impassioned and defined by love, who embraced and came to embody the passions of her lovers. "Clear this up for me, Bella. Do you choose the guys first," Agnes teased, "and then fall for their hobbies? Or pick a subject, then find someone to learn about it from?"
When she arrived at university, Isabella had wanted, vaguely, to become a doctor, ministering to the poor; but an early entanglement with Ben, a hot-headed theater director, led her to the stage. She sacrificed organic chemistry for Chekhov and Ibsen, and anatomy for Miller and Albee. In her third year, she shucked the director for a lanky saxophonist named Ivor, and crammed her cupboards and her friends' ears with CDs of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Upon graduation, Isabella and Ivor settled in San Francisco, where she became, again, an actress; it was, after all, what she did best. But everyone around her knew that jazz was her central passion--or, rather, that Ivor's passion was her passion.
After Ivor, there was, briefly, a solo sailor, who peppered Isabella's vocabulary with jibs and booms and compass readings; and an aspiring clothes designer, responsible for Isabella's chic, who taught her about bias cuts and shirring, and used her as a mannequin on his runway. Finally, there was Elliott Morton. He appealed to her in his sobriety and cutting wit, his gravitas; he charmed her with the force of his convictions and his impressive dealings with the dog-eat-dog world of the law. She pored over his discarded textbooks, joined Greenpeace, hugged redwoods--showed, in short, so devoted a commitment to ambitious Elliott's career that their union seemed inevitable.
And, like all of Isabella's men--perhaps, Agnes slyly suggested, it was for this that she chose them?--Elliott enraged her father. Indeed, Elliott's arena of action ensured that he enraged Senator Greengrass far more acutely than some hapless musician or tony dress designer. The patriarch's blessing at their nuptials was so grudging that Isabella felt sure she had made the right match; that she would, hereafter, be free of her father.
Only two years on, however, Elliott had fallen for a fellow lawyer, a snippy, thin-lipped representative of Shell Oil--the enemy! For the first time, Isabella Greengrass, the mutable beauty, the erotomorph, was dumped rather than dumping. She had no new passions, no eros to morph into, no education apparent; and she crumbled. When she found herself romancing a suicidal heroin addict in a seedy San Francisco bar, Isabella knew enough to leave town; and having nowhere else to go, she slunk home to her father, whose arms were unconditionally open, and whose hatred of Elliott now knew no bounds.
Even when there were no guests, supper at the Greengrass residence was served by a uniformed maid. This had been the case since the death of Inez, Isabella's beloved mother, when the girl was only eight. Meals at the Senator's table had long been a trial to his daughter, a tedium of squeaking knives and intermittent pleasantries from which she longed to escape.
Aware of her discomfort, William Greengrass could do little to alleviate it. He adored but had never understood his contrary offspring, whose excitable temperament he attributed to his beloved Latin wife, and he sought refuge in the simplest of questions.
"How was your day, then?"
"Boring." Isabella played with her duck breast, pushing it around in its glutinous sauce.
"Any luck with the glasses?"
"I may have to go to New York to find what I want."
"New York?" Senator Greengrass looked up from his plate. "Why?"
"Don't start, Daddy. There's absolutely nothing here."
"What's here is good enough for me, and for my colleagues, and for the world's most eminent diplomats."
Isabella pointedly ogled her father's gray suit. "Do you want a critique of your fashion sense?"
William Greengrass mastered his frustration by literally biting his tongue. The pair was silent except for the barely audible slurp as he drank his wine.
"Any plans for the weekend?"
"Ag's organizing a dinner party on Saturday. Mostly lawyers, and some USAID people. I don't know if I'll go."
"She's a good friend to you, that Agnes."
Isabella glowered, but her father didn't appear to notice.
"You're free on Friday, then?"
"Like every other day of my life."
"Then perhaps--" The Senator daubed gracefully at the corners of his mouth with his linen napkin. "Perhaps you'd consider an evening out with me?"
"Depends what kind of evening."
Isabella's father permitted himself a wry smile. "Am I not right in quoting the theatrical adage that the first rule of improvisation is always to say yes?"
On Friday afternoon, mere hours before dinner at the Baburshahnistani embassy, Isabella had her hair cut off. She did this not as an act of conscious rebellion, but because the hairdresser insisted it was the right "look" for her client. Her shorn black curls, the stylist gushed, were "simply divine"; but Isabella, peering at the discovered shape of her head as at a foreign map, was initially uncertain; and her father, when she appeared before him, grimaced.
"You look like an urchin."
"It's the style, Daddy." Isabella felt strengthened by his disapproval. "It's a relief."
Her father shrugged. "What are you trying to accomplish?" he asked. "You won't attract any men this way."
"Is that what you think I want to do? You think it's all about men?" Isabella snorted, flaring her fine nostrils and looking, in her fury, like a young matador. "If I never met another man I wouldn't care. I've got to concentrate on myself for a change. You ought to want that too--after everything that's happened."
"Not all men are like Elliott Morton," observed the Senator, as he adjusted his bow tie. "I just want my baby to be happy."
"Do I look like a baby to you?"
The Baburshahnistani ambassador's feast was given in honor of Prince Ravi, recently ascended to the throne upon the death of his honored father, King Then. The Prince had not visited the United States before. His tiny kingdom, under Then, had shunned the blandishments of that great empire; and the Prince's Anglophile education had instilled in him a contempt for America's crass capitalism. He had ventured to Washington only reluctantly, under pressure from his advisers.
Ravi knew, in his compassionate heart, that they were right. He had studied economics at Oxford University; he had seen the bleak poverty in which most of his subjects struggled; and he conceded that the exploitation of Baburshahnistan's untapped oil reserves by American concerns might be the best hope for his people. But that didn't mean he liked it. He wanted, above all, to bring prosperity to his toiling peasantry, electricity to their sandy hovels, medical care to their children--and he would come to Washington, he told his councillors, to assess the cost of such advances to his country and his culture. He would be, as his education dictated, gracious; but he made no promises.
