‘Yeah, right!’ said Shiva.
‘Why don’t you try to sing it, My Lady?’ asked Nandi.
‘No, no,’ said Sati. ‘Of course not.’
‘Why not?’ asked Veerbhadra.
‘I would love to hear you sing, my child,’ said Brahaspati.
‘Come on,’ pleaded Shiva.
‘All right,’ said a smiling Sati. ‘I’ll try.’
Shiva picked up the chillum and offered it to Sati. She shook her head.
Sati had been playing close attention to Shiva’s singing. The song, its melody and lyrics, had already been committed to memory. Sati closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and entrusted herself to the music. The song began on a very low octave. She reproduced his earlier performance precisely, allowing the words to flow out in a flood when needed and letting them hang delicately when required. She quickened her breathing as she approached the end and took the notes higher and higher into a crescendo where the song finished in a flourish. Even the bonfire seemed to respond to the call of the elemental fire song from Sati.
‘Wow!’ exclaimed Shiva, embracing her as she finished. ‘I didn’t know you could sing so beautifully.’
Sati blushed. ‘Was it really that good?’
‘My Lady!’ said a stunned Veerbhadra. ‘It was fantastic. I always thought that Shiva was the best singer in the universe. But you are even better than him.’
‘Of course not,’ said Sati.
‘Of course, yes,’ said Shiva. ‘It almost seemed like you had pulled all the surrounding fire into yourself.’
‘And I shall keep it within me,’ said Sati. ‘We’re going to be fighting the war of our lives. We need all the fire that we can get!’
Ganesh and Kartik had been housed in the private chambers of King Maatali of Vaishali. They were accompanied by the Ayodhyan prince Bhagirath and the Branga king Chandraketu. Their information was that Magadh was not preparing a blockade to stop their ships from sailing to Ayodhya. But the Magadhan army had been put on alert and training sessions had been doubled. Either this was a precautionary step taken by Surapadman or the Magadhans planned on attacking them once they had exhausted themselves against the Ayodhyans.
‘We cannot afford to lose either men or ships as we pass Magadh,’ said Ganesh. ‘We’ve got to be prepared for the worst.’
‘The way I see it,’ said Bhagirath, pointing to the river map on the table, ‘their primary catapults will be in the main fort on the west bank of the Sarayu. They have a small battlement on the east side as well, from where they can load catapults and throw fire barrels at us, but considering the size of this battlement, I don’t think that the range will be long. So my suggestion is that we sail our ships closer to the eastern bank of the Sarayu.’
‘But not too close though!’ said Chandraketu.
‘Of course,’ said Bhagirath. ‘We don’t want to be the casualties of the smaller catapults from the east either.’
‘Also, we can make sure that we don’t just depend on our sails but also have our oarsmen in position to row the ships rapidly,’ said the Vaishali king, Maatali.
‘But no matter which side of the river we sail and how quickly we row, we will still lose people if they decide to attack,’ said Ganesh. ‘Remember, we are on ships, so we cannot get our men to disembark fast enough to retaliate.’
‘Why don’t we increase their risks?’ asked Kartik.
‘How?’ asked Ganesh.
‘Have half the soldiers from every ship go ashore before Magadh. We could get them to march on the eastern banks alongside our ships. The reduced load will make our ships move faster. Also, the Magadhan battlement on the eastern bank would know there is a massive contingent of enemy soldiers marching just outside their walls. They would have to think twice before doing anything stupid.’
‘I like the idea,’ said Bhagirath.
‘I’ve thought of something even simpler,’ said Chandraketu.
Ganesh looked at the Branga king.
‘The Magadh royalty is amongst the poorest in Swadweep,’ said Chandraketu. ‘It’s a powerful kingdom but King Mahendra has lost a considerable part of his fortune owing to both his son Ugrasen’s as well as his own gambling addiction.’
‘Do you want to bribe them?’ asked Bhagirath.
‘For one, we would need massive amounts of money. A few thousand gold coins will not suffice. We won’t be negotiating with some army officers but the royalty itself.’
‘Will one million gold coins be enough?’
Bhagirath was stunned. ‘One million?’
‘Just to make it through unharmed?’
‘Lord Rudra, be praised. That will be nearly six months of tax collections for the Magadhan royalty.’
‘Exactly. I’ll dispatch Divodas to Magadh with half the amount in the first ship. The other half can be handed over once our last ship has passed by safely.’
‘But they could use this wealth to buy weapons,’ said Kartik.
‘They will not be able to do that quickly enough,’ said Chandraketu. ‘And what they do with the money after the war is over is not my concern.’
‘Can you really afford to give away so much gold, Your Highness?’ asked Ganesh.
Chandraketu smiled. ‘We have more than enough, Lord Ganesh. But it means nothing to us. I would give away all the gold that we have to stop the Somras.’
‘All right,’ said Ganesh. ‘I see no reason why it won’t work.’
Siege of Ayodhya
The cool northerly wind was a welcome relief for Shiva as he sat on the deck of the lead ship with Gopal, Sati and Kali clustered around him. As the fifty-six vessel armada made steady progress upriver, he knew that in just a few weeks they would reach close to the headwaters of the Chambal from where the soldiers would disembark and march to the Narmada.
‘Panditji, do your ships that wait for us at the Narmada have the additional capacity to carry the fifty-five thousand soldiers who accompany us?’ asked Kali.
‘Yes, Your Highness,’ said Gopal. ‘Our ships have been specially designed to handle this additional load since we knew that we would not be able to use the ships we’re currently on.’
‘Judging by the maps we’ve seen,’ said Sati, ‘we should reach Lothal in three months, right Panditji?’
‘Yes, Satiji,’ said Gopal. ‘If the winds favour us, we may even make it earlier.’
‘Have you received word from the Lothal governor, Kali?’ asked Shiva.
‘My ambassador will be waiting with the information at the Narmada,’ answered Kali. ‘Trust me, we will gain easy entry into Lothal. But don’t expect a huge addition of troops into our army. Lothal doesn’t have more than two or three thousand soldiers.’
‘We don’t really need their soldiers,’ said Shiva. ‘We have enough troops of our own. Along with the Vasudev army that waits for us at the Narmada, your own Naga army and this Branga force, we have more than a hundred thousand men. That’s equal to the strength of the Meluhan army.’
‘We can easily defeat them,’ said Kali.