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“What the hell do you mean, she can’t be found? Where in God’s name could she have gone?”
The sounds of dozens of voices chattering in the packed Pallava court besieged the king’s mind, a thicket of sharp pinpoints constantly thrusting themselves painfully into his brain so he had no room to think. Nalini had disappeared last night and she was nowhere to be found.
When Bhagiratha saw the Chedis’ apartments in the building, his gut had twisted painfully. The room was a horrible mess, blood spray everywhere, and Prakash’s cold body lying by the bed, savagely cut up. But what terrified the king more than any of that was the callously torn strips of Nalini’s saree that lay on the floor, soaking in the prince’s dark blood. What happened in that room last night? As much as thinking about it repulsed him, he couldn’t help but consider the possibility that…no, no, this wasn’t the time.
Bhagiratha’s hand shook as he rested his head on his fingers. Not least of all his troubles was the Chedi king, Neelkantha, who stood before him, the colour risen in his cheeks so he was red as a beet, his voice quivering as he berated him.
“My son has been murdered and you sit here in your court as if nothing’s amiss!” Neelkantha shouted. “What the hell were your guards doing last night? Where are the search parties? Why aren’t we turning the city upside down to find her? Your daughter was the only one we know was there at the time. So how far could she have gotten?”
“Riders have already been dispatched, my lord,” Bhagiratha said in a placating tone. “They’re searching every corner of the city as we speak, and beyond. They will recover my daughter, of that I am certain. Once she has returned, we’ll ask her what happened last night.”
“Oh, no, Bhagiratha, we’ll do much more than that,” the Chedi king said, shaking his head. He was inconsolable, and the king saw as the man’s anguish was slowly mutating into a burning rage. “We’ll throw her in a cell, damn you! We’ll have the bitch whipped for answers and squeeze every last drop from her lips. That murderous she-devil will pay for what she’s done to my son!”
Bhagiratha’s temper flared as it never had before. His hands balled into fist and it took every last shred of his strength to keep himself from tackling the man to the ground and pounding his face until his blood ran.
“SHE DID NO SUCH THING!” he roared, and in that moment the court was robbed of all its other voices. “How dare you come here and accuse my daughter of murder? Were you not present in that room where your son lay, Neelkantha? My daughter’s clothes were strewn across the floor in tatters. Everyone saw it. Can you explain that? What reason would Nalini have to kill him? That is, unless your wretched son tried to lay a hand on her. I should think that far more likely, my lord.”
The air was febrile with tension and anger, and Neelkantha’s expression was scandalised. His moustache bristled as he faced the king, looking ready to explode.
Before he could spit out the venom on his tongue, one of the prince’s stepped forward, laying hand across the Chedi king’s chest.
“How dare you try and stop me from-”
“ENOUGH!” the prince said, so suddenly the entire court started. That display of audacity shocked Neelkantha into silence. Prince Brihadhrata glared at the crowd that had forced themselves into a court too small for all of them, then at the two kings.
“Bickering and fighting will get us nowhere, my lords,” he said, his voice softer now, pleading. “My lords, my kings, I know as well as any man here what a tragedy has befallen the kingdoms last night, and I mourn for prince Prakash and pray for princess Nalini’s return. But until then, we can’t let ourselves be swallowed up like this in quarrels amongst ourselves. Nothing we can do now will bring back those who have passed, but that’s all the more reason we need to find out the truth behind this madness.”
“I’ll tell you the truth,” came a voice from the crowd. One of the northern kings stepped forth into everyone’s view. “That rat bastard tried to rape her, that’s the damn truth. He called her to his chambers and tried to take that poor, defenceless girl. We all read the letter he left her in the room, didn’t we? It brought the bile right to my mouth, it did. You hear me, Neelkantha? Your son was a rapist, nothing better!”
“You shut your filthy mouth, Balrama!” the Chedi king bellowed, balling his fists and pulling up his sleeves.
“What the hell do you know about the princess anyway?” shouted one of the kings at Balrama. “She didn’t want to marry Prakash, that much was plain to see. She could have been raving mad, for all we know! Neelkantha says that letter was a fake. Anybody could have written it, how would we know any better?”