Senator Greengrass had a particular interest in Baburshahnistan. To be sure, the country's oil was a lure; but he sought, too, to cultivate a strong ally in that region, and Baburshahnistan was the healthiest prospect. And again, William Greengrass was a patriot of the old school, who believed in exporting the world's finest principles wherever possible, and who saw, in Prince Ravi, a chance for demo-cracy, a bulwark against cowboy extremism. His own substantial holdings in Wexco Oil, prime bidders for the Baburshahnistan contract, were not--he would have sworn so under oath--his primary incentive.
Isabella knew none of this. She knew only that her father had roped her into a black-tie event for which she had no ball gown. Scanning the embassy's crowded foyer, she noted with perverse satisfaction that she was the sole woman present with short hair and in a short dress. The ambassador's wife was draped, to her toes, in shimmering purple; and the other ladies, scattered like rare peacocks around the salon, their hair upswept in shiny coifs, glittered in gilt and sequins. The men--so many of them paunchy and cauliflower-nosed--looked, in their evening attire, like puffed penguins. Among the perfumed lilies and the delicate strains of the Baburshahnistani harp, Isabella could smell power, her father's kind of power, and she could hear it, in the lowered voices. She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"What is this, Dad? What's it for?" she asked, accepting a champagne flute from a passing waiter. "The cost of this bash would feed the country's hungry for a month!"
"It's just a party, Bella. All you have to do is be pleasant--you might even surprise yourself and have a good time."
"I've got to go talk shop, sweetie. Why don't you check in with Mrs. Whiting over there--ask about that drug-dealing dropout son of hers. You used to have your eye on him, didn't you?"
"I hate it when you call me 'sweetie.'"
Isabella stood in a corner on her own long enough to down her champagne and trade her empty glass for a full one. She asked the waiter for the bathroom, and followed his directions down the corridor behind the central stairwell. The oversized room was plushly carpeted, and, once she shut the door, deliciously quiet. She opened the frosted glass window, letting in a billow of sticky air, and caught a glimpse of the embassy's manicured garden. A bird twittered in the hedge beneath the sill. Isabella sighed, put down the lid of the toilet, and sat. Rummaging in her evening bag, she withdrew a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a wilted book of matches.
"Moron, entertain thyself," she muttered, and proceeded to blow smoke rings from her perch toward the open sky.
When the door--which she had failed to lock--opened, Isabella started. She fumbled with her cigarette, spilling ash. As she turned to the intruder, she smushed the flecks of gray into the carpet with her sandaled foot.
"Excuse me. I'm so sorry." A slight and rather hawkish young man with large, hooded eyes and a pouting mouth shook his head and made as if to withdraw. "The door was not locked."
"I'm not--I'll just go--I was--"
"I'm sure you are welcome to smoke at the party." The man's smile revealed impeccable teeth. His British inflection had a lilt to it, almost Welsh. He didn't seem like a politician.
"It's not that. Quiet time, that's all." Isabella stubbed the cigarette on the window ledge and gathered her bag.
"Stay, if you wish. I'm just rinsing a small spot--" he proceeded to the sink, where he liberally splashed water onto his embroidered waistcoat. "Well, a rather large one. I had a tussle with an aggressive shrimp and lost."
Isabella stifled a snicker. "Dangerous events, these parties."
"Not without their drawbacks."
"Nothing but drawbacks, if you ask me."
"You don't enjoy them?"
"Not my idea of a good time. What's to enjoy? Don't you think? Our invisible host pops over here and blows his entire country's GNP in a single evening, buying up boatloads of aggressive shrimp to impress and confound us."
"Indeed." The man brushed at his waistcoat with a pink hand towel. "But there are unexpected pleasures."
"Such as this encounter."
"And they say chivalry is dead! I'll go home saying I met at least one charming gentleman."
"There. I think I'm presentable now. More or less." He looked down at his front, which was frankly wet. He made a helpless gesture, at which they both laughed. "You will excuse me? Stay as long as you like--but you might want to lock the door."
Rejoining the party, Isabella located her father and slid between the guests to his side. From the safety of his elbow, she fixed a smile on her face and scanned the party for the handsome waistcoated man. She wanted to ask her father who he was; and, as if on cue, he materialized from behind Mrs. Whiting, making a beeline for the Senator.
"Prince Ravi!" Senator Greengrass clicked his heels in an odd military gesture. "What a pleasure, what an honor! Welcome to our country--I hope you've had a chance to look around?"
"Very little, so far. But I intend to." Prince Ravi bowed, slightly, as he spoke, and looked up at his interlocutor through the longest eyelashes Isabella had ever seen. "You must tell me what to visit."
"This is my daughter, Isabella--recently arrived herself, in fact."
Prince Ravi grinned, and Isabella thought he winked. "Oh yes? From where?"
"I could say the bathroom. But really, San Francisco."
"A beautiful city, I understand." His teeth gleamed. "Very--individual, no? Perhaps someday I will go."
Isabella nodded, sipped her champagne. "Beware the rogue shrimp out there."
The Prince eyed her expectantly for a mortifying moment. Then he smiled again, all formality. "A great pleasure to meet you properly--and you, Senator, do enjoy the party." And then he was gone, back into the crowd.
"What's his story?" she asked her father, who surveyed the crowd to pinpoint its powerbrokering center. "I met him in the bathroom, and I'm afraid I dissed the party. Is he, he's not--"
"He's the guest of honor. Their monarch. Smart, too--wants to bring his country out of the Dark Ages. About time."
"And how will he do that?"
"They've got oil. Lots of it. He wants to make a deal with us."
"What kind of deal?"
"A good one. Good for his country, good for ours."
"Says I. And Congress and the Senate will agree."
"Did anyone ask his people? The ordinary people?"
Senator Greengrass considered snapping, and chose instead to laugh; but the laugh emerged as an unfortunate snigger. Isabella fumed.
Isabella was seated at table between an aged Wexco executive, who proved impenetrably hard of hearing, and a buttery Baburshahnistani councillor named Dewi, who tenderly stroked his breast with his hairy hands as he discoursed upon the beauty of his country's traditional dance. His voice was reedy, and he giggled often.
