‘My Lord,’ said Surapadman, ‘please forgive me for interrupting you, but I know the truth.’
‘I’m not sure you do, Prince Surapadman. Or else your reaction would have been different.’
Surapadman smiled, looked briefly at Andhak and continued. ‘My Lord, Andhak and I have investigated the case personally. We’ve visited the spot where my brother and his men were killed. We’re aware of the incident.’
Sati couldn’t help inquiring, ‘Then why...’
‘What can I do, My Lady?’ asked Surapadman. ‘My father is a grieving old man who has convinced himself that his favourite son was a noble and valiant Kshatriya, who died while defending his kingdom from a cowardly Naga attack. How can I tell him the truth? How do I tell him that Ugrasen was in fact a compulsive gambler who was trying to kidnap a hapless boy-rider so that he could win some money? Should I tell my father that my great brother tried to murder a mother who was protecting her own child? That the apparently wicked Nagas were actually heroes who saved a subject of his own kingdom from his son’s villainy? Do you think he will even listen to me?’
‘There is nobility in truth,’ said Sati, ‘even if it hurts.’
Surapadman laughed softly. ‘This is not Meluha, My Lady. Meluhans’ devotion to “the truth” is seen by many here as nothing but rigidity of thought. Chandravanshis prefer to choose from several alternative truths which may simultaneously co-exist.’
Sati remained silent.
Surapadman turned to Shiva. ‘My Lord, my father thinks that I am an ambitious warmonger who’s impatient to ascend the throne. He preferred my elder brother, who was more attuned to my father’s views. I think he suspects that I engineered the death of Ugrasen, in pursuit of my goals.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ said Shiva. ‘You are his capable son.’
‘It takes a very self-assured man to appreciate the talents of another, My Lord,’ said Surapadman. ‘Even when it comes to one’s own progeny. Ironically, the Nagas have in fact helped me, for my path to the throne is clear. All I have to do is wait for my father to pass on. And desist from doing anything that will make him disinherit me and offer the throne to some relative. Given this, if I were to tell my father that his favourite son’s murder by the “evil” Nagas was absolutely justified, I would probably go down in history as the stupidest royal ever.’
Gopal smiled slightly. ‘It appears that we are at an impasse, Prince Surapadman. What do we do?’
Surapadman narrowed his eyes. ‘Just give me a Naga.’
‘I can’t,’ said Shiva.
‘I’m not asking for the one who actually killed Ugrasen, My Lord,’ said Surapadman. ‘I guess he is someone important. All I’m asking for is a random Naga. I will present him to my father as Ugrasen’s killer and we’ll have him executed forthwith. My father will then happily retire and go into sanyas to pray for my brother’s soul. And I, along with all the resources of Magadh, will stand beside you. I know the Brangas are with you. Victory is assured if Magadh and Branga are on the same side. You will win the war, My Lord, and Evil will be destroyed. All you need to do is sacrifice an insignificant Naga, who is suffering for the sins of his past lives in any case. We will actually be giving him an opportunity to earn good karma. What do you say?’
Shiva did not hesitate even for a second. ‘I cannot do that.’
‘I will not do that.’
Surapadman leaned back in his chair. ‘We indeed seem to be at an impasse, great Vasudev. My father will not allow me to fight in an army that includes the Nagas unless we can assuage his thirst for vengeance.’
Shiva spoke up before Gopal could respond. ‘What if you do not pick any side at all?’
Surapadman frowned, intrigued.
‘Convince your father to remain neutral,’ continued Shiva. ‘Allow my ships to proceed to battle with Ayodhya. If we are able to beat them, then your primary enemies are weakened. If they beat us, our army, including the Nagas, would be in retreat. Your imagination can fill in the rest. You win both ways.’
Surapadman smiled. ‘That does have an attractive ring to it.’
Parvateshwar and Anandmayi were housed in a separate wing of the massive Kashi palace, having arrived in the city recently. Anandmayi and Ayurvati had gone to meet Veerbhadra and the Gunas.
The Meluhan general was sitting in his chamber balcony, looking out towards the Ganga flowing in the distance.
‘My Lord,’ called out the doorman.
Parvateshwar turned. ‘Yes?’
‘A messenger has just delivered a note for you.’
‘Hand it to me.’
‘Yes, My Lord.’
As the doorman came in, Parvateshwar asked, ‘Who brought the message?’
‘The main palace door-keeper, My Lord.’
Parvateshwar raised his brows. ‘An outsider would not be allowed in, would he? What I wanted to know was who gave the message to the palace door-keeper?’
The doorman looked lost. ‘How would I know, My Lord?’
Parvateshwar sighed. These Swadweepans had no sense of systems and procedures. It’s a wonder that an enemy didn’t just stroll into their key installations. He took the neatly sealed papyrus scroll from the doorman and dismissed him. Parvateshwar couldn’t recognise the symbol on the seal. It appeared to be a star, the kind used in ancient astrological charts. He shrugged and broke it open. The script surprised him; it was one of the standard Meluhan military codes. This one was used exclusively by senior Suryavanshi military officers. It was meant for top secret messages during times of war. For all others, the words in the scroll would have been absolute gibberish.
Lord Parvateshwar, it’s time to prove your loyalty to Meluha. Meet me in the garden behind the Sankat Mochan temple at the end of the third prahar. Come alone.
Parvateshwar caught his breath. He instinctively looked towards the door. He was alone. He tucked the scroll into the pouch tied to his waistband.
He knew what he had to do.
The sound of bells, drums and prayer chants rent the morning air, day after day, at the Sankat Mochan temple. Having thus awoken Lord Hanuman, the devotees then sing bhajans, as Lord Hanuman would do, to gently wake his master, Lord Ram. At the end of this elaborate puja, the great seventh Vishnu proceeds to grant darshan, the divine pleasure of beholding him. The silence at dusk, however, belied the exuberance of the dawn. This was the time when Parvateshwar strode into the great temple.
Parvateshwar looked back to ensure that nobody was following him. Then he walked swiftly towards the garden behind the temple. It was quiet. Parvateshwar approached a tree at the far end of the garden and sat leaning against it.
‘How are you, General?’ asked a soft, polite voice.
Parvateshwar looked up. ‘I’ll do a lot better when I see you.’
‘Are you alone?’
‘I wouldn’t have come had I not been alone.’
There was silence for some time.
Parvateshwar got up to leave. ‘If you are a true Meluhan, you would know that Meluhans don’t lie.’
‘Wait, General,’ said Bhrigu, as he emerged from the shadows.