“The girl’s barely flowered, for God’s sake, you think she could write something so bold?” Balrama scoffed. “You people are blinding yourselves to the truth, I’ll tell you that.”
The voices in the hall once more rose in an infuriating chatter, voices rising as arguments grew heated.
“Couldn’t it have been an outsider?” said one of the princes who’d been sitting silently all this time. “An assassin. He was the Chedi prince, after all. People would pay a goodly sum for a target like him.”
“Are you mad, boy?” Balrama said, rounding on him. “It was like he was cut up with a paring knife. Not one clean cut on him. No assassin with any self-respect would ever do such a terrible job of it.”
“And why are you so bold about this, Balrama?” Neelkantha said, a menacing edge to his voice as his jowls quivered. “I never imagined you’d be this concerned for the princess’ wellbeing. Tell me, what’s made you grow a heart all of a sudden?”
Another shout came up from the crowd. “You’re the only one trying to antagonise princess Nalini, all because you can’t live with what your son might have done to her.”
“Who said that?” Neelkantha whirled around, his piercing eyes boring into the huddle of gossipping nobles. “Speak!”
Bhagiratha clenched his teeth, the rage building within him, yet he could not let it out. No, he mustn’t.
“Intimidation will get you nowhere, Neelkantha,” Balrama said, crossing his arms against his chest. “You’re just digging yourself a deeper grave, right next to your wretched son’s.”
“Balrama,” said one of the older kings, shaking his head gravely, “don’t take it too far.”
“And what will you do about it, old man? Tell me that! I will have that pathetic excuse for a princess returned to this court, and I will have her tried before each and every one of you and give her the justice she deserves.”
“And what will that justice be, Neelkantha?” Bhagiratha roared. “What consequences will my daughter have to face because of Prakash’s barbarism? What he did cannot be forgiven, you know that! And who will pay for the mistake of his birth but you, father almighty of the unimpeachable Chedi prince?”
“What proof do you have, Bhagiratha? Tell me!”
Voices rose like the coming of a tide, washing over the hall and making it near impossible to think.
“He has more than you, that’s for sure!”
“Nonsense! She staged the whole damn thing!”
“How could she possibly? Are you mad?”
“Why did she run?”
The entire hall heard it, for in a brief moment of silence Brihadhrata had spoken, and now the question couldn’t be ignored. Bhagiratha watched their faces change in growing uncertainty as the new thought seemed to cast all else aside. Why had Nalini run away? She should have come to me. She should have come to any of us! Why did she just…run off?
Neelkantha’s eyes lit up. “That’s exactly what I was saying all along!” he yelled. Brihadhrata spun his head in shock, realising what he’d just blurted out.
“No, my lord, I didn’t mean to…” he said as he started towards the Chedi king, but the man had turned stone deaf.
“Don’t you see, you fools? What was I telling you all this time? She never wanted to marry Prakash, the delusional girl she was, and so she…” Neelkantha’s chin and lips started to quiver, and he drew in a sharp breath as turned his face away to wipe fresh tears. “She murdered him. But she didn’t stop there, for she set about creating a whole scene around us just so we’d believe my son had tried to strip her of her honour. Prakash would never do that, my lords.” His eyes beseeching, he turned to the people standing around him.
“I’m begging you, bring my dead son justice. You cannot give him life once more, but this is the least you can give him. Clear his name and the name of his whole clan.”
He pointed at Bhagiratha.
“This man here has tried time and again to besmirch my poor boy’s memory by telling us his twisted stories. In his desperate bid to save his face and his daughter’s, he’s willing to drag Prakash’s memory through the mud. Tell me, my lords, what other reason could that girl possibly have for running from the palace the night she committed murder? If she’d fought him to defend herself, why run? The law would be on her side, would it not? No, my lords. That cannot be the explanation. There’s something very amiss here.” He shook his head. “Join me, my lords of my neighbouring kingdoms, for we must pursue this truth as surely as it rides further away from us every moment we waste our time on these trivial arguments. It’s clear king Bhagiratha wishes to play no part in bringing my son the justice he deserves, and for that I could never forgive him. But it is not his aid I seek, nor shall it ever be. I implore all of you here in this false king’s court to follow me and ride abroad to find where this girl is hiding. We must take the law into out own hands, men, for in this land nepotism trumps all reason.”