"The women--ah, they are very beautiful!" Dewi crowed. "The dances are very sensuous--it is in our tradition. You have not seen this? You must! Our premier troupe is to tour the U.S. later this year."
Isabella bobbed encouragement. Her head, with so little hair, felt very light.
"Yes, you must see this. They are like snakes when they move. You are an actress? You could learn a very great deal from this dancing, how to move onstage, yes?"
"How to use the whole body, yes? To put the spirit in the body, to live in the body, through it. This is not an American understanding, I believe?"
"Here, you know, lots of people obsess about their bodies," Isabella explained, thinking aloud, "and many Americans are spiritual seekers. But the two don't often coincide. I mean, things are changing--yoga, and all that--but the old mind-body split is pretty dramatic in our culture."
The councillor played his fingers over his lips and nodded. "This is exactly what I am thinking. And the only way to be a whole person is to have spirit and body be one. Our culture believes this absolutely."
"I'd like to believe it, too. Then I might know what to wear when I got up in the morning!" Isabella laughed prettily, although she was only half joking.
"It is most important for an actress," Dewi continued, following his own thought, "to use all her spirit, and her body. You create a character from here--" he rubbed his pelvis vigorously. "It comes from the center. So, to know the center intimately--this is essential. Without that . . ." His hands swept an explosive flourish between them, a silent "poof."
"You may have a point." Isabella was not merely being polite; she thought he did have a point. She peered down at the slight round of her belly pressed against her black dress: it looked somehow unfamiliar.
"Look at Prince Ravi," said Dewi with an admiring nod. "He is an embodiment of this unity I speak of. He is very fine."
Isabella had, in fact, been looking a good deal at Prince Ravi. His sharp but fluid gestures, his penetrating gaze, his manner of simultaneous engagement and detachment--these comprised a demeanor enigmatic to her, unlike anything she had known. He attended to his guests, each in turn, in brilliant focus, without giving away anything of himself. He chuckled readily with Senator Greengrass, only to turn with patient concern to the whisperings of a hesitant Baburshahnistani grandmother, his features recomposed in the blink of an eye. Isabella could recognize virtuosic performance, and Ravi was a master. She found herself wondering what he was like when the crowds had gone home, when the tables were cleared and the musicians silent.
She watched him slip among his guests, noted the apparent pleasure with which he took partners by the elbow and led them to the dance floor. He whispered something in the ear of a Georgetown matron that made her flush to the roots of her hair. Younger women tittered coyly in his arms, fussed with their jewelry, touched his sleeve with their manicured nails. Their eagerness to please him irritated Isabella, who sniffed and crossed her arms over her breasts. But when, in turn, the Prince asked her to dance, turning his limpid dark eyes to hers, Isabella bit her lip and agreed. His right hand lay light upon her waist like a fluttering moth, and his left, in its certain grip, was dry and smooth against her palm. He smelled faintly of almonds.
"So, is my party very dreadful?"
"Oh no, it's a lovely party."
"You don't mean it."
"I'm so embarrassed by what I said in the bathroom. It's just not the sort of event . . . I usually attend. More my father's domain. That's all."
"I, too, have had to adjust to my father's domain." Prince Ravi looked thoughtful. "It isn't always comfortable, to take up these responsibilities."
"But I don't have any responsibilities to take up. I'm just passing through."
"On your way to?"
Isabella shrugged. "On a road to nowhere."
The Prince fixed her again with his inquiring eyes, precise and birdlike.
"And you're here for an oil deal, I understand--or is it rude to mention it?"
"I am here to investigate possibilities. For the good of my country."
They stopped their waltz; the music was coming to an end.
"Do you agree with my father, about the oil deal?" Isabella asked, as they applauded the orchestra.
"Do you not?"
"I didn't say that."
"No, it's true. You didn't."
Isabella was distracted, in spite of herself, by the gentle pressure of the Prince's hand on her back as he accompanied her to her seat. He did not direct her across the room; it was as if he listened, or his body listened, to her movements before they were made. She did not know him; he was, in his royal role, an actor. But it was as if he knew her center.
"I just can't, Ag. I can't face it." Isabella, on her back on her childhood bed, hooked her forefinger around her left big toe and tried to straighten her leg while talking on the telephone. "After last night--enough already."
"How was it?"
"I don't know. The whole premise was disgusting--the Prince--a prince, for God's sake!--of Baburshahnistan--"
"What was that silly name? Babou what?"
"Baburshahnistan. More like Babursillystan. It's a tiny country of picturesquely impoverished peasants, off in Central Nowhere. So there's this prince--kissing up to a bunch of Republicans and oil magnates--and my dad gloating over it all. You think of his miserable people, about to have their country torn up and their lives turned upside down so we can get cheap gas to drive to the mall--and this prince is literally throwing a party to celebrate-- Don't get me started!"
"So was he cute?"
"Who?" Isabella had a vision of the councillor's hairy hands.
"Come on. This Babursilly guy. I saw his picture in the Post. He looked pretty cute."
"'Cute' isn't really the word. He's got an English accent. He's more--suave. He's definitely suave."
"Maybe a tiny."
"You danced with him, didn't you?"
"Only after I humiliated myself in the bathroom. I met him there first, and thought he was a random guest. I whaled on the party, said it sucked. I think he asked me to dance to show there were no hard feelings."
"And? Were there other feelings? Mushy ones?"
"So what? He's in their camp. He's the enemy."
"How about Elliott? Friend or foe? Things aren't always as they seem, right? 'Handy-dandy, which is the thief, which is the justice?'"
"Life isn't Lear, Ag. Besides, he's a prince."
"You could morph into a princess."
"He's more likely to morph into a frog."
"What's he like?"
"How would I know?"
"You spoke to him. You danced with him."
"He's unknowable. He's--he's a chameleon. He was what each person in the room wanted him to be, for as long as he was talking to that person."
"He's like you, then."
"Thanks a lot."
"No, I mean, maybe he's a very heightened form of erotomorph, susceptible to infinitesimal encounters and demands."
"In other words, a politician."
"Or an actor. As I said, like you. The question is, what's he like underneath?"
