‘Good news?’ asked Ganesh.
‘Yes, we may have found a solution to end the war,’ said Bhagirath.
‘We’ve come back with a solution as well,’ said Gopal, pointing to the large trunk that was being lowered carefully onto the docks from their ship.
Shiva looked again at an obviously delighted Brahaspati who was refusing to let go of Tara. She was crying inconsolably, her head gently nestled against Brahaspati’s chest. They appeared like teenagers in the first heady flush of love.
‘Looks like there is good news all around,’ said Shiva, smiling.
‘How in the Holy Lake’s name can this be good news?’
Bhagirath maintained a nervous silence, fearful of Shiva’s wrath.
‘But, My Lord,’ said Chandraketu, ‘Lady Sati believed this was our best chance at peace. And it looks like Emperor Daksha himself wants it. If he signs a peace treaty, then the war is over. And we do not want to destroy Meluha, do we? All we want is the end of the Somras.’
‘I don’t trust that goat of a man,’ said Kali. ‘If he hurts my sister, I will burn his entire city to a cinder, with him in it.’
‘He won’t hurt her, Kali,’ said Shiva, shaking his head. ‘But I’m afraid that he may make her a prisoner and use that to negotiate with us.’
‘But, My Lord,’ said Chenardhwaj, ‘that is impossible. The rules governing a peace conference are very clear. Both parties are free to return, unharmed, if a solution or compromise is not found.’
‘What’s to stop my grandfather from not following the laws?’ asked Ganesh. ‘It will not be the first time he’s broken a law.’
‘My Lord,’ said a Vasudev pandit entering the chamber and addressing Gopal. ‘I have urgent news.’
‘I think we can talk later, Panditji,’ said Gopal.
‘No, My Lord,’ insisted the pandit in charge of the Lothal temple. ‘We must speak now.’
Gopal was surprised but he knew his Vasudev pandits did not panic unnecessarily. It had to be something important. He rose and walked up to the pandit.
‘Lord Ganesh,’ said Chenardhwaj, resuming his conversation with Ganesh. ‘The peace conference rules were laid down by Lord Ram himself. They are amongst the fundamental rules that can never be amended. They have to be rigorously followed, on pain of a punishment worse than death. Even a man like Emperor Daksha will never break these rules.’
‘I pray to the Parmatma that you are right, Chenardhwaj,’ snarled Kali.
‘I have no doubt, Your Highness,’ said Chenardhwaj. ‘The worst that can happen is that no deal will be struck. Then Lady Sati will return to us.’
‘Lord Ram, be merciful,’ exclaimed Gopal loudly.
Everyone turned sharply to look at the Chief Vasudev. Gopal was still standing close to the door, along with the Lothal Vasudev pandit.
‘What happened, Panditji?’ asked Shiva.
An ashen-faced Gopal turned to Shiva. ‘Great Neelkanth, the news is disturbing.’
‘What is it?’
‘Parvateshwar’s army finally mobilised and marched out of Karachapa three days back.’
A loud murmur erupted in the chamber. They would have to prepare for battle...
‘Silence,’ snapped Shiva, before turning to Gopal. ‘And?’
‘Surprisingly, they turned back within a few hours,’ said Gopal.
‘Turned back? Why?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gopal. ‘My Vasudev pandit tells me the army has been sent back to the barracks. But Lord Parvateshwar and Lord Bhrigu have pressed on. They set sail up the Indus in a lone fast-ship, with just their personal bodyguards.’
‘Where are they going?’ asked an alarmed Shiva.
‘I have been told that they’re rushing towards Devagiri.’
Shiva felt a chill run up his spine.
‘And a flurry of birds have been flying out of Karachapa,’ said Gopal. ‘All of them towards Devagiri. My pandit at Karachapa doesn’t know the contents of those messages. But he says he has never seen so much communication between Karachapa and Devagiri.’
There was deathly silence in the chamber. All those present were aware of Parvateshwar’s spotless reputation for honourable conduct. If he was rushing to Devagiri without a large army that would slow him down, it only meant that something terrible was going on in the Meluhan capital. And he was rushing to stop it.
Shiva was the first to recover. ‘Get the army mobilised immediately. We’re marching out.’
‘Yes, My Lord,’ said Bhagirath, rising quickly.
‘And, Bhagirath, I want to leave within hours, not days,’ said Shiva.
‘Yes, My Lord,’ said Bhagirath, hurrying out.
Chandraketu, Chenardhwaj, Maatali, Ganesh and Kartik hastily followed the Ayodhyan prince.
‘Maa will be all right, baba,’ said Kartik, allowing hope to triumph over confidence.
Shiva and his entourage had stopped for a quick meal, just a few hours outside of Lothal. The Neelkanth had marched out immediately with Kartik, Ganesh, Kali, Gopal, Veerbhadra, Parshuram, Ayurvati and an entire brigade. Their main army, led by Bhagirath, would move out the next morning. Shiva’s entire being was wracked with worry. He couldn’t wait till the entire army was mobilised. He had taken the Pashupatiastra with him, as insurance.
‘Kartik is right, great Neelkanth,’ said Gopal. ‘It’s possible that Emperor Daksha may break the rules of a peace conference, but he will not hurt Princess Sati. He may try to imprison her to improve his negotiating position. But we have the Pashupatiastra. That changes everything.’
Shiva nodded silently.
Kali listened intently to Gopal. But the words did not give her any solace. She did not trust her father. She was deeply troubled about the safety of her sister. She was consumed with guilt about the petulant way in which she had parted with Sati. The two extra arms on her shoulders were in a constant quiver.
Shiva held Kali’s hand and smiled faintly. ‘Relax, Kali. Nothing will happen to her. The Parmatma will not allow such an injustice.’
Kali was too pained to respond.
‘Finish your food,’ said Shiva. ‘We have to leave in the next few minutes.’
As Kali began gulping down her food, Shiva turned towards Ganesh. The Neelkanth’s elder son was staring into the forest, his eyes moist. Ganesh had not touched the food in front of him. Shiva could see he was praying under his breath, his hands clasped tightly, repeating a chant in rapid succession.
‘Ganesh,’ said Shiva. ‘Eat.’
Ganesh was pulled back from his trance. ‘I’m not hungry, baba.’
‘Ganesh!’ said Shiva firmly. ‘We may have to engage in battle the moment we reach Devagiri. I will require all of you to be strong. And for that you need to eat. So if you love your mother and want to protect her, keep yourself strong. Eat.’
Ganesh nodded and looked at his banana-leaf plate. He had to eat.
Shiva turned towards Veerbhadra, who had already finished and was wiping his hands on a piece of cloth that Krittika had handed to him.
‘Bhadra, order the heralds to make an announcement,’ said Shiva. ‘We’ll leave in ten minutes.’
‘Yes, Shiva,’ said Veerbhadra and rose up immediately.