the oath of the vayuputras - Page 88

Vidyunmali walked over to one of the jute bags, opened it and pulled out a large black cloak and a mask. ‘I need all of you to wear this. And I want you to be seen as you kill.’

Swuth picked up the cloak and recognised it instantly. It was the garment that the Nagas wore whenever they travelled abroad. He stared at the mask. He was aware that these were worn during Holi celebrations.

Swuth looked at Vidyunmali, his eyes two narrow slits. ‘You want people to think the Nagas did it?’

Vidyunmali nodded.

‘These cloaks will constrain our movements,’ said Swuth. ‘And the masks will restrict our vision. We’re not trained with these accoutrements.’

‘Are you telling me that the warriors of Aten can’t do this?’

Swuth took a deep breath. ‘Please leave.’

Vidyunmali stared at Swuth, stunned by his insolence.

‘Leave,’ clarified Swuth, ‘so that we can wear these cloaks and practice.’

Vidyunmali smiled and rose.

‘Brigadier,’ said Swuth. ‘Please leave the torch here.’

‘Of course,’ said Vidyunmali, fixing the torch on its clutch before walking out of the ship hold.

Chapter 40

Ambush on the Narmada

‘They aren’t coming here?’ exclaimed a surprised Sati.

Together with Kali, Ganesh and Kartik, she had been enjoying a family moment accompanied by rounds of sweet saffron milk. They were soon joined by Bhagirath, Chandraketu, Maatali, Brahaspati and Chenardhwaj with some fresh news. The information received earlier from the Vasudevs had suggested that a fleet of nearly fifty ships had sailed out of Karachapa a few weeks back. They had expected them to head for Lothal. But the latest news was that the ships had turned south.

‘It looks like they’re heading towards the Narmada,’ said the Vasudev pandit who had just walked in with the information.

‘That can’t be!’ A panic-stricken Kali looked at Ganesh.

Kali had not agreed with Shiva’s tactic of misleading the Meluhans by pretending to go to the Narmada and from there, sailing on to Pariha. She was afraid that this would give the Meluhans a clue as to the possible route to Panchavati. Shiva had dismissed her concerns, saying that Bhrigu knew that the river near Panchavati flowed from west to east, whereas the Narmada flowed east to west; clearly Panchavati was not on the Narmada itself. The Meluhans would know that, even if they sailed up the Narmada, they would have to pass the dense Dandak forests to be able to reach Panchavati. And doing so was fraught with danger without a Naga guide.

Therefore, the news of the Meluhan navy sailing towards the Narmada left Kali with only one logical conclusion: they had discovered the route to Panchavati.

‘How would they know the Narmada path to Panchavati?’ asked a bewildered Ganesh.

Kali turned on Sati. ‘Your husband did not listen to me and stupidly insisted on sailing towards the Narmada.’

‘Kali, the Meluhans are in the know of all our goings and comings on the Narmada,’ said Sati calmly. ‘It is no secret. But they would have no idea how to travel from the Narmada to Panchavati. Shiva has not given anything away.’

‘Bullshit!’ shouted Kali. ‘And it’s not just Shiva’s fault, it’s yours as well. I had told you to kill that traitor, didi. You and your misplaced sense of honour will lead to the destruction of my people!’

‘Mausi,’ said Ganesh to Kali, immediately springing to his mother’s defence. ‘I don’t think we should blame maa for this. It is entirely possible that it’s not General Parvateshwar but Lord Bhrigu who has discovered the Narmada route. After all, he did know the Godavari route, right?’

‘Of course, Ganesh,’ said Kali sarcastically. ‘It’s not General Parvateshwar. And it obviously cannot be your beloved mother’s fault, either. Why would the most devoted son in the history of mankind think that his mother could make a mistake?’

‘Kali...’ whispered Sati.

Kali continued her rant. ‘Have you forgotten that you are a Naga? That you are the Lord of the People, sworn to protect your tribe to the last drop of your blood?’

Bhagirath decided to step in before things got out of hand. ‘Queen Kali, there is no point in going on about how the Meluhans discovered the Narmada route. What we should be discussing is what are we going to do next? How do we save Panchavati?’

Kali turned to Bhagirath and snapped, ‘We don’t need to be maharishis to know what needs to be done. Fifty ships will set sail tomorrow with all the Naga warriors on it. The Meluhans will regret the day they decided to attack my people!’

Kali, Ganesh and Kartik had assembled at Lothal’s circular port along with a hundred thousand men, comprising all the Nagas and many Branga warriors, clambering aboard their ships rapidly. They knew that time was at a premium.

Sati had come to the port to see her family off. She was going to stay in Lothal. She suspected the Meluhans might mount a siege on their city at the same time, to try and take advantage of her divided army.

‘Kali...’ approached Sati softly.

Kali gave her a withering look and then turned her back on her sister, screaming instructions to her soldiers. ‘Board quickly! Hurry up!’

Ganesh and Kartik stepped forward, bent to touch her feet and take their mother’s blessings.

‘We’ll be back soon, maa,’ said Ganesh, smiling awkwardly.

Sati nodded. ‘I’ll be waiting.’

‘Do you have any instructions for us, maa?’ asked Kartik.

Sati looked at her sister, who still had her back turned stiffly towards her. ‘Take care of your mausi.’

Kali heard what Sati said, but refused to respond.

Sati stepped up and touched Kali on her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry about General Parvateshwar. I only did what I thought was right.’

Kali stiffened her shoulders. ‘Didi, one who clings to moral arrogance even at the cost of the lives of others, is not necessarily the most moral person.’

Sati remained quiet, staring sadly at Kali’s back. She could see Kali’s two extra arms on top of her shoulders quivering, a sure sign that the Naga queen was deeply agitated.

Kali turned and glared at her sister. ‘My people will not suffer for your addiction to moral glory, didi.’

Saying this, Kali stormed off, verbally lashing out at her soldiers to board the ships quickly.

Kanakhala couldn’t believe what she was hearing. A real shot at peace!

‘This is the best news I have heard in a long time, Your Highness,’ said Kanakhala.

Daksha smiled genially. ‘I hope you understand this has to be kept secret. There are many who do not want peace. They think that the only way to end this is an all-out war.’

Kanakhala looked at Vidyunmali, standing next to Daksha. She had always assumed he was a warmonger. She was surprised to see him agreeing with the Emperor.

KanakhalaPerhaps, thought, the Emperor is referring to Lord Bhrigu as the one who doesn’t want peace with the Neelkanth.

‘We’ve seen the loss of life and devastation caused by the minor battle that was staged outside Devagiri,’ said Daksha. ‘It was only Sati’s wisdom that stopped it from descending into a massacre that would have hurt both Meluha and the Lord Neelkanth.’

Maybe it’s his love for Sati that is forcing the Emperor’s hand. He would never allow any harm to come to his daughter. Whatever the reason, I will support him in his peace initiative.