"If there is an underneath." Isabella stretched her right leg. She stared at the blur of the ceiling. "Maybe he's a lizard. Or a frog."
"Going to see him again?"
"Funny you should ask. My dad promised the Prince a tour of the monuments, on Monday."
"You'll go along?"
"Dad wants me to. I'll see how I feel. It might be more fun than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
"Like tonight. Tonight will be fun."
"I told you, Ag. I can't. I just can't face it."
Sudden questions about the President's probity (or lack thereof) demanded a series of urgent and highly secretive meetings on Monday afternoon. Senator Greengrass did not want to disappoint the Prince, but he simply could not get away; and he beseeched his recalcitrant daughter to do his duty for him.
"I don't ask a lot of you, Bella honey," he whispered down the line, the ruckus of an impending huddle audible behind him. "But this one's important to your old dad. Don't let me down? It's only a few hours, for God's sake."
"I hate the monuments."
"Just whisk him 'round, answer his questions. Think of it as an acting exercise, if you like. You're playing the role of--I don't know--"
"Tour guide. Okay. But you'll owe me one."
When Councillor Dewi--he of the hairy hands--informed the Prince that Senator Greengrass was sending his daughter in his stead, Ravi was miffed at first.
"This is a state visit," he said. "And this Senator palms me off on a mere girl? He cannot be serious."
"His apologies were profuse," said Dewi, fingering an ivory toothpick. "Only this matter with the President is very serious. What can he do?" He shrugged. "We can take offense if you wish," he continued, as the Prince grumpily riffled file folders on his desk, "but it would be imprudent. And besides, this Isabella--she seemed to me a rather remarkable young woman."
"Did she?" Prince Ravi stopped his shuffling and looked up. "In what way?"
"Complicated. Curious. Not like the others."
"No, it's true. Not like the others." Ravi had been thinking about Isabella since the party. Her coltish fluster in the bathroom had delighted him. With her wary stare and her sharp tongue, she was not of the political ranks, nor was she a gracefully masked society hostess. She did not even resemble the Americans he had known at Oxford, strapping, athletic specimens of wearying vim, splattering the hallowed halls with their appalling confidence. "There was something about her frankness--those green eyes. A refreshing attitude . . ."
"A questing spirit. And she is most attractive, yes?" Dewi winked, the toothpick between his plump lips.
"She may show you things you don't expect to see."
"She may at that."
Ravi was unsettled, even a little excited, by this exchange. He vividly recalled the sensation of Isabella's waist beneath his palm, the fine sheen of her skin. It was to restore internal order and redistribute the flow of his blood that he stood, for twenty minutes, on his head against the embassy's living room wall, his even brown toes reaching up the creamy paintwork toward the dangling crystals of a wall sconce, almost close enough to make them jingle.
Isabella, ushered in by an unthinking servant who thought the room empty, discovered him thus, at two-thirty in the afternoon. Ravi, apparently unfazed, flipped himself upright and shook her hand (he was a modern monarch, in this respect, and did not expect a curtsey), before repairing to a paisley armchair to put on his shoes and socks.
"Is that how you receive your ministers?" she asked, removing her baseball cap and running a hand through her flattened curls.
"Not usually. But it's useful in a crisis, when I want to take them by surprise."
"Might be a good tip for our President, just now."
"I shall certainly tell him when I meet him. If I meet him. Now, Miss Greengrass--"
"Isabella, please. Even Bella, if you like. My friends call me Bella."
"Isabella, then. I am at your disposal. Where shall we go?"
"You wanted to see the sights, such as they are."
"Naturally." The Prince smiled his gleaming, professional smile.
"Do you know what, exactly, you'd like to see? Because there's an awful lot of marble in this town. Then there's the real city, none too pretty--but my dad wouldn't thank me for showing you that."
"Show us whatever is typical; what, as they say, 'can't be missed'--how does that sound?"
"Us? Is that a royal 'we'?"
"Councillor Dewi will accompany us. He's more fun than a bodyguard."
"Great. I thought we might start with the Lincoln Memorial, get a view of the Monument--you know, that huge white stick in the middle of town. It's on all the postcards. Then work our way down the Mall, with a detour to the White House, then on to the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. By that time, my father might be free to join us. If he's not too busy impeaching the Big Guy."
"Your car and driver are outside?" Prince Ravi stood, slipped on his jacket and brushed his front.
Isabella, who had put on her cap and was rummaging in her bag for her sunglasses, stopped and blinked. "Car and driver?"
"I told the ambassador he could take my car for the afternoon--his wife wanted his car to go shopping."
"I came by taxi."
"Ah. Never mind. It will be like college days. We'll see the monuments like . . ."
". . . like ordinary tourists." Isabella finished. "Are you sure you don't mind?"
"It will be most educational." Prince Ravi rang a small bell, and a servant was dispatched to find Dewi, who joined them, beaming, in his rumpled clothes.
The trio walked ten minutes along the sticky asphalt of Massachusetts Avenue before locating a free taxi. The sun pounded them through the June swelter; Dewi sweated profusely, and mopped at his dark brow with a hanky. When, at last, Isabella hailed a cab, it was a greasy, unsprung jalopy with rear windows that did not open and a morose Slavic thug at the wheel. Dewi grimaced as he climbed into the front, displacing a half-empty carton of malodorous Chinese take-away. The driver tackled potholes like a rodeo rider, hurling his charges around in their seats. He plummeted so violently into intersections and jacked the brakes with such apparent lack of motive, that when he arrived at their destination Isabella did not ask him to wait.
"We'll find somebody else," she assured Ravi, whose hair had been disarrayed by the drive. "Sorry about that. It's par for the course around here."
"Most amusing," he countered. "It reminds me of the backstreets of our own cities, in Baburshahnistan. Or out in the country, the villages--I have ridden in horse-drawn carriages and on elephants, with much the same effect. Not so, Dewi?"
"I find an elephant's back more comfortable. Except for the fleas." Dewi giggled.
"What's it like--Baburshahnistan, I mean?" Isabella asked.
"I don't think you could imagine it. You will have to come to see, sometime," said the Prince.
"Are your people poor?"