His gaze swept the entire court hall, meeting the eyes of every man who stood therein.
“Those who care anything for truth and justice, I shall leave at dawnbreak,” he said. “I pray that you will all stand with me on the morrow.”
Whirling around, Neelkantha left the court in quick, long strides.
The hall was silent as a graveyard for several seconds. Suddenly, in an eruption of sound, every voice broke out into loud argument in the court and all was pandemonium.
Abhinaya stepped into the room and was met with the piercing gazes of Subhodita, Gupta, Dhwaja and Kumar. She paused for a moment, immediately wary. Their glares made her uneasy as she moved to her chair at the council table and sat down. She was surprised to see even Subhodita looking immensely displeased, his lips pressed into a straight, thin line. Abhinaya sat silent for several seconds, but when they didn’t speak, she had to break the silence.
“Is this some sort of contest to see who can keep their mouth shut the longest?” she said with a nervous chuckle.
“So now we’ve developed a sense of humour, have we?” Gupta said, twisting his jaw in annoyance.
Abhinaya frowned in genuine confusion. “I swear, I have no idea what you’re all so upset about. What did I do wrong?”
“You’ve finally overstepped your bounds, Abhinaya,” said the guildmaster, his grave, hard tone calling in a rush of memories of when she’d just joined the guild. She used to quake at the sight of him, and he’d chide her for every little transgression. The memories remained all too fresh despite their age, and Abhinaya was embarrassed that she was still so afraid of the man.
“Tell me, Abhinaya, , what would you say is an assassin’s one rule he cannot break?”
“Master, if there’s something wrong, you can tell me,” Abhinaya said, leaning forward. “I’ll make certain it’s sorted out post haste.”
“You’ve already failed,” Subhodita said, his tone unchanged. “Answer the damn question.”
“Following orders, master,” she said without hesitation. “To the last word, and no more, but no less.”
The table fell disconcertingly silent. As she locked eyes with the guildmaster, realisation came upon her.
“Master, is this about the princess?” Abhinaya said slowly, as if testing the water.
“About damn time,” he said, looking away in disgust. “It’s shameful it took you this long.”
“But master, that wasn’t-“
“What did you say just now, Abhinaya?” Gupta said, his voice rising in a way that made her want to smash his face in. “Following orders, no more, no less. And what have you gone and done now?”
“I’ve gone and done what’s right for the guild,” she said. “She’s a vital pawn in this game, do you not understand that? Think of her position for a moment. The Pallava king will practically wrap himself around our fingers trying to get her back. Isn’t that what we want? We’re a guild spanning a kingdom, for god’s sake, not petty contract killers.”
Subhodita shook his head. “You still don’t get it, do you?” he said. The anger in his voice had been replaced by what sounded to her like disappointment, and that annoyed her far more.
“Whatever good you believe this will bring the guild, you’ve betrayed the fundamental principle of the assassins’ covenant. I have told you this not ten, not a hundred, but a thousand times. You cannot flout laws because of your own misplaced sense of right and wrong. How can our clients trust us if we start taking decisions into our own hands? We’ll become unpredictable, unreliable, and then what?
“Besides, the fact that Bhagiratha will wage all-out war for this girl is just one of three disruptions you’ve caused. And I believe I can handle the king in such a situation, I know him well enough for that. There’s a bigger problem you’ve created within the guild itself. And as a council member, I can’t see how you didn’t consider that when you decided to kidnap the princess. Assuming, of course, you put any thought into this bit of stupidity at all.”
“It’s the acolytes, Abhinaya,” Kumar said, and she turned her head in surprise to see the normally taciturn councilman speaking. “You’re a council member. Effectively a leader to these young boys and girls, guildmaster besides. Leading by example is all that’s ever worked.”
