Sensing increasing comfort in the relationship, Daksha had finally confided in him about his idea to end the war. Much to Daksha’s delight, Vidyunmali’s reaction was very different from Bhrigu’s.
‘Exactly!’ exclaimed a happy Daksha. ‘I don’t know why the others don’t understand.’
‘Your Highness, you are the emperor,’ said Vidyunmali. ‘It doesn’t matter if others don’t agree. If you have decided to go ahead, then that is the will of Meluha.’
‘You really think we should go ahead...’
‘It doesn’t matter what I think, Your Highness. What do you think?’
‘I think it is brilliant!’
‘Then that is what Meluha thinks as well, My Lord.’
‘I think we should implement it.’
‘What are your orders for me, My Lord?’
‘I haven’t worked out the details, Brigadier,’ said Daksha. ‘You will need to think it through. My job is to look at the big picture.’
‘Of course,’ said Vidyunmali. ‘My apologies, Your Highness. But I don’t think we can execute our plan till the maharishi and the general leave Devagiri. They may try to stop us if they get the slightest whiff of our intentions.’
‘They were planning to leave for Karachapa; or at least that was Parvateshwar’s latest plan. I was not supportive of the idea earlier, but now I will encourage it and hasten their departure.’
‘An inspired move, Your Highness. But we must also concentrate on getting the right assassins.’
‘I agree. But where do we find them?’
‘They must be foreigners, Your Highness. We do not want them recognised. They will be wearing cloaks and masks, of course. You want them to look like Nagas, right?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘I know some people. They are the best in the business.’
‘Where are they from?’
‘By the great Lord Varun, that’s too far! It will take too much time to get them here.’
‘I will leave immediately, Your Highness. That is, if I have your permission.’
‘Of course you have it. Accomplish this, Vidyunmali, and Meluha will sing your praises for centuries.’
‘Lord Gopal and I will leave within a week,’ said Shiva.
Shiva and Gopal sat in the governor’s office, surrounded by Sati, Kali, Ganesh, Kartik, Bhagirath, Chenardhwaj, Chandraketu and Maatali. The monsoons were drawing to an end, light smatterings of rain appearing occasionally, as if to bid farewell. Shiva and Gopal had decided to travel south, as planned, in their small convoy of military ships. They intended to rendezvous with a merchant ship at a secret location north of the Narmada delta. The Southwesterly winds would have receded by the time and the rains would have stopped. They would then board the merchant ship and use the Northeasterly winds to set sail towards the west, in the direction of Pariha. With luck, the deception would work and the Meluhans would be unaware of Shiva’s actual destination.
‘I want our destination to be kept secret,’ continued Shiva. ‘Victory is assured if our mission succeeds.’
‘What are you planning to do, My Lord?’ asked Bhagirath.
‘Leave that to me, my friend,’ said Shiva cryptically. ‘In my absence, Sati will be in command.’
Everyone nodded in instant agreement. They were unaware though, that Sati had fought this decision. After Devagiri, she didn’t think she deserved this command. But Shiva had insisted. He trusted her the most.
‘Pray to Lord Ram and Lord Rudra that our mission is a success,’ said Gopal.
Shiva stood on the shores of the Mansarovar lake, watching the slow descent of the sun in the evening sky. There was no breeze at all and it was eerily still. A sudden chill enveloped him, and he looked down, surprised to see that he was standing in knee-deep water. He turned around and began wading out of the lake. Thick fog had blanketed the banks of the Mansarovar. He couldn’t see his village at all. As he stepped out of the lake, the mist magically cleared.
‘Sati?’ asked a surprised Shiva.
Sati sat calmly atop a thick pile of wood. Her metal armour had been secured around her torso, carved arm bands glistened in the dusky light, her sword lay by her side and the shield was fastened on her back. She was prepared for war. But why was she wearing a saffron angvastram, the colour of the final journey?
‘Sati,’ said Shiva, walking towards her.
Sati opened her eyes and smiled serenely. It appeared that she was speaking. But Shiva couldn’t hear the words. The sound reached his ears with a delay of a few moments. ‘I’ll be waiting for you...’
‘What? Where are you going?’
Suddenly, a hazy figure appeared bearing a burning torch. Without a moment’s hesitation, he rammed it into the pile of wood that Sati sat upon. It caught fire instantly.
‘SATI!’ screamed a stunned Shiva as he raced towards her.
Sati continued to sit upon the burning pyre, at peace with herself. Her beatific smile presented an eerie contrast to the flames that leapt up around her.
‘SATI!’ shouted Shiva. ‘JUMP OFF!’
But Sati was unmoved. Shiva was just a few metres away from her when a platoon of soldiers jumped in front of him. Shiva drew his sword in a flash, trying to push the soldiers aside. But they battled him relentlessly. The soldiers were huge and unnaturally hairy, like the monster from his dream. Shiva battled them tirelessly but could not push through. Meanwhile, the flames had almost covered his wife, such that he couldn’t even see her clearly. And yet, she continued to sit on the pyre, without attempting to escape.
Shiva woke up in a sweat as his hand stretched out desperately. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He turned to his left instinctively. Sati was asleep, her burnt cheek clearly visible in the night light.
Shiva immediately bent over and embraced his wife.
‘Shiva...’ whispered a groggy Sati.
Shiva didn’t say anything. He held her tight, as tears streamed down his face.
‘Shiva?’ asked Sati, fully awake now. ‘What’s the matter, darling?’
But Shiva couldn’t say a word, choked with emotion.
Sati pulled her head back to get a better look in the dim light. She reached up and touched his cheeks. They were moist.
‘Shiva? Sweetheart? What’s wrong? Did you have a bad dream?’
‘Sati, promise me that you will not go into battle till I return.’
‘Shiva, you’ve made me the leader. If the army has to go into battle, I will have to lead them. You know that.’
Shiva kept quiet.
‘What did you see?’
He just shook his head.
‘It was just a dream, Shiva. It doesn’t mean anything. You need to focus your attention on your journey. You’re leaving tomorrow. You must succeed in your mission with the Vayuputras. That will bring an end to this war. Don’t let anxieties about me distract you.’
Shiva remained impassive, refusing to let go.
‘Shiva, you carry the future on your shoulders. I’m saying this once again. Don’t let your love for me distract you. It was just a dream. That’s all.’
‘I can’t live without you.’