‘Does he genuinely believe that the Somras is Good?’
‘Yes. And he believes that you are a fraud. He knows that the Vayuputras did not select you. In fact, we believe that the Vayuputras are on his side. For who else could have given him the daivi astras that were used in the attack at Panchavati?’
‘Is there a possibility that he could have made the daivi astras himself? That is what I assumed must have happened.’
‘Trust me, that is not possible. Only the Vayuputras have the know-how to make the daivi astras. Nobody else does; not even us.’
Shiva stared at Gopal, stunned. ‘I didn’t expect the Vayuputras to support me; I am not one of them. But I thought that they would at least be neutral.’
‘No, my friend. We must assume that the Vayuputras are on the side of your enemy. They may even be in agreement with him about the Somras still being Good.’
Shiva breathed deeply. This man sounded formidable. ‘Who is he?’
Bhrigu’s eyes scanned the distance, observing the Meluhan soldiers practising their art. Daksha stood next to him with his eyes pinned to the ground. Mayashrenik, the stand-in general of the Meluhan army in the absence of Parvateshwar, was a few metres ahead.
Bhrigu said softly, without turning towards Daksha, ‘Your soldiers are exceptional, Your Highness.’
Daksha did not answer as he continued to study the ground.
Bhrigu shook his head. ‘Your Highness, I said that your soldiers are well trained.’
Daksha turned his attention towards Bhrigu. ‘Of course, My Lord. I’d already mentioned this to you. There is no need to worry. To begin with, a war is unlikely. But even the possibility of war leaves little to fear for I have the combined Ayodhyan and Meluhan armies at my command which...’
‘We have much to fear,’ said Bhrigu, interrupting Daksha. ‘Your soldiers are well trained. But they are not well led.’
‘Mayashrenik is not a leader. He is a great second-in-command. He will follow orders unquestioningly and implement them effectively. But he cannot lead.’
‘We need someone who can think; someone who can strategise; someone who is willing to suffer for the sake of the greater good. We need a leader.’
‘But I am their leader.’
Bhrigu looked contemptuously at Daksha. ‘You are not a leader, Your Highness. Parvateshwar is a leader. But you sent him off with that fraud Neelkanth. I don’t know if he is alive, or even worse, if he has switched loyalties to that barbarian from Tibet.’
Daksha took offence at Bhrigu’s criticism. ‘Parvateshwar is not the only great warrior in Meluha, My Lord. We can use Vidyunmali. He’s a capable strategist and would make a great general.’
‘I don’t trust Vidyunmali. And I’d like to suggest that Your Highness is hardly the best judge of people.’
Daksha promptly went back to studying the ground that had held his fascination a few moments back.
Bhrigu took a deep breath. This discussion was pointless. ‘Your Highness, I’m going to Ayodhya. Please make the arrangements.’
‘Yes, Maharishiji,’ said Daksha.
Bhagirath and Anandmayi were in the last clearing of the forests of Dandak. It would take a few more months to reach Branga and from there on, Kashi. But the remaining journey was the last thing on Bhagirath’s mind.
‘What have they been talking about for so long?’ asked Bhagirath.
Anandmayi turned in the direction of Bhagirath’s gaze. Ayurvati and Parvateshwar were gesticulating wildly. But the tone of their voices, true to Meluhan character, remained soft and polite. They seemed to be in the middle of an intense debate.
Anandmayi shook her head. ‘I don’t have supernatural abilities. I can’t hear what they’re saying.’
‘But I can take a good guess,’ said Bhagirath. ‘I hope that Ayurvati succeeds.’
Anandmayi turned towards Bhagirath, frowning.
‘Ayurvati has already made her decision. She is with us. She is with the Mahadev. And now, I think, she is trying to convince Parvateshwar.’
Anandmayi knew that her brother was probably right, but love was forcing her to hope. ‘Bhagirath, Parvateshwar has not made his decision as yet. He is devoted to the Mahadev. Don’t assume...’
‘Trust me, if it comes down to a war and he has to choose between Lord Shiva and his precious Meluha, your husband will choose Meluha.’
‘Bhagirath, shut up!’
Bhagirath turned towards Anandmayi, irritated. ‘I am only speaking the truth.’
‘That is a matter of opinion.’
‘I am the crown prince of Ayodhya. Many will say my opinion is the truth.’
Anandmayi tapped her brother on his head. ‘And I, as the crown prince’s elder sister, have the right to shut him up any time I choose!’
‘Parvateshwar, you have not thought this through,’ said Ayurvati.
Parvateshwar smiled sadly. ‘I have not been thinking of much else in the last few months. I know the path that I must take.’
‘But will you be able to act against the living God you worship?’
‘Since there is no other choice, I must.’
‘But Lord Ram had said that we must protect our faith. The Mahadevs and the Vishnus are our living gods. How do we protect our religion if we do not fight alongside our living gods?’
‘You are confusing faith and religion. They are two completely different things.’
‘No, they are not.’
‘Yes, they are. The Sanatan Dharma is my religion. But it is not my faith. My faith is my country. My faith is Meluha. Only Meluha.’
Ayurvati sighed and looked up at the sky. She shook her head and turned back towards Parvateshwar. ‘I know how devoted you are to the Neelkanth. Can you go to war against the Lord; do you have it in your heart to even harm him?’
Parvateshwar breathed deeply, his eyes moist. ‘I will fight all who seek to harm Meluha. If Meluha must be conquered, it will be over my dead body.’
‘Parvateshwar, do you really think that the Somras is not Evil? That it should not be banned?’
‘No. I know it should be banned. I have already stopped using the Somras. I stopped using it the day Brahaspati told us about all the evil that it has been responsible for.’
‘Then why are you willing to fight to defend this halahal?’ asked Ayurvati, using an old Sanskrit term for the most potent poison in the universe.
‘But I am not defending the Somras,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘I’m defending Meluha.’
‘But the both of them are on the same side,’ said Ayurvati.
‘That is my misfortune. But defending Meluha is my life’s purpose; this is what I was born to do.’
‘Parvateshwar, Meluha is not what it used to be. You’re well aware of the fact that Emperor Daksha is no Lord Ram. You are fighting for an ideal that does not exist anymore. You are fighting for a country whose greatness lives on only in memory. You are fighting for a faith that has been corrupted beyond repair.’
‘That may be so, Ayurvati. But this is my purpose; to fight and die for Meluha.’
Ayurvati shook her head in irritation, but her voice was unfailingly polite. ‘Parvateshwar, you are making a mistake. You are pitting yourself against your living God. You are defending the Somras, which even you believe has turned evil. And you are doing all this to serve some “purpose”. Does the purpose of defending Meluha justify all the mistakes that you know you are making?’