A hint of a smile escaped her solemn demeanour. ‘Shiva keeps telling me I’m as beautiful as ever, scar or no scar. I know I look horrendous. He’s lying because he loves me. But I choose to believe it.’
‘Why are you doing this?’ asked an anguished Ayurvati. ‘It won’t hurt you at all; not that you are scared of pain...’
‘But why? You have to give me a reason.’
‘Because, I need this scar,’ said Sati grimly.
Ayurvati paused for a moment. ‘Why?’
‘It constantly reminds me of my failure. I will not rest till I have set it right and recovered the ground that I lost for my army.’
‘Sati! It wasn’t your fault that...’
‘Ayurvatiji,’ said Sati, interrupting the former chief surgeon of Meluha. ‘You of all people should not tell me a white lie. I was the Commanding Officer and my army was defeated. It was my fault.’
‘This scar stays with me. Every time I look at my reflection, it will remind me that I have work to do. Let me win a battle for my army, and then we can do the surgery.’
‘Dada,’ whispered Kartik, gently placing his hand on his angry brother’s arm.
Ganesh’s army had just arrived at Lothal. They too had avoided Mrittikavati as advised by a Vasudev pandit. Just like Shiva, Ganesh had ensured that all his ships were destroyed on the Saraswati before his army marched south to Lothal.
They were received at the gates of Lothal by Governor Chenardhwaj. Ganesh and Kartik had wanted to meet their parents immediately, but were informed by Chenardhwaj that Shiva wanted to meet them beforehand. Shiva wanted to prepare them for their first meeting with their mother after her defeat at the Battle of Devagiri.
Meanwhile, the allies of the Neelkanth – Bhagirath, the Prince of Ayodhya, Chandraketu, the King of Branga, and Maatali, the King of Vaishali – were led to their respective chambers in the Lothal governor’s residence by protocol officers. The Chandravanshi royalty, used to the pomp and pageantry of their own land, were distinctly underwhelmed by the austere arrangements of the Meluhan accommodation. It was difficult to believe that the governor of one of the richest provinces of the richest Empire in the world lived in such simplicity. However, they accepted their housing with good grace, knowing it was the will of Shiva.
The army was accommodated in guesthouses and temporary shelters erected within the city. It was a tribute to the robust urban planning of Meluha that such a large number of new arrivals could be so quickly accommodated in reasonable comfort. All in all, a massive army, now totalling nearly two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, had set up residence in Lothal.
Having been briefed by Shiva, Ganesh and Kartik rushed to meet their mother. They had been told about the nature of her injuries. Shiva did not want the brothers to inadvertently upset her further. While Kartik was, as instructed by Shiva, able to control his anger and shock, Ganesh’s obsessive love for his mother did not allow him that ability.
Ganesh clenched his fists, staring at his mother’s disfigured face. He gritted his teeth and breathed rapidly, his normally calm eyes blazing. His long nose was stretched out, trembling in anger. His big floppy ears were rigid.
Ganesh growled, ‘I will kill every single one of those b...’
‘Ganesh,’ said Sati calmly, interrupting her son. ‘The Meluhan soldiers were only doing their duty, as was I. They have done nothing wrong.’
Ganesh’s silence was unable to camouflage his fury.
‘Ganesh, these things happen in a war. You know that.’
‘Dada, maa is right,’ said Kartik.
Sati stepped close and embraced her elder son. She pulled his face down and kissed his forehead, smiling lovingly. ‘Calm down, Ganesh.’
Kartik held his mother and brother as well. ‘Dada, battle scars are a mark of pride for a warrior.’
Ganesh held his mother tight, tears streaming down his face. ‘You are not entering a battlefield again, maa. Not unless I am standing in front of you.’
Sati smiled feebly and patted Ganesh on his back.
Shiva walked into his suite of rooms in the governor’s residence at Lothal. Sati had moved some of the furniture to create a training circle, and was practicing her sword movements. Shiva leaned against a wall and observed his wife quietly, so as not to disturb her. He admired every perfect warrior move, the sway of her hips as she transferred her weight; the quick thrusts and swings of her sword; the rapid movement of her shield, which she used almost like an independent weapon. Shiva breathed deeply at yet another reminder of why he loved her so much.
Sati swung around with her shield held high, as her eyes fell on Shiva.
‘For how long have you been watching?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Long enough to know that I should never challenge you to a duel!’
Sati smiled slightly, not saying anything. She quickly sheathed her sword and put her shield down. Shiva stepped over and helped untie her scabbard.
‘Thank you,’ whispered Sati as she took the scabbard from Shiva, walked up to the mini-armoury and placed her shield and sheathed sword.
‘We will not be able to go to Pariha together,’ said Shiva.
‘I know,’ said Sati. ‘I was told by Gopalji that Parihans only allow Vayuputras and Vasudevs to enter their domain. I am neither.’
‘Well, technically, nor am I.’
Sati pulled her angvastram over her head so as to cover her left cheek. She held the hem of the cloth between her teeth, covering her facial scar. ‘But you are the Neelkanth. Rules can be broken for you.’
Shiva came forward, and pulled Sati close with one hand. With the other, he held the angvastram covering her face and tried to pull it back. Even though she knew he did not care, Sati liked to hide her scar from Shiva. It didn’t matter to her if others saw it, but not Shiva.
‘Shiva...’ whispered Sati, holding her angvastram close.
Shiva tugged hard and pulled the angvastram free from her mouth. An upset Sati tried to yank it back but Shiva managed to overpower her, holding her close.
‘I wish you could see through my eyes,’ whispered Shiva, ‘so you could see your own ethereal beauty.’
Sati rolled her eyes and turned away, still struggling within Shiva’s grip. ‘I’m ugly! I know it! Don’t use your love to insult me.’
‘Love?’ asked Shiva, pretending mock surprise, wiggling his eyebrows. ‘Who said anything about love? It’s lust! Pure and simple!’
Sati stared at Shiva, her eyes wide. Then she burst out laughing.
Shiva pulled her close again, grinning. ‘This is no laughing matter, my princess. I am your husband. I have rights, you know.’
Sati continued to laugh as she hit Shiva playfully on his chest.
Shiva kissed her tenderly. ‘I love you.’
‘That I am. But I still love you.’
The Conspiracy Deepens
‘Brilliant idea, Your Highness,’ said Vidyunmali.
Daksha sat in his private office with his new confidant, Vidyunmali. The Meluhan brigadier’s increasing frustration with Parvateshwar’s cautious approach had forged a new alliance. According to Vidyunmali, this wait-and-watch strategy of General Parvateshwar was giving Shiva’s army time to recover from its defeat at Devagiri. He had begun to spend more and more time with the emperor. Daksha had got him reassigned to head a brigade of a thousand soldiers that guarded the emperor, his family and his palace. This gave him a simple advantage: the brigade could carry out personal missions mandated by the emperor.