Kartik rushed towards Bhagirath, who seemed lost in his own world.
Bhagirath immediately came out of his stupor and began to whistle. The Suryavanshis started releasing the rope at a steady pace and the wooden cage descended softly to the ground. The Brahmins caged within stepped out quickly in an orderly fashion.
As the two teams began pulling the empty cage back up, the whistling was no longer required. In the upward movement, what was necessary was speed, and not steadiness.
‘Prince Bhagirath, please pay attention. The lives of many people are at stake.’
Kartik was aware of the reason behind Bhagirath’s distress. Parvateshwar had refused to leave Devagiri. The Meluhan general had decided he would perish along with his beloved city. And to Bhagirath’s utter dismay, Anandmayi had decided to stay with her husband.
Bhagirath had fought passionately with her over her decision. He had pleaded with her, had begged her to reconsider. ‘Do you think Parvateshwar wants you to die? And what about me? Why are you trying to hurt me? Do you hate me so much? I am your brother. What have I done to deserve this?’
Anandmayi had only smiled, her eyes glistening with love and tears. ‘Bhagirath, you love me and want me to live, with every fibre of your soul. So let me live. Let me live every last second of my life, in the way that I believe life should be lived. Let me go.’
Bhagirath shook his head as if to clear his mind. ‘My apologies, Kartik.’
Kartik stepped forward and held Bhagirath’s arm. ‘Prince, your sister was right about you. You will make a far better king than your father.’
Bhagirath snorted. He already knew the Chandravanshi army that had been ordered to march to Devagiri under the command of the Meluhan brigadier Vraka had rebelled against his father, Emperor Dilipa. The soldiers believed that the Ayodhyan emperor had led them into an ill-conceived battle where they were fighting on the side of their former enemies, the Meluhans, against their Neelkanth. Bhagirath knew that a section of the troops had already set out for Devagiri to convince him to ascend the throne. But he didn’t care. He was tormented by the impending loss of his beloved sister.
‘But do you know what the mark of a great king is?’ asked Kartik.
Bhagirath looked at Kartik.
‘It’s the ability to remain focused, regardless of personal tragedy. You will have time to mourn your sister and brother-in-law, Prince Bhagirath. But not now. You are the only one here who can whistle like a night bird and make it sound natural. You cannot fail.’
‘Yes, Lord Kartik,’ said Bhagirath, addressing the young man as his Lord for the first time.
Kartik turned around. ‘Come here.’
A Branga soldier marched up.
‘Prince Bhagirath,’ said Kartik, ‘this man will remain here to support you in your task.’
Bhagirath didn’t object. Kartik quickly walked back to Gopal.
Seeing the pensive look of the Vasudev chief, Kartik asked, ‘What happened, Panditji?’
Gopal pointed to the Suryavanshi soldier. ‘Lord Parvateshwar has sent a message. Maharishi Bhrigu has refused to leave the city.’
Kartik shook his head. ‘Why are the Meluhans so bloody eager to die?’
‘What do I do, Lord Kartik?’ asked the Suryavanshi.
‘Take me to Maharishi Bhrigu.’
A flickering sacrificial flame spread its light as best as it could in the night. Its reflection on the nearby Saraswati River aided its cause. Ganesh sat quietly on a patla, a low stool, with his legs crossed and his fleshy hands placed on his knees, his long fingers extended out delicately. He wore a white dhoti.
A barber was shearing Ganesh’s hair, while Ganesh kept chanting a mantra softly and dropping some ghee into the sacrificial flame.
Having removed all of Ganesh’s hair, the barber put his implement down and wiped his head with a cloth. Then he picked up a small bottle he had taken from Ayurvati, poured the disinfectant into his hands and spread it on Ganesh’s head.
‘It’s done, My Lord.’
Ganesh didn’t reply. He looked directly at the sacrificial flame and spoke softly. ‘She was the purest among them all, Lord Agni. Remember that as you consume her. Take care of her and carry her straight to heaven, for that is where she came from. She was, is and forever will be a Goddess. She will be the Mother Goddess.’
It was late in the night when a tired Shiva trudged back to his Sati. The Pashupatiastra was ready. There were just a few more tests that needed to be conducted. Tara was at it. The peace conference area was within the external blast radius of the Pashupatiastra, so Sati’s body would be moved from her icy tomb the next morning.
What nobody dared verbalise was that, without the Meluhan cooling mechanism, her body would start decomposing, and she would need to be cremated. That was something Shiva refused to contemplate.
Shiva opened the door of the inner chamber in the building, shivering at the sudden blast of cold air. He could see Ganesh, his son, standing next to the ice tower, holding his dead mother’s hand. His head had been shaven clean. The Lord of the Nagas was on his toes, his mouth close to his mother’s ear. Following an ancient tradition, he was whispering hymns from the Rig Veda into her ear.
Shiva walked up to Ganesh and touched his shoulder lightly. Ganesh immediately pulled up his white angvastram and wiped his eyes before turning to face his father.
Shiva embraced his son.
‘I miss her, baba.’ Ganesh held Shiva tightly.
‘I miss her too...’
Ganesh began to cry. ‘I abandoned her in her hour of need.’
‘You weren’t the only one, my son. I wasn’t there either. But we will avenge her.’
Ganesh kept sobbing helplessly.
‘I want to kill them all. I want to kill every single one of those bastards!’
‘We will kill the Evil that took her life.’ Shiva held his son quietly while he sobbed. He closed his eyes and pulled Ganesh in tighter, and whispered hoarsely, ‘Whatever the cost.’
Veerbhadra and Krittika had come to the Rajat platform. Krittika had lived in Devagiri for a long time and knew most people, so she had been trying to speak to those who were choosing to stay back, trying to convince them to leave.
‘Veerbhadra, I need to talk to you.’
Veerbhadra turned around to see Kali and Parshuram standing behind him.
‘Yes, Your Highness,’ said Veerbhadra.
‘In private,’ said Kali.
‘Of course,’ said Veerbhadra, touching Krittika lightly before walking away.
‘Vidyunmali?’ spat out Veerbhadra, his face hardening with fury.
‘He’s the main conspirator,’ said Kali. ‘He’s hidden in the city, badly injured from some recent skirmish.’
Parshuram touched Veerbhadra’s shoulder. ‘We have to enter the city in a small group and locate him.’
Kali touched her knife, a serrated blade that delivered particularly painful wounds. ‘We need to encourage him to talk. We need to know the identity of the assassins who escaped.’
‘That son of a bitch deserves a slow, painful death,’ growled Veerbhadra.
‘That he does,’ said Kali. ‘But not before we’ve made him talk.’
Parshuram stretched his hand out, palm facing the ground. ‘For the Lord Neelkanth.’