Ravi paused on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and turned to face the vast stretch of the Mall. Brightly clad tourists beetled around the base of the Washington Monument, and beyond, nearer the reflecting pool, a mass of them seemed to be gathering, tight, into a crazy flag of color. He closed his eyes against the glare. At his side, Dewi fiddled noncommittally with his hanky.
"You don't have to answer--if it's not an appropriate question. I'm not very good on royal etiquette."
"No, no," Dewi said. "His Highness will answer. Won't you, Sire?"
"Are they poor? Yes, most of them are poor, if you mean money. In the rural areas, they live as they have lived for centuries, as farmers and artisans. We have a strong culture, strong families, and in this sense they are not poor at all. But if you measured their wealth by the number of television sets . . ."
"But your country is rich."
Ravi squinted at Isabella, whose expression, behind her sunglasses, was not clear. He did not know whether this was a prelude to a sales pitch on behalf of her father, or whether she sought some other response. He shrugged. "We have discovered oil recently. Who knows how much there is? And oil is not money."
"As good as. Good for business. Good for your country, good for ours?" Isabella wanted the Prince to admit it, to stand squarely in her father's camp. She had been finding him handsome and appealing, and felt it necessary to stamp on the glow she would, in other circumstances, have defined as attraction.
"I imagine we could discourse all afternoon on the nature of 'goodness,'" Dewi observed. "But tell us, instead, what is happening down there?" He pointed at the seething crowds in the distance.
"It's a rally. Now that's an American sight," she said. "The people, speaking their minds."
"On what are they speaking?" Prince Ravi asked.
"I'm not sure--hang on." Isabella trotted down to a uniformed guard, exchanged a few words, and returned, taking the steps two at a time. She tripped over her words. "I can't believe I forgot! This one is crucial--I worked on this, for God's sake--it's been planned over a year--it's for--" she stopped, suddenly reminded of her part for the day, her official presence as her father's daughter. For these few hours, she was not invited to have potentially controversial opinions. Besides which, it was Elliott's demonstration--not literally, of course, but he was the keynote speaker. He would be down there, in his trademark hemp suit, riffling papers and clearing his throat. "It's nothing," she finished. "Want to see the White House?"
"Nonsense. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people. You said, this is a truly American sight: I should like to see it up close."
"I don't think, Your Highness, that this would be advisable." Dewi's high voice was stern.
"What are they protesting?" the Prince persisted.
"Just a bill--that's what it usually is. A bill that's before Congress."
"Oh, conservation stuff."
"You know how it is--the struggle between big business and the little guy. Development and the environment. Trying to save parks, trees, animals, people's way of life . . . Regular Washington hoopla."
The Prince considered for a moment. "I take it," he said, "that this is not big business on the lawn."
"I'd like to see."
"I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I can't allow it." Dewi was frowning as he again mopped his beaded brow. "We would require an armed guard. Your security is paramount, and my responsibility. It is impossible."
Ravi thrust his hands in his pockets. "I suppose you do what you have to, Dewi."
"I wouldn't cross you otherwise, and you know it."
"All right. We'll proceed to the White House. Run on ahead and fetch us another of those excellent taxis, would you? I want to see this marble Lincoln up close."
"Down on the left, then, where we arrived?"
"Marvelous." Ravi watched his councillor huff down the steps but made no move himself.
"Shall we?" Isabella started upward.
"Wait. There is another way out?"
"Only the other side--but--"
"I would like to see this rally. I will not be bullied by my minion, no matter how dear he is to me. You will take me to the demonstration."
"But he said--"
"But I say. And I'm your guest."
"Besides, there's nothing like a private conversation--not so? They are more honest. Like our very first."
"Won't we get in trouble?"
"You forget, I'm a monarch. Dewi cannot spank me. I forbid it."
"Okay, Your Highness." Isabella, exhilarated, plunged forward. "This way, then." They darted down the far end of the steps, behind a troupe of octogenarian tourists with video cameras, and slunk along past the Korean War Memorial to the street, where Isabella, at Prince Ravi's bidding, flagged a cab.
"If we walked, he might run after us," he explained. "And in this heat--I'd hate for him to have a heart attack. I'm very fond of him, you know."
The taxi made a loop to take them back toward the crowd, and from the window they could spy Dewi, drumming anxiously on the roof of a waiting cab, his face puckered as he peered up at the groups on the steps.
"What will he do?"
"Go back to the embassy, I'm sure. It's air-conditioned. He'll be much more comfortable there. Don't worry."
Piqued by a sense of adventure, Isabella could not control the spring in her step as they approached the edge of the crowd. It thrilled her to see children racing under the trees while their parents marshaled great banners on sticks and struggled to hold them aloft. A clutch of chubby housewives with permed hair and tight shorts brought a lump to her throat. Hippies handed out clumsily printed leaflets with peace signs on them. A man in a tree costume, his face slick with perspiration, lumbered past into the melee. Isabella realized she was grinning only because the corners of her mouth ached, and she forced herself to stop.
After all, what had she to smile about? Months before, she had helped Elliott organize this event. Were she to push her way to the front of the crowd, she would run into environmentalists she knew, crusaders from Seattle and Boise and Denver and San Francisco. She didn't want to see them. Above all, she didn't want to see Elliott--or to be seen by him.
She kept an eye on Prince Ravi. His fine lips were curled in a half smile that might have been amusement, or fondness, or contempt. It might have been simple smugness at his escape from Dewi. He watched the gamboling children, took in the saffron-robed Hare Krishnas, nodded faintly at a group of old men with medals on their lapels. One carried a sign that said VETERANS AGAINST THE OIL BARONS: WE FOUGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY ONCE, AND WE'LL FIGHT AGAIN!
"At least this way the government knows what the people are thinking," suggested Isabella.
"Indeed. But do they listen?"
"It depends. Probably not. But it means something anyway. Don't you ever ask your subjects for their opinion?"
"I think they would be surprised to be asked."
"Would that be so bad?"
Prince Ravi did not answer. He turned, instead, to the podium, where a tall man--who strongly resembled a young Senator Greengrass--in a baggy dun suit with a scarlet bow tie, approached the microphone.
