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“Hey, Revathi, where’s our boy Suhas gone off to? Haven’t seen him in days.”
The cook stood over a huge frying pan, using a large spatula to stir the vegetables frying in the spices. He wiped the sweat off his brow, glancing at the woman turning skewered chunks of wild boar over a spit. She gave him a quizzical look.
“Don’t you know?” she said, slathering on another coat of spicy sauce on the meat. “He fell in love with some shudra girl, from the slums or something. Always impetuous, you know that better than me. But his parents refused her, as they rightly should. What sort of fool is he, going and getting himself in a mess with someone like that. But no, he was pig-headed enough that the two of them ran off. Didn’t even tell anyone, asked some scribe to write his parents a note and left, just like that. I tell you, Manja, these boys have not a shred of sense in their heads.”
Manja swung his head toward Revathi. “He’s gone? Are you jesting?”
Revathi shrugged. “I’m surprised you hadn’t heard about it,” she said. “Maybe they were trying to keep it from you so you wouldn’t feel bad.”
The cook shook his head in disbelief. “What? Do they think I won’t notice it if he doesn’t show up for so many days? Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“How was I to know you hadn’t heard about this? You and he are tighter than anyone else in this kitchen. I assumed he told you before he took off.”
“God damn it, Revathi,” Manja said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers. The vegetables on his pan began to sizzle, a thin stream of smoke rising from them.
Abhinaya, who’d been standing a distance away listening to them, moved close to him and cleared her throat.
“Hmm?” Manja said, his voice suddenly sounding drawn. He looked up to see Abhinaya, and some of the daze cleared from his eyes. “What? Oh, yes, the food…oh gods it’s burning!”
With a swiftness and dexterity she could scarce claim to have with anything but daggers, he swept up the food from the pan into a tin plate he’d kept on one side.
“You have a silver platter with you?” he asked.
“Um, yes sir, they gave me this one to serve with,” she said, holding a large, carved silver plate. Manja took it, inspecting it with scrupulous eyes. He clicked his tongue, taking a cloth lying near him to clean one small spot on the platter. Reasonably satisfied, he picked a banana leaf and placed it flat on the plate, carefully transferring the steaming hot vegetables onto it.
“Grab a serving ladle on your way out,” the cook said without another glance at her. “Be quick about it, or the food will grow cold.”
“And come back soon’s you’re done, the meat’s near ready,” Revathi said.
Abhinaya nodded meekly, carefully carrying her plate as she walked through the kitchen. The smell of the spiced vegetables filled her nostrils, and even then there were a hundred different aromas to choose from as she walked through the busy area. Large pots and vessels boiled and cooked huge quantities of food over flaming wood fires. Dozens of men and women sat or stood hunched over their cooking vessels, periodically wiping the sweat from their brows from the blazing fire. No building could have ventilated that much smoke, and so the main kitchens were simply enclosed spaces, open to the sky. Every breeze carried a cloud of smoke, steam and rich fragrances her way.
Pushing through the kitchen doors, she entered a small path of tall hedges blocking what was otherwise a straight path to the lawn where the feast was happening.
They’re keeping the kitchens hidden from the rest of the banquet. How amusing.
The food was going to grow cold if she didn’t hurry. Picking up her pace, Abhinaya left the winding hedge path and emerged in the great lawn.
For a second Abhinaya stood rooted to her place, trying to take it all in. Lords, ladies, kings and queens strutted about on the neatly trimmed grass, trains of satin, velvet and bejewelled silk trailing behind them. Sarees woven with gold seemed to shimmer in the lamps that hung overhead from carved iron lampposts, and the men wore tunics that melted onto their bodies like a resplendent second skin. Rosewood tables ten paces long held platters upon platters of mutton, boar, fish, exotic fruits carved in the likeness of the sigils of every kingdom present there. Tall, ornate ewers stood on every one of them, servants pouring wine and spiced coconut arrack freely to whoever held out their goblets. Jugglers and fire-breathers ranged the lawn, regaling tipsy princes and lords with their fantastic tricks. Music wandered through the air saturated with the scents of food, drink and drunken laughter, utterly lost in that merry cacophony.