Kumar’s tall back was hunched over as he leaned on the table. He shook his head.
”Word of what you did is bound to get out across the kingdom, travel the grapevine to every affiliate guild. This was no small mission, after all. Because of you, rules will turn into mere formality they’ll blithely ignore. None of us understood the point of those rules until much later, and these young ones are no different. What you did was extremely rash and impetuous, Abhinaya.”
“If someone gets themselves caught or killed, it’s on your head,” Gupta said venomously.
“I will hear no such talk at this table or anywhere else between guild members,” Subhodita snapped, his eyes boring holes in Gupta’s. The guild member reluctantly declined his head, breaking eye contact.
“And that isn’t all,” Dhwaja said. Abhinaya’s breath left her nostrils in a heavy, very audible rush that she knew they’d hear. The councilman ignored it. “The client asked for you to give the appearance of an attempted rape, didn’t he? Prakash’s killing had to look rough, as though he were cut up by someone with no skill in weaponry. You say you pulled that off, and that’s all very well, but what of the other half of the scene? The princess herself is nowhere to be found. Isn’t that likely to raise eyebrows among them? Why would she run away instead of seeking her father’s help? If they begin to suspect her, the whole point of this mission would be lost.”
“Fine,” Abhinaya said, crossing her arms.
“What do you mean by that?” Subhodita said.
“What could I possibly mean?” she said, a little more harshly than she intended. “It was a mistake kidnapping her.” “You’re damn right it was,” Dhwaja said.
“Well then what do you say I do to remedy this?” she asked.
“Remedy?” the guildmaster said.
“Yes, remedy. What must I do to right my wrongs? It’s a fairly simple question. You’ve clearly thought through all the problems in what I did. Surely you spent some time in deciding how to fix this? Shall I dress up as a poor farmer’s wife and take her to the city, telling the king I found her wandering in my fields, eating up all my barley? Or better yet, I’ll put her in a sack and drop her off in some cart bound for Amaravati. Or do you have something better?”
“You’re being difficult, Abhinaya,” Subhodita said through gritted teeth. “You are making this harder than it needs to be, and I don’t appreciate the extra effort I need to make to soothe your bloody tantrums when it’s clearly you who’s at fault here!”
“At fault?” Abhinaya said. “Pray tell me why! Is taking a little initiative all it takes to commit a crime here?”
“You call that ‘taking a little initiative’?” Gupta said, incredulous. “You kidnapped a Pallava princess! Wars have been fought over less!”
“Don’t be-“ Abhinaya started to say, but there was a sharp rap at the door. Subhodita raised his hand for silence. “Come in,” he said.
A man Abhinaya knew to be the council room’s guardsman entered.
“What is it?” Subhodita said irritably.
“Master, you have a visitor,” the man said, very slightly nervous. “It’s…it’s him.”
Their eyes met briefly, and Subhodita’s frown lingered as he nodded. “Bring him inside.”
The guard pulled the door half-open, gestured to the man standing outside to come in. The guard opened the door wider, and the tall man strode into the room, a wide smile on his face. He frowned good-naturedly.
“Not a lot of light here, is there?” he said, sniffing the air. “Not much ventilation, either. I do hope you get out and about, I couldn’t imagine being cooped up in here all day.”
“Yes, well, we get by,” the guildmaster said. “Was there something you wanted to speak to us about? Please sit with us.”
As he went to pull out a chair and sit down, the man’s gaze panned across the room to finally stop at Abhinaya.
“Ah! There she is!” he grinned. “Welcome back, my assassin friend. The mission went smoother than skinning a fat pig, I hope?”
Abhinaya was silent, giving him a look of mild bewilderment.
He laughed aloud, a hearty, firm sound that was rather pleasant to the ears. “Forgive me, Abhinaya, I blurt things sometimes. I was born to a simple farmer, you see, and some of my old man’s bizarre expressions have as yet stayed with me. Never mind that. I trust the assassination was uneventful? Aside from the killing itself, of course.” He chuckled to himself.