"An orator," Prince Ravi pointed.
Isabella looked up and saw her husband. "Shouldn't we go find Dewi?"
"He will have gone home. Besides, I'd like to hear this fellow."
"If you insist."
Elliott Morton spoke with great conviction. He had the skills, some said, of a young Martin Luther King. He had studied the classics in college, and preferred to compare himself to Cicero. Whatever his influences, he knew how to move the crowd. In his earnestness--his gangly arms aloft, his voice a raspy tremolo--he roused them to cries and chants of rebellion. There were sniffles of emotion among the housewives. Elliott affected Isabella in spite of herself: she sneered at his amateur theatrics but stood in awe of him at the same time. She had to walk away.
"You've had enough?"
"I feel a bit sick. Maybe it's the heat."
"Perhaps you need a cool drink, something restorative?" In his concern, Prince Ravi's nose beaked further toward his mouth.
"You don't need to get back to Dewi?"
"I don't want to."
Isabella led Prince Ravi away from the Mall, back up into the city center. Within blocks, the streets were empty in the angry afternoon sun, and they wandered beside darkened storefronts and locked office blocks. Only occasional homeless men lingered in the doorways, mournfully rattling their plastic cups.
"You must, as I do, feel great sorrow for these abandoned fellows," observed Ravi, who gave coins to each of them. "They have no families, no love."
"And no money."
"Money is a poor substitute for these things. You know," he shook his head, "in my capital also, there are many like this--women, even children. And I have spent days with them, talking--"
"I am their Prince, too. Of course I have. And yes, undeniably, they want the necessities of life; but simple handouts will not solve their problems. It is more complicated."
"I suppose it is." Isabella frowned. "But a roof and food would be a start."
"What are a roof and food without something to live for?"
Isabella, surprised by the Prince's perspective (so unlike her father's!), directed him to a fashionable new restaurant in a basement beneath a failing discount store. The walls were of bathroom tile, the floor of pressed earth, and the tables were narrow metal slices pressed up against hard pews. The waiters, all with shaved heads and ankle-length hessian tunics, skulked sourly by the bar.
Prince Ravi, in his summer suit from Jermyn Street, winced at their surroundings. "What sort of place is this?"
"The latest thing."
"It's a shame Dewi will not see this. It is most extraordinary. These are monks?"
"They're just dressed that way. For effect."
"It's . . . I guess it's sexy. European. They have eighty-five kinds of beer. It's impossible to get a table here at night."
"Perhaps because they are so small. And these benches are so uncomfortable."
"The designer is a very famous guy."
"So, this theater of poverty is the playground of the stylish? America is very strange. Do you enjoy this sort of thing?"
"It's cool, and in the afternoon, at least, it's quiet. The beer is good."
The waiter who took their order had a pierced tongue. He played the bullet noisily against his teeth. When he returned, he threw down an immense bowl of french fries, and slopped their pinkish, cherry-flavored beer onto the metal table. One frosted glass slithered across the surface almost to the edge. The waiter clicked his tongue as if it were their fault, and flounced away, tunic flapping.
"We pay them extra to be so rude?" asked Ravi, with a frown. "And what has happened to his tongue?"
"It's all an aesthetic. You don't like it. I thought it would give you a more genuine impression of . . . something."
"Of a place where artificiality is genuine?"
"I shouldn't have dragged you away from the rally. We should get you back to the embassy. Dewi must be worried sick."
"No, I'm most interested to come here, to see what American people enjoy."
"Only some of us. A select few," Isabella said. "I guess it does seem weird. But it's about getting as far as possible from the culture of monuments and sixteen-ounce steaks."
"That I can understand." Ravi smiled. "Truly, I can. I'm only sorry the rally made you feel ill. I thought it might be your idea of a good time--unlike my party."
"I thought it was, too. It used to be. It's complicated."
Prince Ravi nodded, adjusted his back against the hard pew. He made a temple of his elegant hands. "Tell me."
"You don't want to hear."
"But I do."
Isabella scrutinized the Prince and decided that he was telling the truth. She took a deep breath. "That was my husband," she said.
"Your husband? Married? Who?" Ravi seemed truly shocked.
"Elliott Morton--the speaker. That's my husband. Was my husband. In eighteen days he'll be my ex-husband. We split up a few months ago."
"I see." Ravi sipped his drink. "He is a very good speaker," he said, after a time. "Clearly a fine politician." He paused. "He reminds me of your father."
"He's nothing like my dad. They hate each other."
"Perhaps because they are alike? This is often the case."
"Not with them."
"If you say so. Your father, it is true, is a wiser man: he would never have let you go."
"You can say that again."
"You don't seem grateful? But a love like his--"
"Is a royal pain in my butt. If you'll excuse me saying so."
Prince Ravi sighed. "You know," he began, "a life such as mine is much about duty, about living up to the great love my people bear for me, all that they desire of me. I, too, could choose to see it as a . . . 'royal pain,' as you say--" he smiled, slightly, "and I have done. I did, at Oxford, where I led an irresponsible and debauched life. But then I came to realize it was a part of me, as much as my hands or my nose," he made a funny cross-eyed face, to indicate that appendage, "and that I could use all my energy to try to run away, or I could embrace it and work for it. I will always disappoint some people, but . . . if I cut off my hands, how much freedom would I really have?"
"My father is hardly a country of people."
"How simple, then, to give him the love he so wants, instead of showering it, in perverse compensation, on lesser men. You don't have to agree with him in politics, or become a politician yourself. Surely, your father loves you unconditionally, and only wants your happiness."
"Unlike this Elliott Morton . . ."
"That's for sure."
". . . who may be a fine speaker, but who, underneath, is clearly a fool."
Isabella blushed and turned to her pink beer. She looked up to see that the Prince, too, was clearly embarrassed: he examined his fingernails with great care.
"Well," Isabella said, with artificial brightness, "if ever your country becomes a republic, you can become a therapist--you're very good at it."
"I don't speak in generalities. I did not intend to lecture. I want to hear, so tell me."