Abhinaya walked towards the crowd, her eyes scanning the people’s faces. All of them were foreign to her, guests she’d never laid eyes on before.
This isn’t going to be easy.
She passed from one group to the next, just one of scores of servants scurrying about on the lawn, tending to their masters. Her plate, piled with assorted vegetables, attracted little attention amidst all the exotic and sumptuous preparations of meats and sweets and fruit. The few that bothered with it simply held out their plates, and she served one, two spoonfuls before moving on. Others simply picked a few pieces off the plate as they walked past, hardly bothering to stop.
All the while, the revelries went on around her, a whirlwind of sounds and music and voices, and Abhinaya had to be careful every step she took lest one of the guests knock her platter to the ground. That would be a disaster, for to call attention to herself was to dangle her chances of success from a flimsy thread.
Her head swung around as she tried to catch sight of the one man she’d come here for. Twenty paces away, surrounded by a flock of chattering lord and princes like a flock of pigeons, was Prince Prakash. He was wearing an understated but well-tailored tunic over his dhoti, his beard perfectly trimmed.
He looks perfect for a groom, doesn’t he? My, he does indeed.
She kept an eye on the prince as she walked to the guests in the vicinity and offered them the tepid dish heaped on her plate. Prakash was obviously trying to extricate himself from the group, politely excusing himself from conversations with drunk kings who seemed to be trying to curry favour with the future son-in-law to the Pallava king.
Abhinaya watched as he deftly balanced his wine goblet between ceaseless hordes of guests, breaking himself free of their dead conversation and retiring to a quiet corner of the lawn. Abhinaya waited several moments before she stepped towards Prakash.
“My prince,” she said softly when she appeared before him. “Will you-“
“No, but thank you,” Prakash said, shaking his head, then turning away. Abhinaya moved closer to him and before he could react, she started speaking in low tones.
“My lord, a man came to me and told me to tell you this in secret, that no one else can hear. I don’t know who he is, my lord, he refused to tell me. All he said is that he’s an envoy who rode day and night tirelessly to get here. He told me he brings dire news and he needs to speak with you.”
“What?” the prince said aloud, then realised his mistake when he saw Abhinaya wince. Glancing furtively about him, he took a sip from his goblet and spoke without turning to face her. “What are you talking about?”
“He says it’s extremely urgent, my prince, something about your kingdom. He says he’ll speak to none other than you, not even your father. He’s waiting for you in your chambers.”
“Who else knows about this?” Prakash said, doing a rather poor job of appearing like he wasn’t speaking to her.
“No one, my prince. The man told me very clearly, no one else must know about this.”
“So why did he trust you to tell me?”
Abhinaya hadn’t expected he’d ask that. Her eyes darted up to his face for a moment, and she caught the circumspect look he wore. Not quite as stupid as I thought.
“My lord, I was only hired at the palace today to serve at the wedding and banquets to follow this next week. Forgive me, I know nothing of what goes on within these walls, my lord.”
Prakash nodded. “Very well, I understand. Where did you say this man was?”
“He said he’d be waiting in your chambers, sire.”
The prince’s eyebrows raised. “In my chambers? Well, the man has cheek, that’s for certain.”
“I must take your leave, my lord, forgive me,” she said.
Prakash nodded to her as he picked a cube of spiced potato from her plate as she passed by. She kept the prince in her peripheral vision, staying at the fringes of the lawn. The prince lingered on at the banquet, ostensibly thinking over everything Abhinaya had told him and biding his time to leave. If he left the banquet now, anyone who may have seen the two of them conversing would be curious why he left so suddenly when she did. She’d expected that, which gave her a little time to work with.
