Kartik remained stationary and calm, with his eyes focused on the beast. His breathing was regular and deep. He knew that the rhinoceros couldn’t see him since he stood straight ahead. The animal was running, guided by the memory of where it had seen Kartik last.
Vishwadyumna fired arrows into the animal rapidly, hoping to slow it down. But the thick hide of the beast ensured that the arrows did not make too much of a difference. It was running straight towards Kartik. Yet Kartik didn’t move or flinch. Vishwadyumna could see the boy warrior holding his swords lightly. That was completely wrong for a stabbing action, where the blade needs to be firmly held. The weapon would fall out of his hands the moment he’d thrust forward.
Just when it appeared that he was about to be trampled underfoot, Kartik bent low and, with lightning speed, rolled towards the left. As the rhinoceros continued running, he slashed out, his left sword first, pressing the lever on the hilt as he swung. One of the twin-blades extended out of the other, slicing through the front thigh of the beast, cutting through muscles and veins. As blood spurted rapidly, the animal’s injured leg collapsed from under it and it grunted, confused, trying to put weight on the appendage, now flopping uselessly against its belly. Admirably, it still continued its charge, its three good legs heaving against its bulk as it struggled to turn and face its attacker. Kartik ran forward, following the movement of the animal, now circling in from behind the beast. He hacked brutally with his right hand, which held the killer curved sword. The blade sliced through the thigh of the hind leg, cutting down to the bone with its deep curvature and broad metal. With both its right legs incapacitated, the rhinoceros collapsed to the ground, rolling sideways as it tried to stand with only two good legs, writhing in pain. Its blood mixed with the dusty earth to make a dark red-brown mud that smeared across its body as it flailed against the ground, panting in fear.
Kartik stood quietly at a short distance, watching the animal in its final throes.
Vishwadyumna watched from behind, his mouth agape. He had never seen an animal brought down with such skill and speed.
Kartik approached the rhinoceros calmly. Even though immobilised, the beast reared its head menacingly at him, grunting and whining in a high-pitched squeal. Kartik maintained a safe distance as the other soldiers rapidly ran up to him.
The son of the Neelkanth bowed low to the animal. ‘Forgive me, magnificent beast. I am only doing my duty. I will finish this soon.’
Suddenly, Kartik moved forward and stabbed hard, right through the folds of the rhinoceros’ skin, plunging deep into the beast’s heart, feeling the shudder go through its body, until at last it was still.
‘My Lord, a bird courier has just arrived with a message for your eyes only,’ said Kanakhala, the Meluhan prime minister. ‘That’s why I brought it personally.’
Daksha occupied his private chambers, a worried Veerini seated beside him. He took the letter from Kanakhala and dismissed her.
With a polite Namaste towards her Emperor and Empress, Kanakhala turned to leave. Glancing back, she glimpsed a rare intimate moment between them as they held each other’s hands. The last few months had inured her to the strange goings-on in Meluha. Daksha’s past betrayal of Sati during her first pregnancy had shocked her enormously. Kanakhala had lost all respect for her emperor. She continued with her job because she remained loyal to Meluha. She had even stopped questioning the strange orders from her lord; like the one he’d given the previous day about making arrangements for Bhrigu and Dilipa to travel to the ruins of Mount Mandar. She could understand Maharishi Bhrigu’s interest in going there. But what earthly reason could there be for the Swadweepan emperor to go as well? Kanakhala saw Daksha letting go of Veerini’s hand and breaking the seal of the letter as she shut the door quietly behind her.
Daksha began to cry. Veerini immediately reached over and snatched the letter from him.
As she read through it quickly, Veerini let out a deep sigh of relief as tears escaped from her eyes. ‘She’s safe. They’re all safe...’
On the surface, the plan to assassinate the Neelkanth worked towards the unique interests of all the three main conspirators, Maharishi Bhrigu, Emperor Daksha and Emperor Dilipa. For Bhrigu, the greatest gain would be that the Somras would not be targeted by the Neelkanth. The faith of the people in the legend of the Neelkanth was strong. If the Neelkanth declared that the Somras was evil and decided to toe the Naga line, so would his followers. For Dilipa it meant the killing of two birds with a single stone. Not only would he continue to receive the elixir from Bhrigu, but he’d also do away with Bhagirath, his heir and greatest threat. Daksha would be rid of the troublesome Neelkanth and be able to blame all ills on the Nagas once again. The plan was perfect. Except that Daksha could not countenance the killing of his daughter. He was willing to put everything on the line to ensure that Sati was left unharmed. Bhrigu and Dilipa had hoped that with the rupture in relations between Daksha and his daughter, the Meluhan emperor would support this mission wholeheartedly. They were wrong. Daksha’s love for Sati was deeper than his hatred for Shiva.
Upon Veerini’s advice, Daksha had sent the Arishtanemi brigadier Mayashrenik, known for his blind loyalty to Meluha and deep devotion to the Neelkanth, on a secret mission. Mayashrenik was to accompany the five ships that had been sent to attack the Neelkanth’s convoy. Veerini had covertly kept in touch with her daughter Kali through all these years of strife, and had made Daksha aware of the river warning and defence system of the Nagas. All that had to be done was to get the alarm triggered in time. Mayashrenik’s mission was to ensure that the alarms went off. He was to escape and return to Meluha after that. The Arishtanemi brigadier and acting general of the Meluhan army had carried a homing pigeon with him to deliver the news of the subsequent battle to Daksha. The happy message for the Meluhan emperor was that the progeny Daksha cared for – Sati and Kartik – were alive and safe.
Veerini looked at her husband. ‘If only you would listen to me a bit more.’
Daksha breathed deeply. ‘If Lord Bhrigu ever finds out...’
‘Would you rather your children were dead?’
Daksha sighed. He would do anything to ensure Sati’s safety. He shook his head. ‘No!’
‘Then thank the Parmatma that our plan worked. And never breathe a word of this to anyone. Ever!’
Daksha nodded. He took the letter from Veerini and set it aflame, holding it by the edge for as long as possible, to ensure that every part of it had charred beyond recognition.
The Kings Have Chosen
‘Do you believe Brahaspati?’ asked Shiva.
Night had fallen on the Panchavati guest colony just outside the main city. Injured and fatigued, Shiva’s entourage had retired to their quarters for a well-deserved rest.
Sati and Shiva were in their chambers, having just returned from the city. They had not spoken to a soul about what they’d learnt at the Panchavati school. They had not even told the Suryavanshis that Brahaspati, their beloved chief scientist, was still alive. They were to meet him again the next day.
‘Well, I don’t think Brahaspatiji is lying,’ said Sati. ‘I do remember that more than two decades ago, Lord Bhrigu had spent many months in Devagiri, which was highly unusual for the Raj guru. He is a rare sight in Meluha, since he usually chooses to spend his time meditating in his Himalayan cave.’