‘Can everyone stand behind me, please,’ requested Ganesh. ‘I do not want anybody between me and the palm trees.’
The others moved away as Ganesh closed his eyes to drown out the distractions surrounding him and find his concentration.
Ganesh breathed deeply and clapped hard repeatedly in an irregular beat. The claps were set in the Vasudev code and were being transmitted to the gatekeeper of Ujjain. This is Ganesh, the Naga lord of the people, requesting permission to enter your great city with our entourage.
Shiva heard the soft sounds of claps reverberating back. Ujjain’s gatekeeper had answered. Welcome, Lord Ganesh. This is an unexpected honour. Are you on your way to Swadweep?
No. We have come to meet with Lord Gopal, the great chief Vasudev.
Was there something specific you needed to discuss, Lord Ganesh?
Clearly, the Vasudevs were still not comfortable with the Nagas, despite the fact that they had reached out to Ganesh for the Naga medicines to help with the birth of Kartik. The Ujjain gatekeeper was trying to parry off Ganesh’s request while trying not to insult him.
Ganesh continued to clap rhythmically. It is not I who seeks Lord Gopal, honoured gatekeeper. It is the Lord Neelkanth.
Silence for a few moments. Then the sound of claps in quick succession. Is the Lord Neelkanth at the palm clearing with you?
He is standing with me. He can hear you.
Silence once again, before the gatekeeper responded. Lord Ganesh, Lord Gopal himself is coming to the clearing. We will be honoured to host your convoy. It will take us a day to get there; please bear with us till then.
Ganesh rubbed his palms together and looked at Shiva. ‘It will take a day for them to get here, baba. We can wait in our ship till they arrive.’
‘Have you ever been to Ujjain?’ asked Shiva.
‘No. I have met the Vasudevs just once at this very clearing.’
‘All right, let’s get back to our ship.’
‘Are you telling me Lord Bhrigu visited Ayodhya eight times in the last year?’ asked a surprised Surapadman.
The crown prince of Magadh maintained his own espionage network, independent of the notoriously inefficient Royal Magadh spy service. His man had just informed him of the goings-on in the Ayodhya royal household.
‘Yes, Your Highness,’ answered the spy. ‘Furthermore, Emperor Dilipa himself has visited Meluha twice in the same period.’
‘That, I am aware of,’ said Surapadman. ‘But the news you bring throws new light on it. Perhaps Dilipa was not going to meet that fool Daksha after all. Maybe he was going to meet Lord Bhrigu. But why would the great sage be interested in Dilipa?’
‘That I do not know, Your Highness. But I’m sure you have heard of Emperor Dilipa’s newly-acquired youthful appearance. Perhaps Lord Bhrigu has been giving him the Somras?’
Surapadman waved his hand dismissively. ‘The Somras is easily available to Swadweepan royalty. Dilipa doesn’t need to plead with a maharishi for it. I know Dilipa has been using the Somras for years. But when one has abused the body as much as he has, even the Somras would find it difficult to delay his ageing. I suspect Lord Bhrigu is giving him medicines that are even more potent than the Somras.’
‘But why would Lord Bhrigu do that?’
‘That’s the mystery. Try to find out. Any news of the Neelkanth?’
‘No, Your Highness. He remains in Naga territory.’
Surapadman rubbed his chin and looked out of the window of his palace chambers along the Ganga. His gaze seemed to stretch beyond the river into the jungle that extended to the south; the forests where his brother Ugrasen had been killed by the Nagas. He cursed Ugrasen silently. He knew the truth of his brother’s murder. Addicted to bull-racing, Ugrasen had indulged in increasingly reckless bets. Desperate to get good child-riders for his bulls, he used to scour tribal forests, kidnapping children at will. On one such expedition he had been killed by a Naga, who was trying to protect a hapless mother and her young boy. What he could not understand though was why a Naga would risk his life to save a forest woman and her child.
But the death had narrowed Surapadman’s choices. The Neelkanth would lead his followers against whoever he decided was Evil. A war was inevitable. There would be those who would oppose him. Surapadman did not care much about this war against Evil. All he wanted was to ensure that Magadh would fight on the side opposed to Ayodhya. He intended to use wartime chaos to establish Magadh as the overlord of Swadweep and himself as emperor. But Ugrasen’s killing had deepened his father King Mahendra’s distrust of the Nagas into unadulterated hatred. Surapadman knew Mahendra would force him to fight against whichever side the Nagas allied with. His only hope lay in the Nagas and the Emperor of Ayodhya choosing the same side.
Kanakhala waited patiently in the chambers of Maharishi Bhrigu at Daksha’s palace. The maharishi was in deep meditation. Though his chamber was in a palace, it was as simple and severe as his real home in a Himalayan cave. Bhrigu sat on the only piece of furniture in the room, a stone bed. Kanakhala therefore had no choice but to stand. Icy water had been sprinkled on the floor and the walls. The resultant cold and clammy dampness made her shiver slightly. She looked at the bowl of fruit at the far corner of the room on a small stand. The maharishi seemed to have eaten just one fruit over the previous three days. Kanakhala made a mental note to order fresh fruit to be brought in. An idol of Lord Brahma had been installed in an indentation in the wall. Kanakhala stared fixedly at the idol as she repeated the soft chanting of Bhrigu.
Om Brahmaye Namah. Om Brahmaye Namah.
Bhrigu opened his eyes and gazed at Kanakhala contemplatively before speaking. ‘Yes, my child?’
‘My Lord, a sealed letter has been delivered for you by bird courier. It has been marked as strictly confidential. Therefore, I thought it fit to bring it to you personally.’
Bhrigu nodded politely and took the letter from Kanakhala without saying a word.
‘As instructed, we have also kept the pigeon with us. It can return to where it came from. Of course, this would not be possible if the ship has moved. Please let me know if you’d like to send a message back with the pigeon.’
‘Will that be all, My Lord?’ asked Kanakhala.
‘Yes. Thank you.’
As Kanakhala shut the door behind her, Bhrigu broke the seal and opened the letter. Its contents were disappointing.
My Lord, we have found some wreckage of our ships at the mouth of the Godavari. They have obviously been blown up. It is difficult to judge whether they were destroyed as a result of sabotage or an accident owing to the goods they carried. It is also difficult to say if all the ships were destroyed or if there are any survivors. Await further instructions.
The words gave Bhrigu information without adding to his understanding of the situation. Not one of the five ships that he had sent to assassinate the Neelkanth and destroy Panchavati had returned or sent a message. The wreckage of at least some of the ships had been discovered, having drifted down the Godavari. Both the possible conclusions were disturbing: either the ships had been destroyed or some of them had been captured. Bhrigu could not afford to send another ship up the Godavari to try and dig deeper. He might end up gifting another well-built warship to the enemy just before the final war. Of course, there was also the possibility that the ships may have succeeded in their mission and had been destroyed subsequently. But Bhrigu simply could not be sure.