Bhrigu was staring wide-eyed at Dilipa, stunned.
‘So you see, My Lord,’ said Dilipa, ‘I know this is not looking good, but things will be set right very soon. In fact, I expect the committee to start debating the shipyard issue within the next seven days.’
Bhrigu spoke softly, but his rage was at boiling point, ‘Your Highness, the future of India is at stake and your committee is debating?!’
‘But My Lord, debates are important. They help incorporate all points of view. Or else we may make decisions that are not...’
‘In the name of Lord Ram, you are the king! Fate has placed you here so you can make decisions for your people!’
Dilipa fell silent.
Bhrigu maintained silence for a few seconds, trying to control his anger, then spoke in a low voice. ‘Your Highness, what you do within your own kingdom is your problem. But I want the refitting of these ships to begin today. Understand?’
‘How soon can the ships be ready?’
‘In six months, if my people work every day.’
‘Make those imbeciles work day and night and have them ready in three. Am I clear?
‘Yes, My Lord.’
‘Also, please have your cartographers map the jungle route from Ayodhya to the upper Ganga.’
‘Umm, but why should...’
Bhrigu sighed in exasperation. ‘Your Highness, I expect Meluha to be the real battleground. Your Ayodhya is not likely to be at risk. These ships were needed to get your army to Meluha quickly, if necessary. Since they are not going to be ready now, we need an alternative plan if war is declared within the next few months. I would need your army to cut through the jungles in a north-westerly direction and reach the upper Ganga, close to Dharmakhet. Farther on, you can use the new road built by the Meluhans to reach Devagiri. Obviously, since you will be cutting through jungles, this route will be slow and could take many months, but it’s better than reinforcements not getting to Meluha at all. And to ensure that your army does not get lost in the jungles, it would be good to have clear maps. I’m sure your commanders would want to reach Meluha in time to help your allies.’
‘Also, I will be surprised if Ayodhya is attacked directly.’
‘Of course. Why should anyone attack Ayodhya directly?’ asked Dilipa. ‘We have not harmed anyone.’
In truth, Bhrigu was not sure that Ayodhya would not be attacked. But he did not care. His only concern was the Somras. Meluha had to be protected in order to protect the Somras. Had it been possible to convince Dilipa to order the Ayodhyan army to leave for Devagiri right away, Bhrigu would not have hesitated to do so.
‘I will order the cartographers to map the route through the jungles, My Lord,’ said Dilipa.
‘Thank you, Your Highness,’ smiled Bhrigu. ‘By the way, I notice that even your wrinkles are disappearing. Has the blood in your cough reduced?’
‘Disappeared, My Lord. Your medicines are miraculous.’
‘A medicine is only as good as the patient’s responsiveness. All the credit is due only to you, Your Highness.’
‘You are being too kind. What you have done to my body is magical. But My Lord, my knee continues to trouble me. It still hurts when I...’
‘We’ll take care of that as well. Don’t worry.’
Bhrigu gestured behind him. ‘Also, I have brought the Meluhan brigadier Prasanjit here. He will train your army on modern warfare.’
‘Please ensure that your soldiers listen to him, Your Highness.’
‘Yes, My Lord.’
The two ships carrying Parvateshwar and his team had just docked at the river port of Vaishali, the immediate neighbour of Branga. Shiva had asked Parvateshwar to speak to the King of Vaishali, Maatali, and get his support for the Neelkanth. However, keeping in mind his decision to oppose the Mahadev and protect Meluha, Parvateshwar was of the opinion that it would be unethical of him to approach the king. Therefore, he had requested Anandmayi to carry out the mission.
Bhagirath, Anandmayi and Ayurvati were standing aft while they waited for the gangplank to be lowered on to the Vaishali port. Parvateshwar, having opted to stay back, had decided to practise his sword skills with Uttanka on the lead ship. The waiting party gazed at the exquisite Vishnu temple dedicated to Lord Matsya, built very close to the river harbour. They bowed low towards the first Lord Vishnu.
‘You will have to excuse me,’ said Bhagirath, turning towards Anandmayi.
‘Are you planning on leaving for Ayodhya right away?’ asked Anandmayi.
‘Yes. Why delay it? I intend to take the second ship and sail up the Sarayu to Ayodhya. The Vaishali King’s allegiance is a given. He is blindly loyal to the Neelkanth. Your meeting him is a mere formality. I may as well concentrate on the other task that the Lord Neelkanth has given me.’
‘All right,’ said Anandmayi.
‘Go with Lord Ram’s blessings, Bhagirath,’ said Ayurvati.
‘You too,’ said Bhagirath.
While the lead ships of Shiva’s convoy berthed at the main Assi Ghat of Kashi, the others docked at the Brahma Ghat nearby. Along with a large retinue, King Athithigva waited in attendance for the ceremonial reception. On cue, drummers beat a steady rhythm and conches blared as Shiva stepped onto the gangplank. Ceremonial aartis and a cheering populace added to the festive air. Their living god had returned.
King Athithigva bowed low and touched Shiva’s feet as soon as he stepped onto the Assi Ghat.
‘Ayushman bhav, Your Highness,’ said Shiva, blessing King Athithigva with a long life.
Athithigva smiled, his hands folded in a respectful Namaste. ‘A long life is not of much use if we are not graced with your presence here in Kashi, My Lord.’
Shiva, always uncomfortable with such deference, quickly changed the subject. ‘How have things been, Your Highness?’
‘Very well. Trade has been good. But rumours have been going around that the Neelkanth is to make a big announcement soon. Is that so, My Lord?’
‘Let us wait till we get to your palace, Your Highness.’
‘Of course,’ said Athithigva. ‘I should also tell you that I have received word through a fast sailboat that Queen Kali is on her way to Kashi. She is just a few days’ journey behind you. She should be here soon.’
With raised eyebrows, Shiva instinctively looked upriver from where Kali’s ship would inevitably sail. ‘Well, it will be good to have her here as well. We have a lot to plan for.’
Escape of the Gunas
A delighted Shiva embraced Veerbhadra as Sati hugged Krittika. The duo had just entered Shiva’s private chamber in the Kashi palace.
Veerbhadra and Krittika had had an uneventful journey through Meluha. Their reception at the village where the Gunas had been housed had taken them by surprise. There were no soldiers, no alarm, nothing out of the ordinary. Clearly, the Gunas were not being targeted as leverage against the Neelkanth. The system-driven Meluhans had achieved what their system had conceived – everybody being treated in accordance with the law with no special provisions for any particular people.
‘Didn’t you face any trouble?’ asked Shiva.
‘None,’ said Veerbhadra. ‘The tribe lived just like everyone else, in comfortable egalitarianism. We quickly bundled them into a caravan and quietly escaped. We arrived in Kashi a few months later.’