‘Yes, she does,’ said Sati. ‘The Meluhan system works on the principle of written orders. The supreme written order is the one that comes from the Emperor. Lord Bhrigu does not issue orders himself. He asks my father to ratify what he deems fit. If my father issues an order on peace before Lord Bhrigu gets to know of it, all Meluhans will be forced to honour it. So if Prime Minister Kanakhala can get my father to issue the order, she can enforce the peace accord.’
‘If we can achieve the objective of removing the Somras without any further bloodshed, it will be a deed that Lord Rudra would be proud of,’ said Maatali.
‘But we should respond carefully,’ persisted a cautious Bhagirath. ‘If it is true that peace is being pursued only by Emperor Daksha and Prime Minister Kanakhala, we will put our army at risk if we march out. Karachapa is not very far.’
‘Right,’ said Sati, with healthy respect for the tactical brilliance of General Parvateshwar. ‘If Pitratulya in Karachapa hears about our army moving out, he’ll assume that we’re attacking Devagiri. He’ll race out of Karachapa to intercept us at the Saraswati River.’
‘Damned if we respond and damned if we don’t,’ said Chandraketu.
‘So what do we do?’ asked Chenardhwaj.
‘I’ll go,’ said Sati. ‘The rest of you, including the army, should stay within the walls of Lothal.’
‘My Lady,’ said Maatali. ‘That is most unwise. You will need the army’s protection to prevent any possible harm to your person in Devagiri.’
‘The Meluhans may fight with my army outside Devagiri,’ said Sati. ‘But they’ll not fight me alone. It’s my father’s house.’
Bhagirath shook his head. ‘My apologies, My Lady, but your father has not proved himself to be a paragon of virtue so far. I would be wary of your travelling to Devagiri without protection. We cannot discount the remote possibility that the peace conference is a ruse to draw our leaders to Devagiri and then assassinate them.’
Chenardhwaj was genuinely offended now. ‘Prince Bhagirath, I say this for the last time, these things do not happen in Meluha. Arms cannot be used at a peace conference under any circumstances. Those are the rules of Lord Ram. No Meluhan will break the laws of the seventh Vishnu.’
Sati raised her hand, signalling a call for calm, and then turned towards Bhagirath. ‘Prince, trust me. My father will never harm me. He loves me. In his own twisted way, he really does care for me. I’m going to Devagiri. This is our best shot at peace. It is my duty to not let it slip by.’
Bhagirath could not shake off his sense of foreboding. ‘My Lady, I insist you allow me and an Ayodhyan brigade to travel with you.’
‘Your men will be put to better use here, Prince Bhagirath,’ said Sati. ‘Also, you and your soldiers are Chandravanshis. Please don’t misunderstand me, but I would much rather take some Suryavanshis along. After all, I’m going to the Suryavanshi capital. I’ll go with Nandi and my personal bodyguards.’
‘But, my child,’ said Brahaspati, ‘that is only one hundred soldiers. Are you sure?’
‘It’s a peace conference, Brahaspatiji,’ said Sati. ‘Not a battle.’
‘But the invitation was for the Lord Neelkanth,’ said Chandraketu.
‘The Lord Neelkanth has appointed me as his representative, Your Highness,’ said Sati. ‘I can negotiate on his behalf. I have made up my mind. I am going to Devagiri.’
‘I have a bad feeling about this, My Lady,’ pleaded Veerbhadra. ‘Please don’t go.’
Also assembled in Sati’s private chamber were Parshuram and Nandi, whose expressions were equally anguished.
‘Veerbhadra, don’t worry,’ said Sati. ‘I will return with a peace treaty that will end the war as well as the reign of the Somras.’
‘But why aren’t you allowing Veerbhadra and me to accompany you, My Lady?’ asked Parshuram. ‘Why is only Nandi being given the privilege of travelling with you?’
Sati smiled. ‘I would have loved to have the both of you with me; it’s just that I’m only taking Suryavanshis, that’s all. They’re familiar with the Meluhan customs and ways. This is going to be a sensitive conference, anyway. I wouldn’t want anything going wrong inadvertently even before it begins.’
‘But, My Lady,’ continued Parshuram, ‘we have sworn to protect you. How can we just let you go without us?’
‘I will be with her, Parshuram,’ said Nandi. ‘Don’t worry. I will not let anything happen to Lady Sati.’
‘There is absolutely no reason why anything untoward should happen, Nandi. It’s a peace conference. If we don’t arrive at a peace settlement, the Meluhans will have to allow us to return unharmed. That is Lord Ram’s law.’
Veerbhadra continued to brood silently, clearly unconvinced.
Sati reached out and patted Veerbhadra on his shoulder. ‘We must make an attempt at peace, you know that. We can save the lives of so many. I have no choice. I must go.’
‘You do have a choice,’ argued Veerbhadra. ‘Don’t go yourself. I’m sure you can nominate someone to attend the conference on your behalf.’
Sati shook her head. ‘No. I must go. I must... because it was my fault.’
‘It was my fault that so many of our soldiers died in Devagiri and our elephant corps was destroyed. I’m to blame for the loss of almost our entire cavalry. It is because of me that we do not have enough strength to beat them in an open battle now. Since it is my fault, it is now my responsibility to set it right.’
‘The loss in Devagiri was not your fault, My Lady,’ said Parshuram. ‘Circumstances were aligned against us. In fact, you salvaged a lot from a terrible situation.’
Sati narrowed her eyes. ‘If an army loses, it is always because of the general’s poor planning. Circumstance is just an excuse for the weak to rationalise their failures. However, I have been given another chance to make up for my blunder. I cannot ignore it. I will not.’
‘My Lady,’ said Veerbhadra. ‘Please listen to me...’
‘Bhadra,’ said Sati, using the name her husband did for his best friend. ‘I am going. I will return unharmed. And with a peace treaty.’
The invitation for the peace conference had been accepted.
Kanakhala rushed to Daksha’s private office the minute she received a bird courier from Lothal. The door attendant tried to stop her, saying the Emperor had asked him not to let anyone enter.
Kanakhala brushed him aside. ‘That order would not have included me. He asked me to meet him as soon as I received this,’ said Kanakhala, pointing to a folded letter.
The door attendant moved aside and Kanakhala heard whispers as soon as she opened the door. Vidyunmali and Daksha were speaking softly with each other. She gently shut the door behind her.
‘Are you sure they are ready?’ asked Daksha.
‘Yes, My Lord. Swuth’s men have been practising in Naga attire. That fraud Neelkanth won’t know what hit him,’ said Vidyunmali. ‘The world will blame the terrorist Nagas for their beloved Neelkanth’s assassination.’