Abhinaya couldn’t go back near the kitchen for there were too many servants who could see her leave. Instead she walked towards the other end of the lawn, offering guests the now almost cold food as her pace grew more impatient with each step. She could see a small stand of bushes around a short hedge. She was growing exceedingly impatient now, but she had to consciously stop her feet from breaking out into a run. If she did anything that appeared out of the ordinary, she was bound to raise eyebrows she most certainly didn’t want raised. It was unlikely any of the guests cared, but it was the servants and the guards who she had to be most wary of.
As she turned right at the bushes, passing between the hedges and leaving the lawn, she saw a line of guards who’d formed a perimeter around the lawn, spears in hand and standing vigilant as hawks. As she walked past them, she felt their eyes turn in her direction, tracking her every step with their sight. She reckoned it was more out of their sheer boredom that they were looking at her, but she couldn’t be certain. The last thing she wanted to do was linger there until she found out.
Abhinaya stopped short, her heart picking the pace she lost. She turned to face the guard who’d spoken, and he was glaring down at her. “What are you doing walking around here? With that much silver in your hand, too.”
“Going back to the kitchens, sir,” she said, softening her voice to sound intimidated.
“Down this path?” he said. “Takes a lot longer going this way, and you got a lot of food left. Go back through the lawn.” He reached for the plate and grabbed a few pieces, popping them into his mouth.
She shook her head, lowering her eyes so they wouldn’t meet his. “I…I can’t, sir.”
“Why the hell not?” he said, raising his voice. “I’m not asking you to.”
“One of the guests there, a lord, I think…he’s drunk too much, sir. He comes too close, and…h-he touches me.”
He frowned at her a moment, then came closer. “He touches you, does he? Does he do it like this?”
The guard was close enough for her to smell his breath, and his hand slid onto her hip, wrapping then went slowly down to her buttocks and squeezed. She shut her eyes tight, forcing the platter in her hand to shake slightly. Outrage rose in her like a hot, bubbling froth threatening to overcome her senses, take over her mind. Her hands quivered now, but not from fear but from fury boiling within her, a tidal wave crashing against her walls. She knew she could whip out the knife hidden at her waist and cut off four of his fingers in one smooth motion.
Oh, he’ll grab me then, won’t he?
It took every muscle in her body revolting against her mind to keep her from doing something she knew she’d regret.
Don’t let everything you’ve done go to waste. Not when you’re this close. It’s not worth it.
Abhinaya took in a deep breath, then her face was a frightened mask as she staggered away from the guard. She appeared confused, horrified, unable to meet the guard’s eyes.
“Well?” the man said, a chuckle in his words. “Or was it like this…” He made to touch her again, but she retreated, almost shrinking in her fright.
“N-no sir,” she stuttered. “I m-must go.”
She very briefly curtsied and spun left as she headed back towards the kitchens, listening to the soft chuckles of the guards behind her.
She hated appearing weak and helpless, there was nothing she detested more in all the world. When she was capable of sticking ten knives into him without so much as blinking, this is what she was reduced to? It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t right.
But none of that mattered now. Now she had a mission to carry out, and not a second more to waste. She swiftly made her way back.
Abhinaya sat crouched in a dark corner of a small side passage of the chambers, three paces from the front doors. The sparring knife in her hand shifted grip from her left to her right hand every second, and she absently ran her finger on the plain steel hilt in circles. Her legs twitched impatiently in her crouch. The lamp across the room cast strange, long shadows across the room, and she watched the flames flicker and dance within their glass and iron confines.
The lock in the door made a sound. The sound of a key being inserted, turned. She could practically hear the tumblers rising and falling within the lock. It was unlocked now, and she heard the soft whine of the door opening. The sound of footsteps followed, leather boots on the hardwood floor. The door closed behind the person, then the footsteps resumed.
