Shiva pushed his empty banana-leaf plate aside and walked away. He reached the wooden drum where the water was stored, scooped some water out with his hands and gargled.
A chill ran up his spine again. He looked up at the sky, towards the north, about to make a prayer to the Holy Lake. Then he shook his head. It wasn’t required.
‘He’ll not hurt her. He cannot hurt her. If there’s one person in this world that that fool loves, it is my Sati. He’ll not hurt her.’
‘You are behaving like traitors!’ shouted Vraka.
Brigadier Vraka had been ordered by Parvateshwar to mobilise the army quickly and leave for Devagiri. Parvateshwar hadn’t told them anything about why they were required in the Meluhan capital and the general himself had rushed out earlier with Maharishi Bhrigu. It had taken Vraka two days to get his soldiers boarded onto ships and begin their journey up the Indus. However, they had been waylaid at Mohan Jo Daro by a non-violent protest.
The governor of the city remained loyal to the emperor, but his people worshipped the Neelkanth. When they heard that their army was sailing up the Indus to battle with the Neelkanth, they decided to rebel. Almost the entire population of Mohan Jo Daro had marched out of the city, boarded their boats and anchored all across the river. The line of boats extended across the massive breadth of the Indus and covered nearly a kilometre in length. It was impossible for Vraka to ram his ships through such an effective blockade.
‘We will be traitors to Emperor Daksha,’ said the leader of the protestors, ‘but we will not be traitors to the Neelkanth!’
Vraka drew his sword. ‘I will kill you all if you don’t move,’ he warned.
‘Go ahead. Kill us all. We will not raise our hands. We will not fight against our own army. But I swear by the great Lord Ram, we will not move!’
Vraka snorted in anger. By not fighting with him, the citizens were not giving him a legal reason to attack them. He had been stymied.
Slowly regaining consciousness, Vidyunmali saw that he was lying on a cart that was ambling along on the riverside road. He raised his head. The fresh stitches on his stomach hurt.
‘Lie back down, My Lord,’ said the soldier. ‘You need to rest.’
‘Is that traitor dead?’ asked Vidyunmali.
‘Yes,’ said the soldier.
Vidyunmali and his platoon had raced down the riverside road leading from Devagiri to Lothal. They had managed to waylay Kanakhala’s servant, who was rushing to Lothal to warn Shiva of the planned perfidy at Devagiri. The servant had been killed, but not before he had managed to stab Vidyunmali viciously in his stomach.
‘How far are we from Devagiri?’ asked Vidyunmali.
‘At the pace we’re going, another five days, My Lord.’
‘That’s too long...’
‘You cannot ride a horse, My Lord. The stitches may burst open. You have to travel by bullock cart.’
Vidyunmali cursed under his breath.
A Princess Returns
Sati and her entourage surveyed the scene from the docked ship in Devagiri. They had commandeered a fast merchant ship and sailed up the Saraswati speedily to reach in time for the peace conference.
Nandi stood beside Sati and gestured at the sky.
‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a small bird winging its way overhead. ‘Another homing pigeon.’
It was not the first that they had spotted. Sati’s warriors had seen more than a few pigeons flying in the direction of Devagiri.
‘Lord Ganesh believes that eavesdropping can give us good intelligence on the enemy’s plan,’ said Nandi. ‘Shall we shoot one of them and see what is being discussed?’
Sati shook her head. ‘We will obey the laws Lord Ram set for us, Nandi, and negotiate in good faith. Lord Ram said that there is no such thing as a small wrong. Understanding your opponent’s strategy prior to peace negotiations, through the use of subterfuge, will give us only a small advantage. But to behave without honour is against Lord Ram’s way.’
Nandi bowed his head in Sati’s direction. ‘I’m Lord Ram’s servant, Princess.’
Sati turned away, and Nandi glanced one last time at the tiny speck of a bird disappearing into Devagiri.
The docks of the port had been completely cleared out, with no sign of commerce or any other activity. From the vantage point of her ship deck, Sati could see the walls of Devagiri in the distance. She remembered that there were those who lovingly called the city Tripura, in honour of its three platforms named after Gold, Silver and Bronze. But the name had never really caught on. The citizens of Devagiri couldn’t imagine tampering with the name that Lord Ram himself had given it.
With a loud thud, the gangway plank was lowered onto the dock.
Sati signalled to Nandi and whispered, ‘Let’s go.’
As she began leading her men out, a Meluhan protocol officer walked up to her, a broad smile plastered on his face. The Meluhan noticed Sati’s disfigured left cheek, but wisely refrained from commenting on it. ‘My Lady, it’s an honour to meet you once again.’
‘It’s a pleasure to be back in my city, Major. And in better circumstances this time.’
The Meluhan acknowledged the reference with a solemn nod.
‘I hope you will succeed in negotiating a lasting peace, My Lady,’ said the Meluhan. ‘You can’t imagine how distressed we Meluhans are that our country is at war with our living God.’
‘With Lord Ram’s blessing, the war will end. And we shall have lasting peace.’
The Meluhan joined his hands together and looked up at the sky. ‘With Lord Ram’s blessing.’
Sati stepped out of the port area to find a large circular building that had been quickly constructed for the proceedings of the peace conference. One of the rules laid down for a peace conference was that it couldn’t take place within the host city itself. The current venue was at a healthy distance from the city walls, almost adjacent to the port. The peace conference building had been constructed on a large rectangular base of standard Meluhan bricks, almost a metre high. Tall wooden columns had been hammered into holes on top of this base. The columns served as the skeleton for the structure. Smaller bamboo sticks had been tied together and stretched across these poles, creating an enclosed circular wooden building that was surprisingly strong despite no mortar having been used in its construction.
Sati looked up at the high ceiling as soon as she entered the structure and spoke loudly to check the acoustics. ‘Good construction.’
The sound did not reverberate. Sati smiled. Meluhan engineers had not lost their talent.
A large idol of Lord Ram and Lady Sita had been placed near the entrance of this cavernous chamber. From the flowers and other oblations scattered around the idols, Sati knew that the chief priest of Devagiri had conducted the Pran Prathishtha ceremony; the life force of the two deities had been infused into the idols. A true Hindu would, therefore, believe that Lord Ram and Lady Sita themselves were residing in the idols and were supervising the proceedings. Nobody would dare to break the law in their presence. A separate enclosure had been walled off at one end; there was a large wooden door in the middle. The room within had been completely sound-proofed so that even the most raucous sounds would not be able to travel beyond its walls. It had been set aside for private internal discussions for either party during the course of the conference.