‘When will the proclamation come out, baba?’ asked Kartik.
‘Next week,’ answered Shiva. ‘Stay in touch with the Vaishali Vasudev pandit for the reactions from across different kingdoms in Swadweep. You will know then what to expect in Ayodhya also.’
‘Yes, baba,’ said Kartik.
Shiva turned to Ganesh. ‘I’ve been told that you have recruited Divodas and the Branga soldiers into the army.’
‘Yes,’ said Ganesh. ‘We’ll leave on board five ships and meet the combined Branga-Vaishali army at Vaishali. I’m told they have two hundred ships. Fifty of them have been deputed to the Western Army under your command and are on their way to Kashi. The remaining hundred and fifty ships will be with me. We will attack Ayodhya with a hundred and fifty thousand men.’
‘That won’t be enough to conquer them,’ said Sati. ‘But we should be able to tie them down.’
‘Yes,’ answered Ganesh.
‘We’ll hold them back, baba,’ said Kartik. ‘I promise you.’
‘How is she now?’ asked Kali.
Kali was at the river gate of the eastern palace of the Kashi king Athithigva. The palace had been built on the eastern banks of the Ganga, which was considered inauspicious for any permanent construction. The kings of Kashi had bought this land to ensure that no Kashi citizen lived on that side. It was in this palace that Athithigva had housed his Naga sister, Maya. Ganesh and Kali’s open presence had given Athithigva the courage to let his sister come out of hiding.
‘Your medicines have helped, Your Highness,’ said Athithigva. ‘At least she’s not in terrible pain anymore. The Parmatma has sent you as an angel to help my sister.’
Kali smiled sadly. She knew it was a matter of time before Maya, a singular name for conjoined twins who were fused into one body from the chest down, would die. It was a miracle that Maya had lived for so long. On discovering her presence, Kali had immediately supplied Naga medicines to lessen her suffering. Since she was to leave with the Western Army the next day, she had come over to leave the rest of her medicines with Maya.
‘I’m no angel,’ said Kali. ‘If the Parmatma had any sense of justice, he wouldn’t make an innocent person like Maya suffer so much. I’m doing all I can to set right his injustices.’
Athithigva shrugged in resignation but was too pious to curse God.
Kali’s gaze turned towards the Ganga where the fifty ships of the Branga armada had dropped anchor just the previous day. The mighty fleet covered the width of the river, stretching to the opposite bank. A nervous excitement was palpable throughout Kashi. The smell of war was in the air.
The flotilla’s initial progress would be slow for they would first sail west against the current and then southwards up the Chambal. After disembarking, the soldiers would then march towards the Narmada. The second voyage would take them along the course of the Narmada out to the Western Sea and then north towards Meluha.
‘Let’s go in,’ said Kali. ‘I’d like to see Maya before I leave.’
‘Your Highness!’ said Kanakhala, running into Daksha’s private office.
Daksha looked up at his prime minister as he slipped the papyrus he was reading back into the drawer of his desk. ‘Where’s the fire, Kanakhala?’
‘Your Highness,’ said a frantic Kanakhala, obviously carrying something within the folds of her angvastram, ‘you need to see this.’
Kanakhala placed a thin stone tablet on her emperor’s desk.
‘What’s this?’ asked Daksha.
‘You need to read it, Your Highness.’
Daksha bent over to read.
To all of you who consider yourselves the children of Manu and followers of the Sanatan Dharma, this is a message from me, Shiva, your Neelkanth.
I have travelled across our great land, through all the kingdoms we are divided into, met with all the tribes that populate our fair realm. I have done this in search of the ultimate Evil, for that is my task. Father Manu had told us Evil is not a distant demon. It works its destruction close to us, with us, within us. He was right. He told us Evil does not come from down below and devour us. Instead, we help Evil destroy our lives. He was right. He told us Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin. That one day, the greatest Good will transform into the greatest Evil. He was right. Our greed in extracting more and more from Good turns it into Evil. This is the universe’s way of restoring balance. It is the Parmatma’s way to control our excesses.
I have come to the conclusion that the Somras is now the greatest Evil of our age. All the Good that could be wrung out of the Somras has been wrung. It is time now to stop its use, before the power of its Evil destroys us all. It has already caused tremendous damage, from the killing of the Saraswati River to birth deformities to the diseases that plague some of our kingdoms. For the sake of our descendants, for the sake of our world, we cannot use the Somras anymore.
Therefore, by my order, the use of the Somras is banned forthwith.
To all those who believe in the legend of the Neelkanth: Follow me. Stop the Somras.
To all those who refuse to stop using the Somras: Know this. You will become my enemy. And I will not stop till the use of the Somras is stopped. This is the word of your Neelkanth.
Daksha looked completely stunned. ‘What the hell?!’
‘I do not understand what this means, Your Highness,’ said Kanakhala. ‘Do we stop using the Somras?’
‘Where did you find this?’
‘I didn’t, Your Highness,’ said Kanakhala. ‘It was hung on the outer wall of the temple of Lord Indra near the public bath. Half the citizens have seen this already and they would be talking to the other half by now.’
‘Where is Maharishi Bhrigu?’
‘My Lord, what about the Somras? Should I...’
‘Where is Maharishi Bhrigu?’
‘But if the Neelkanth has issued this order, we have no choice...’
‘Dammit, Kanakhala!’ screamed Daksha. ‘Where is Maharishi Bhrigu?’
Kanakhala was silent for an instant. She did not like the way her Emperor had spoken to her. ‘Maharishi Bhrigu had left Prayag a little more than a month back. That was the last I heard of him, Your Highness. It will take him at least two more months to reach Devagiri.’
‘Then we will wait for him before deciding on a course of action,’ said Daksha.
‘But how can we oppose a proclamation from the Neelkanth, Your Highness?’
‘Who is the Emperor, Kanakhala?’
‘You are, Your Highness.’
‘And have I taken a decision?’
‘Yes, Your Highness.’
‘Then that is the decision of Meluha.’
‘But the people have already read this...’
‘I want you to put up a notice stating that this proclamation is fraudulent. It cannot have been made by the true Neelkanth, for he would never go against the greatest invention of Lord Brahma, the Somras.’
‘But is that true, Your Highness?’
Daksha’s eyes narrowed, his temper barely in check. ‘Kanakhala, just do what I tell you to do. Or I will appoint someone else as prime minister.’
Kanakhala brought her hands together in a formal but icy Namaste, and turned to leave. She couldn’t resist a final parting shot, though. ‘What if there are other notices like this?’