As the footfalls passed her, she sprang to her feet, grabbing him by his left shoulder and swinging him with all her strength into the wall. He cried out in surprise. She smashed his left hand against the wall with the butt of her knife, and he screamed in pain. As she pushed him towards the bed, knife ready, she saw him pull out his hunting dagger.
Of course he has to have one.
She managed to duck under his first swing, savagely slashing him across the chest, his tunic ripping under the steel. He roared in pain once more, retreating before taking stock of his enemy. He was wary now, watching her movements, which way she leaned, how her feet were angled. When Abhinaya lunged, he was ready.
He shot his foot out, kicking her shin so she tumbled to the ground. She rolled away just in time to avoid his knifepoint, leaping to her feet and facing him again. She made to attack once more and he deftly dodged her attack, bringing his knife down in a deadly arc. But she’d feinted.
She twisted her torso, grabbing his arm and throwing him off his feet. She sank her teeth into his arm viciously, and she felt a gush of hot blood in her mouth, spitting it out as he cried out in pain. He tried to sweep her legs out from under her, but her feet were too quick.
Abhinaya retrieved her knife which had fallen on the floor. She wiped her mouth and looked at the prince. He was like the bull he’d slaughtered just that morning as it had been just before it had died, wounded, bleeding, panting from exhaustion. He was finished. Prakash tried to hide his agony, but the tears came unbidden, mixing with the blood pooling on the floor. He whimpered from the pain, struggling to stand, to sit up, to do anything, but it seemed his body had forsaken him. It was a wretched thing to see the prince in that state, and for a moment she felt pity as she watched him grimace.
As she stepped closer, he spoke.
“Why?” He struggled to get the words out as his mouth filled with blood. “Why did you do this to me? Who are you?”
“I was ordered to,” Abhinaya said, her voice toneless.
“Does it matter?”
The prince fell silent, watching her wordlessly as she approached, knife in hand.
At least he didn’t beg.
“Forgive me for this,” she said. Abhinaya brought the knife down in two callous, unrestrained slashes, covering the prince’s mouth to muffle his dying screams. When she rose and looked at what she’d done, she shook her head in disgust.
If it hadn’t been for her client’s instructions, she’d never have done something so…vulgar. The bite mark was particularly repulsive to her. But then again, this was no ordinary assassination.
“You see, Nalini? Isn’t it so exciting to have all these kings and nobles from kingdoms far and wide bless you on this magical night?”
Nalini looked at Shashi and rolled her eyes. Both girls laughed at that.
“I truly cannot imagine anything more mind-numbing than what we’re being subjected to here,” she said. Looking at the crowd, she smirked. “Half of them aren’t even happy to be here, seeing as how they or their halfwit sons lost the swayamvara.”
Shashi giggled. “True. But food and drink are flowing freely, and I think to them, that’s all that matters. God knows some of them can do with less.”
“It’s not as if any of them can’t afford their own.”
“You’d be surprised how niggardly these old lords can be back in their own mansions,” Shashi said, shaking her head.
“And you’d know about this, widely-travelled expeditioner that you are,” Nalini said with a crooked smile.
“Better than you, a coddled, spoilt little princess who couldn’t sleep if there was one less feather in her pillow.” Shashi made a face at her.
Nalini crossed her arms, pretending to sulk before both of them burst into giggles once more.
“You can be rather cruel when you want to, did you know that?” Nalini said.
“Being nice to people has rarely worked for me.”
Before Nalini could reply, an old, hunched woman wearing a gold-weave saree that was clearly too heavy for her back approached them. She gathered Nalini’s hands in hers, kissing them and cooing like a pigeon. She appraised the princess with wide, glassy eyes, completely ignoring Shashi.
“Ooh, a fine young lady you’ve grown up to be, haven’t you?” she said in a shrill voice, tremulous with age. “Ah, this is the right age to be at. The perfect time to have a whole litter of little princelings and still not have your bottom swell or your breasts sag. I tell you, Malini, these years are the best you’ll ever get. Don’t you go squandering them.”
