Princess Zara was counting the dots on the dress of the matchmaker sitting right across her on the long dining table currently hosting dinner for 12 esteemed guests. She had already zoned out while her suitor sitting to her right kept droning on and on about the best techniques to breed lamas. He was determined that lamas were the answer to his nation’s food and water shortage.
Zara failed to understand how. She tried to suggest a project to join the rivers via canals so that the rivers won’t dry out in the summers. But before she could say anything her father’s warning gaze stopped her.
Zara’s father was sitting at the head of the table while her mother was sitting next to him. Her mother too gave her a stern look which reminded Zara that she was supposed to smile. Unfortunately, her smile encouraged her suitor to get more enthusiastic about his lamas.
Her parents wanted her to marry the prince from a neighbouring kingdom. That way it would be easier for her husband to rule both nations. After all, she was an only child and according to laws, women could not rule.
Her mother too went through the same procedure. As an only child, she was married off to the army general. Her father then became the ruler, while her mother’s fate was limited to birthing and raising Zara.
It was very late when Zara was finally permitted to retire to her room. Her handmaid Alima helped her get dressed in her nightclothes. Then began the grilling process of dangling her braids and brushing it out. Women were not supposed to cut their hair. As a result, every woman wore their hair in different styles of braids.
Since today Zara was meeting a potential suitor, the matchmaker had insisted on intricate braids. It had taken over four hours to get Zara ready. And now Alima took over an hour to remove all the pins and other ornaments holding Zara’s hair in place.
The tight braids were causing a severe headache.
“Alima, can you cut my hair a little? Not too much. Just a little from the ends.”
Zara’s request was met with shock. Luckily, Alima didn’t scream. Cutting a women’s hair was unheard of. Alima was sure the king would have her executed if she cut Zara’s hair.
“I am just too tired tonight. The dinner really drained me out.”
Zara tried to change the topic. She didn’t want Alima to raise an alarm over her unorthodox requests. It’s not like Alima was not aware of Zara’s unconventional desires. She was usually the one to arrange the hard to get objects for Zara. But cutting hair was a bit too forward for Alima.
Alima didn’t want to antagonize Zara either. So she suggested Zara take some Madira to help her sleep better. Zara was not supposed to drink Madira, just like any other woman in her kingdom. But still, Alima had been arranging Madira for Zara.
Zara had been drinking Madira every night for the last six months. These days Zara couldn’t sleep without Madira. The intoxication of the drink was not the only thing she craved. Alima had a friend Ali who would bring Madira discreetly. Zara paid him well for Madira and his discretion. But it was his company that she craved the most.
Growing up in a palace might be a dream for some, but for Zara, it was a lonely existence. She had no friends, no companions, no one to talk to. While she was always surrounded by people, she could never feel herself in front of anyone.
Ali, however, made her feel understood. He would listen to anything she had to say without interrupting her. Zara realized that he didn’t speak much himself. He just kept pouring more and more Madira into her cup.
Zara would drink Madira and talk until she would fall asleep. Then Alima would pay Ali and lead him out of Zara’s chambers through hidden doors. No one had any idea about Zara’s secret.
Zara’s parents were looking for a suitable match for her while Zara was looking to be free from all the restrictions. She wished she could marry Ali. That way she would get unlimited Madira and someone to talk to. She was not sure if she was attracted to Ali because of love or just plain convenience.
The next morning was the day Zara’s servants washed her hair. Her hair was so long that washing, drying and styling it took the entire morning, even with four servants working on it.
That evening, the prince who was currently courting her, invited her for an evening stroll through the city. Well, the invitation was just a formality. Zara knew she couldn’t refuse. At least she would get a chance to see the city.
The prince was interested in the menagerie and was having an animated discussion with the owner. Zara stopped paying attention to the conversation when they started discussing the smell and texture of the excrement of different animals. It wasn’t something Zara ever wanted to know.
She took a chance and started exploring nearby stores. Clothes and jewellery stores didn’t interest her much. She already had much finer dresses that her father had ordered from across the sea.
Then she saw a small store almost hidden behind a large tree. Its doors were open and something was smelling really good. The store was small and full of beautiful bottles of different shapes and sizes. In one corner, a large cauldron was simmering. The amazing smell was coming from that.
Zara has heard many stories about witches and the magic they could do. She didn’t know one lived so close to the palace. Her father was not particularly fond of magical folks and discouraged them from settling in his kingdom. He could not outright ban them. Some magical folks had too much power, and even her father was scared of them. He would just use diplomacy and subtle tactics to deal with them while avoiding direct confrontation.
The witch Maliha introduced herself to Zara. She was dressed in a skirt made of brightly coloured stripes. Her curly hair was barely touching her shoulders. Zara was envious of Maliha’s bare feet and short unbraided hair. She wished she too could break the protocol and walk around bare feet and cut her hair.
“What is it you desire the most?” Maliha’s voice brought back Zara to her senses. She was standing in a witch’s shop. If Zara’s father found out about this, she would be married off and sent away the very next day.
“Freedom” was the only thing Zara wanted.
Maliha understood the longing Zara was not able to put into words. And Maliha had just the thing to help Zara. But there was still the matter of payment.
“What are you willing to pay for freedom?” Maliha needed to know how desperate Zara was before she would ask her price.