Isabella did. She recounted the breakup with Elliott, the romance that preceded it, the affairs before that. She revealed her distaste for her father's beliefs, and her confusion over what her own might be, so bound up had they been with the other men in her life. She tried to explain--with reference to Dewi, and their conversation at the party--that she did not know herself, that she wasn't sure whether she had a self to know.
"That is very strange," Prince Ravi said, when she was done, "because I feel as though I know you. It is as if your soul were a thousand tiny lights of many colors. Different lights glow at different times, perhaps, but they shine through you, and around you, and it is beautiful to see."
It was past suppertime when the taxi stopped on P Street in front of the Greengrass home. The cicadas and tree frogs shrieked in the dusk. Prince Ravi got out and opened Isabella's door. He walked with her up her front steps, not quite touching her; but she could feel him, as she had felt him at the party, listening to her movements, anticipating them. On the doorstep, he took her hand, and brought it to his lips, in an obsolete and courtly gesture. The brush of his skin against hers made Isabella tremble, and she hoped--feeling as she did that the hope was madness--that he would kiss her.
"Thank you for this afternoon," he said. "I even liked the restaurant. It was--I really mean this--my idea of a good time. I can't imagine a better. I am most grateful."
Prince Ravi was grateful. He was also baffled.
"I am at a loss," he confided to Dewi. "I can't stop thinking about her--but what does this woman have to do with our purpose here? She is irrelevant to our negotiations."
"Yes," concurred Dewi, with a soft sigh, as he palpated his generous breast. "She has nothing whatsoever to do with them. In spite of your devious commitment to her. Most improper, that afternoon. I'll say it only once more: I was profoundly displeased."
"If anything, she would be an agent for her father--"
"Except that she despises her father's politics. Then there's this husband, ex-husband, this environmental fellow--and perhaps she thinks as he does, that oil should simply be left in the ground--"
"My dear Prince," whispered Dewi, "what do this man's opinions matter? You are losing perspective--you, of all people! You must isolate your emotions from your intelligence."
"It's not his opinion I'm after, it's hers."
Dewi waved a hand. "Would she consult you in matters of the theater? Similarly, you would be unwise to seek her counsel in matters of state." He grinned. "That's what I'm here for."
"You don't understand--" Prince Ravi, agitated, paced the room. "I hear her voice. I see her face--looming--in the middle of meetings. Her father is talking numbers and I see her face. It's absurd. It must be for a reason."
"And why not love?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Perhaps you are in love. It happens. Even to princes. I myself could easily have fallen in love with that young woman. Except--" he gestured broadly from his head to his belly. "What would have been the point? She would not have loved me in return."
"What good does that do me? There's no time for such nonsense."
"Love, my dear Ravi, does not ask for time; it takes it. Of its own accord. It is left to you only to decide how to react."
"What do you suggest? Tell me, Dewi, what to do?"
"Focus your mind on the work at hand. This . . . Bella . . . must wait. If she retains her grip on your spirit, you will know it. If not--well then, it is not meant to be."
"You're right." Prince Ravi spoke with a determination he clearly did not feel. "You're quite right."
"You should be certain," said Dewi, "before you speak. Because it would not please your mother at all."
Ravi tried, as Dewi advised, to focus on the matter of the oil, to put the image of Isabella, with her matted dark curls and trembling lips, out of his mind. But his renowned concentration and decisiveness failed him nonetheless. He stalled; he dithered; he postponed his negotiations (in this he was helped by America's own preoccupations with its President). And in spite of his resolve, he sent Isabella a note thanking her for their afternoon together. At the end of the week, Prince Ravi flew back to Baburshahnistan having settled, precisely, nothing.
Agnes tapped her fingers against her long nose as she read the Prince's note. Isabella, sitting across from her friend in the courtyard of the Jolt 'n' Bolt, leaned forward impatiently.
"It doesn't mean anything, does it?"
"It's incredibly sweet," said Agnes, pushing the worn page away from her. "Great handwriting. He had an 'unforgettable' time. He calls you 'Bella.' And he signs it 'yours ever'--that talks."
"But it's just politeness. I mean, I've read it a hundred times--"
"Try a thousand!"
"And it's not--there's nothing in it to suggest-- He's thanking me for playing tour guide, that's all."
"He's a prince, Bella. What do you expect? 'Come to my arms, you beautiful creature'? It means a ton that he wrote at all. I bet slaveys do most of his correspondence."
"Sure, I know." Isabella scooped the foam off the side of her cappuccino with her forefinger. "But if he really liked me--really--don't you think there'd be something more?"
"Why don't you write back?"
"Right! Saying what? 'Let's have a drink when you're next in town'?"
"I wouldn't assume he doesn't have feelings for you. In fact, I'd assume he does. The guy's brokering an oil deal, right? He took time out to write. That's big. You said he's formal."
"He's a prince. He takes his responsibilities very seriously."
"My point exactly. You're hardly his responsibility."
"Did I tell you what he said when he dropped me off?"
"Only a million times. And he kissed your hand. And he smells of almonds. Look, if you want my opinion, you should go for it."
"I don't even know what that would mean." Isabella sighed. "He left this morning for Baburshahnistan. I'll never see him again."
"Never say never." Ag said. "Remember the sailor? When you met him, he was supposed to be embarking on a Pacific crossing."
"He was just a sailor."
"I could write to him, if you like. Tell him he's got no choice. That you're already morphing. That you've turned into a princess. Been to Tiffany's to scope tiaras. That you're no earthly use to your friends at home, because you wear gilded robes everywhere and all you can do is utter imperious commands."
"Don't be mean."
"Come on, Bella, laugh. What do you know about this guy, anyway? Maybe he's secretly a creep. We'll check him out. I'll Lexis-Nexis him at work, surf the Net, see what we can see. Where there's a will, there's a way."
"You shouldn't be encouraging me."
"Why not? If he takes your mind off the evil Elliott, he can only be a force for good."
"I told you what he said about Elliott, didn't I?"
Agnes rolled her eyes. "Isabella Greengrass, get a grip on yourself. Let's plan our New York trip, okay?"