“Thank you so much,” Nalini said, forcing a smile. “Nalini. That’s my name. Not Malini.”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it? Malini. That’s what I said.”
“Yes, what you said is Malini. But my name is Nalini.”
“Child, what the hell are you blathering about? I just told you that’s what I said-“
Nalini spun around and walked off towards the edge of the lawn. She’d had enough. She’d been sweating for hours in her heavy silk saree despite the cool night air and she was starting to feel like everyone in that damned banquet was trying to crawl on top of her and scream pleasantries in her ear. It was too much.
“Nalini, where are you going?” Shashi called out after her. Nalini turned to face her as her handmaiden came up to her.
“To my chambers, for a little while. I need some time to myself.”
“Are you sure? I can come with you if you want.”
Nalini shook her head. “Thanks Shashi, but it’s nothing you need to bother about. I’ll be back soon. You won’t even know I’d gone.”
“We’ll see about that,” Shashi said with a smile, the turned around to return to the feast.
Nalini kept her head down as she left the feast, her mind utterly exhausted from having to smile and greet what felt like a thousand people coming up to her to give her their blessings and wish her well. Not too far away she’d seen prince Prakash in a similar plight, so she’d had at the very least. But now he’d gone off somewhere, and she’d been left with no one but Shashi to accompany her in her misery. Nalini wasn’t even sure she wanted to return to the feast. It would end soon, anyway. What did it matter?
She hurried through the circuitous paths of the palace complex, paths she used to constantly get lost on as a child. Sometimes she managed to find her way back to the familiar spots. Other times, she’d wail at the top of her lungs till a guard came running to her, carefully escorting her back to the royal apartments. She felt like screaming at the top of her lungs now, too, but for a wholly different reason.
She consciously avoided the garden paths where she knew young princes and ladies from a dozen different kingdoms would be curled up in their little corners, doing only God knew what. When she reached the royal residences, Nalini climbed the stairs to the third storey where her chambers were, practically falling headlong into her room, landing heavily on her bed. She had half a mind to just fall asleep right there and then, without a care for what was happening outside, but just the thought of sleeping in her ostentatious silk and gold-weave saree made her wearily push herself off the bed, cursing herself for being born a woman. As she got to her feet, smoothing down her clothes, she spotted a bunch of fresh blue orchids on her dresser table, a folded sheet of paper underneath it.
Nalini frowned. She didn’t remember having asked the servants to bring her blue orchids. It couldn’t have been a congratulatory letter to her, either, for the servants or guards would keep those with them until she arrived. Nobody entered her chambers except to clean, and certainly no one left behind notes or flowers.
So what on earth is that?
She went to the table, picking the orchids up, examining them as she took in a deep breath. It had a wonderful fragrance, one that seemed to fill her nose and her senses. They looked perfect, too, the deep blue colour perfectly melting into a lighter shade towards the centre of each petal. Setting the flowers aside, Nalini took the letter in her hands and opened it.
She frowned as she read what was on it. Her frown deepened further and further as she went on reading, her eyes widening. When she’d read the last word, she swallowed. She could feel the blood pulsing through the veins in her head, and the colour rose to her fair cheeks. She didn’t know what to think, how to react. With each second, she felt the nausea rising in her chest, threatening to burst out. For a moment she was shocked, but that was quickly replaced by revulsion.
That sick bastard! He hasn’t even so much as tied the taali around my neck and he dares to write me letter like this? What is wrong with him?
Nalini paced around the room, flushed with anger and outrage. Do you see now, father? This is the loving, kind, benevolent prince you so desire to marry me off to. A fine husband he’s already proved himself to be. This man who’s never had a full conversation with me, yet invites me to his chambers to…no, no, I don’t event want to think of the things he’s said.