“You could say that,” Abhinaya said. “Everything went as we’d planned.”
“Did it, though?” the man said, raising an eyebrow as he scratched his spare beard.
“Why do you say that?” Abhinaya said, although the answer was perfectly clear in her head.
“Well, the mission was to kill the prince and the princess, make it look like he’d tried force himself upon her and she’d fought back. Wasn’t that what we’d agreed on?” Abhinaya nodded, stone-faced.
“Yes, it is,” the man continued. “However, on my way to this council room just a few minutes ago, I caught a glimpse of a certain young woman lying in one of your prison cells as I passed by them. She wasn’t part of the deal, as I recall.”
“No, she wasn’t,” Abhinaya said matter-of-factly. The client smiled, his eyes inscrutable as he watched the assassin in silence for a moment. They were unnatural in the way they seemed absorb the light around him, deepening the shadows in the room. The oil lamps hanging from their hooks on the walls didn’t feel as effective as they had been before he’d entered.
He snorted. “That was pretty straightforward,” he said, “and I admire that. What I don’t admire quite so much is people who don’t keep their word.”
From the corner of her eye, Abhinaya could see Gupta sitting back in his seat with a satisfied expression on his face.
“I kept my word, didn’t I?” she said leaning back in her seat, meeting her client’s eyes. “The kings in Bhagiratha’s court are all divided in his favour or Neelkantha’s. Mostly Neelkantha’s, from the looks of it. Isn’t that what you told me you wanted?”
“You make a good point, Abhinaya, but we got lucky this time. You made a gamble that night, one that paid off. But what if it hadn’t? I’m all for a good game of dice, but stakes like these are not the kind I like to play with. You can say all you want in justification, but that changes nothing. You broke the contract we agreed to, and that is inexcusable.”
“Very well,” Abhinaya said. She’d had enough of this conversation. “What do you want me to do to fix this?”
“Nothing,” the man said, rising from his seat. “Absolutely nothing. I came here to tell you this in the event that, in the future, I will not tolerate your whimsy threatening the outcome of missions I pay and sign contracts for.”
“In the future?” Abhinaya asked, frowning.
“If the occasion so arises.” He straightened his clothes, moving away from the table.
“As compensation for breaching our contract,” he said, turning to Subhodita, “I will be taking the girl with me. Ask your guards to unlock the door to her cell.”
Abhinaya’s heart skipped a beat when she heard that.
“Karna,” said the guildmaster, fixing his stern glare on the man. “You cannot do that.”
“Oh, forgive me, guildmaster,” Karna said in a biting tone. He gestured toward Abhinaya. “But neither could she. Our contract guarantees me reasonable compensation. That compensation is stuck in one of your prison cells, and I would have it out. Immediately.”
The guildmaster’s stare was icy as he regarded the renegade lord with contempt. But in those eyes there was also frustration born of helplessness. That was the only thing Abhinaya saw in that moment, and it crushed her inside. She struggled to maintain her composure and not kick that bastard Karna out the door, but it was the look in Subhodita’s eyes, the look that hardly lasted more than a second, that made her want to weep.
I have failed him. Oh, god no. I’ve failed the guild and Subhodita’s helpless before this man. Why? Why did I do that? What was I thinking?
The guildmaster balled a fist and rapped the table thrice sharply. The guard standing outside slowly opened the door, bowing before Subhodita. “Master?”
“Open the cell princess Nalini’s in,” he said, his voice toneless. “Tie her hands – gently – and give her to this man. Do it now.”
“Master, are you sur-“
“Yes, I’m bloody sure, you imbecile! Go now, do it quickly. Then escort him and the girl outside. Understood?”
The man nodded in submission, retreating out the door.
Karna smiled. “Thank you very, very much, guildmaster,” he said, then turned to Abhinaya. “And you too, Abhinaya. This has been a fruitful endeavour for both of us, I should say. Very well, I think I shall be off. Good day to you all.” He nodded warmly at them before spinning on his heels and leaving through the open door.
To be continued…