“I am carrying a pouch of gold coins. I can get you more later. I have some jewellery too. They have large precious stones set in them. They too are worth a lot. I can…”
Maliha stopped Zara from listing down more material things. Maliha was not interested in gold or jewels. She could make as much as she needed using just sand and stones. She was after something else.
“I need your most cherished memory.” This demand surprised Zara, but she felt a sense of relief as well. This was something she could give without anyone else noticing anything.
Zara was eager for her freedom. She agreed hastily, without thinking about the consequences.
Maliha too noticed that. But she didn’t stop the young girl. Maliha asked Zara to sit on a stool that has one creaky leg. Then Maliha proceeded to undo the braids. Section by section, Zara’s hair came loose.
Wasn’t this exactly what Zara was dreaming about? Letting her hair down. But now, as Maliha was brushing her hair, Zara was feeling naked and exposed.
Maliha kept brushing Zara’s hair while chanting something Zara didn’t understand. It was not a language she had ever heard before.
With every brushstroke, Zara relaxed a little. She closed her eyes and started imagining the freedom which was promised to her. She couldn’t wait anymore.
Finally, Maliha was done, and she braided Zara’s hair back up again. Covered in her customary braids, Zara felt like herself again. Only now she didn’t like this feeling.
Maliha gave a blue bottle to Zara and asked her to drink the content at midnight.
“When you drink the portion, everyone will forget about princess Zara. It will be like you never existed. You will remember everything and everyone except your most cherished memory and anyone in them.”
The conditions were not too bad so far. Zara wanted to ask exactly which memory she would lose, but then she realized that she didn’t really care.
“For the next 24 hours, you can choose any new life for yourself. You can go anywhere. Become anyone. After those 24 hours, everyone will have new memories like you always had that life.”
Zara was a little unsure now. She hadn’t thought about what she wanted. She just knew that she didn’t want the restrictions of being a princess. But she had no idea what life she should choose next. Maybe Maliha could sense the uncertainly, and she was kind enough to give a suggestion.
“You can go to any man and tell him that you are his wife. Not only he will agree, but he would also actually get memories of marrying you. You will fit right in and will be free to start any life you want.”
Zara was still a little sceptical, but she returned to the menagerie hiding the tiny bottle in folds of her clothes. The prince didn’t even notice her absence, and Zara didn’t bother to inform him.
They were back in the palace before dinner time. Tonight’s dinner was just as boring as last night’s. She had to keep smiling and pretending that she was listening while all she could think was the bottle and the freedom it promised.
Finally, she was back in her chambers. Alima asked if Zara wanted Ali to bring Madira again, but Zara declined. She needed to be alone tonight. Besides, she was thinking about taking Maliha’s advice and choosing a life where she was married to Ali.
Zara was nervous and excited at the same time.
Midnight came, and she drank from the blue bottle. The liquid tasted sweet like honey but left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth.
The portion took few minutes to start working. Or maybe it worked sooner, but Zara didn’t realize it. After all, if she forgot her most cherished memory, then how would she know. She remembered that she was a princess and eager to leave.
But she didn’t remember where she wanted to go. She was surprised that she didn’t make plans, but then realized that her plans might have included someone whose memories she had willingly traded.
Zara had 24 hours to find a new life for herself. She knew she wanted to leave the palace. But she took time to pack all the gold coins and the jewellery she had in the chamber in a small bag. This small fortune would help her in her new life. No point in exchanging a life of luxury with a life of poverty.
She left the palace, and no one stopped her. Maliha was right, no one recognized her. In fact, no one seemed to even notice her. She slipped away undetected.
Zara roamed in the city wondering what to do next. She went past homes and closed shops. Mostly everyone was asleep. Occasionally she would find someone drinking and fighting. She stayed away from them. She passed a house and she could hear a man beating his wife. Women were not free anywhere. Be it a palace or a hut.
Zara found herself in front of Maliha’s store again. This tempted her. Maybe she could have the life Maliha was having.
She entered the store and as soon as she saw Maliha she told a story she wanted to be true.
“I am your apprentice witch. You are teaching me the art of magic.”
Maliha started laughing and told her that the portion’s magic doesn’t work on her. She very well remembers who Zara was.
Zara slumped dejectedly and sat down in a corner.
“I have no idea what I want. I just didn’t want the life of a princess. I just didn’t want to get married and continue living under restrictions. To be used as a decoration in parties but having no voice of my own.”
Maliha came and sat next to Zara.
“You do know what you want and you know what to do next. You just need to look beyond yourself.”
Something clicked, and Zara knew what she was going to do. She had received a chance to make lasting change. Next 24 hours she could make permanent changes. She couldn’t let this chance pass by. She had to take action. And she finally understood how cleverly Maliha had been guiding her.
Zara got up and asked Maliha to come with her. She needed an ally in what she was going to do.
Zara and Maliha entered the palace just as easily as Zara had left. They went straight to her parent’s room. There Zara announced the life she is choosing for herself.
“I am Zara, your daughter. I am the Sultana of this kingdom. I make the laws.”
In the morning everyone had memories of the king retiring and Zara becoming the Sultana.
She fired the matchmaker before the breakfast. Next, the prince was sent back to his lamas.
Zara then asked Maliha to get ready for a long day at the court. She was going to make significant changes in the laws before the changes got permanent the next day.
Zara entered the courtroom with her short hair unbraided and knew that things won’t stay the same anymore.