She shut her eyes tightly, trying to drive the images from her head. She should call the guards on him, have them chase him out of the damn palace. She’d rather they kill him, but she knew that could never happen. But perhaps her father would see the sense in that…
No. Not this time. Too long had she depended on her father to sort her problems out for her. This was her battle to fight. Her father controlled the army and the palace guard, but she didn’t want to summon them. Not yet, at any rate. She’d take care of this herself.
Flinging open the door to her chambers, Nalini stormed out, leaving behind the letter in her blind anger. The few guards present looked on after her in amused curiosity, then resumed their patrol once she was out of sight. The guest apartments were nearby, and she remembered the Chedis were housed on the second storey. The weight of her ornamental saree forgotten, Nalini ran up the steps two at a time, stopping her furious pace only before the door bearing the Chedi flag on it. She rapped a fist on it loudly several times, then slammed the wood with her palm.
“Open the door, Prakash, I know you’re in there!” she shouted. “You asked for me, didn’t you? Well I’m here, so open up!” She cared not for what the guards or servants might hear, even less for what they made of all her hysterics.
She waited a few seconds, but just as her hand went up to slam the door again, the door flew open. A woman was standing in front of her in a torn, blood-streaked yellow saree, her hair hastily tied back, looking like a horrific spectre in the flesh.
Before Nalini could so much as react, the woman’s arm shot forward quicker than she could follow, and she felt herself yanked forward and into the room. The door slammed behind her, and when Nalini looked up, she saw a room in ruin, furniture destroyed and curtains and bedsheets torn. And Prakash’s motionless body lying on the floor, still bleeding slowly out.
Nalini screamed as she had never before.
Immediately her mouth was covered by a rough hand, her body constricted by a powerful arm. The woman grabbed Nalini’s hair, slamming her head into the wall so hard that she saw stars. Blood ran from her forehead and into her eyes. Nalini fell to her knees, but the woman grabbed her by her braid, choking her before she could scream and threw her onto the bed. When Nalini spun to face her, she saw a fist fly into her face and everything went black.
Abhinaya took in the havoc she’d wreaked in the room. The princess was lying like a limp rag on the broken, torn bed, her nose bleeding into the sheets. She was still breathing.
Let’s end this.
The assassin tucked her arm under Nalini’s armpits, dragging her to a wall. Holding her by her hair, she pulled her back to slam her face-first into the wall. That would be the end of it.
But she stopped. Abhinaya’s gaze dropped down to the Pallava princess, hanging by her hair like some macabre trophy. This had been her mission. Why did she suddenly stop herself? She let Nalini drop to the floor, and went over to the bed, sitting on it. She let her chin rest on her hand, deep in thought.
She sat that way for nearly ten minutes, motionless as a rock, just thinking. Then she sprang up from the bed, running to where Nalini lay. She slowly removed Nalini’s saree from her body, then her blouse, setting them aside. When she looked at the saree, it hurt her terribly to do it, so she closed her eyes as she tore a huge piece of the fabric out, placing it on Nalini to cover her nakedness. She tore open the blouse as well, then wrapped it up in the rest of the saree, tying up the whole bundle. Abhinaya went to the front door, quietly exited the apartment.
Half an hour had passed before Abhinaya opened the door to Prakash’s chambers once more, carrying a bundle of clothes with her. Losing no time, she set about clothing the princess in a simple gown. She herself changed into more comfortable clothing, if a bit tight. But the princess’ clothes fit her well enough. Finally, Abhinaya wet a torn piece of bedsheet, wiping herself and Nalini free of blood with it. Looking at what was left of the shattered mirror, she decided she was presentable enough to not attract any untoward attention outside.
Abhinaya flung the piece of the princess’ torn saree onto the floor, snagging one end on the splintered bedpost. She took one last look at her handiwork around the room.
I’m taking an awful risk here. Ah, but who will suspect me, or any of my kin? No, this is necessary. For the guild, for me, and Subhodita will know it when he sees it. That he will.
Picking the princess’ slack body up, Abhinaya slung her over her shoulder like a sack of grain, and left the prince’s chambers.
To be continued…
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