Isabella and Agnes went on their whirlwind visit to New York when the divorce came through. Nominally, they went to look for glasses: Isabella bought, at Ag's and the salesgirl's recommendation, a wildly expensive pair made of titanium, all but invisible and, Isabella was assured, indestructible. While they were there, she went to an audition, but the play featured a foreign prince, and she knew she could not take a role: rehearsals would only remind her of Prince Ravi.
On the train back to D.C., Agnes presented Isabella with a sheaf of computer printouts.
"Everything there is to know about your prince," she said. "You've been so good about not obsessing--"
"Just because I don't talk about him doesn't mean I'm not obsessing."
"--that I thought you should have a reward. A total Babursillystan-fest. Look at this stuff--there's even a Royal Fans Web Site, all about him."
"Have you read it?"
"How could I not? He sounds fabulous. He likes coconut cookies. He gets his suits from London."
"You know more about him than I do."
"And get this--his mom is trying to marry him off. Your big chance! It's a wild place. Check this out--"
Together they pored over the documents, soaking up, through words, the colors of the Baburshahnistani landscape, with its craggy mountains and bleak lunar plains, absorbing the smells of its lively bazaars and ancient tanneries. They read about the country's festivals and marriage customs. They stared at pictures of the Queen Mother. "Geez! She looks like a barrel of laughs!" said Agnes. They studied a map of the royal palace and tried to picture Prince Ravi there, his shoes clicking--or would he wear slippers?--along its marbled arcades. In which room did he sleep? Against which wall did he stand on his head?
The Royal Fans Web Site informed them that Ravi, at thirty-four, practiced yoga for an hour each morning; that he had obtained a starred first in economics at Oxford; that he preferred cricket to polo. His birthday was November 1st.
"When the time comes, send him a card."
"Seriously. I mean it. If you don't, I'll stop being your friend."
"We'll see. I don't want to be a stalker. Looking at this Royal Fans crap, I'd say he's already got plenty of those."
"How many does he write notes to?"
"He only wrote one note."
Agnes shrugged. "Which you haven't answered. It's your call."
Isabella tried umpteen times to write a letter to Prince Ravi, but she couldn't find the right tone. She felt it would seem creepy to reveal her new knowledge of his habits, but fake to pretend ignorance. She penned missives full of jokes, and deemed them frivolous, struggled over serious letters she then thought pompous. She sent none of them. For weeks she gorged herself on the details of his life until, sickened by her unilateral transformation, she internalized it altogether--determined, as Prince Ravi had recommended, to concentrate instead on the life and the love she had before her.
Isabella accompanied her father to Maine for the month of August. She was solicitous of his moods, patient with his worries, gracious to his guests--all, had he but known it, in silent homage to Prince Ravi. Strangely, she found that her little acts of love soothed her, gave her peace. She felt, in some way, that they connected her to Ravi; as if he were watching, in some part of herself, and approved.
Senator Greengrass, in return, worried terribly about his daughter. "You just don't seem yourself," he fretted. "Maybe you want to invite Agnes up to stay? Or you could go for a week to the Vineyard--that Whiting boy is there, I hear, and probably lots of your old friends from college."
"I'm fine, Daddy. Honest." Isabella smiled. "I feel perfectly myself." And, though she was lonely, she did.
For months, Prince Ravi and his advisers haggled over Baburshahnistan's oil's future. They debated forming a national consortium, encouraging domestic private enterprise, bringing in the eager American companies. They were distracted by flooding and an outbreak of cholera in the south, and by reports of an eastern governor's corruption; but by and large, they focused on the oil: it was the country's greatest hope. And still Prince Ravi could not come to a decision.
Rumors began to circulate among his people that he had lost his will to lead--for which, many insisted, an arranged marriage was the clear solution. Ravi was pressed by his mother to receive eligible young ladies.
"They bother me," he confided to Dewi. "All these beautiful girls, wanting to be princesses. They're so formal. They won't look me in the eye. They mince, they curtsey. They don't seem like women; they don't seem real."
"And what, to you, seems real?" asked Dewi, with a solicitously narrowed eye. "Or need I ask?"
"You know perfectly well."
"Still. And you know--you were wrong about her counsel. I've been thinking--what she said on the Mall that afternoon--do you remember?"
Dewi sighed. "I wasn't there, thanks to you. But a thousand times, you've told me. If you've told me once."
"Well, she's right. I hear her voice, reminding me, all the time. That's what we must do. Ask the people for their opinion. Find out, in the matter of the oil, what they want."
"It's an unprecedented step. Your mother will not like it."
"My mother isn't ruling the country, as far as I know."
Ravi, with Dewi's help, organized a referendum on the future of the oil, the first referendum in the history of Baburshahnistan. His mother was won over only when he promised to entertain a further round of potential wives. As he had predicted, his people were, at first, surprised to be asked their opinion; but in the months leading up to the vote, they formed local committees to disseminate information about the options, and held impassioned debates in dusty squares in every town and village. Prince Ravi toured his country to gauge the progress of the discussions, and was delighted. But he wanted to share the actual event, the counting of the ballots, with only one person.
And when, on the first of November, among the piles of greetings from his subjects and the telegrams from world leaders and diplomats, Ravi discovered the simple card--but signed "love," he placed great significance on that "love,"--from Isabella Greengrass, he determined not to let the opportunity pass.
Ten days later, Senator William Greengrass received an invitation to the royal palace in Baburshahnistan, addressed to both himself and his daughter. He took this as a hopeful sign for the stalled negotiations and hastened to accept. Under separate cover, Isabella had a second, handwritten letter from the Prince.
"Although you are doubtless much engaged in your daily life," the Prince wrote, "I passionately hope you will consider our invitation to observe the referendum. On that long-ago afternoon in Washington, you put this course in motion, and I feel you should share in its culmination. It is wrong always to assume one knows the will of others, and you made that clear to me. In matters that so greatly concern them, my people, I felt, must have a choice. I thank you for this.
"By the way, you will be amused to hear that my mother, and my subjects, are very keen to see me married. As only you will appreciate, I have come to feel their concern is a 'royal pain'! Surely in this, above oil wells and all other things, choice is vital?"
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."
"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."
"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.
"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."