Abhinaya sat at the great dining table, spinning her dagger in front of her, flicking the metal-and-leather handle with a finger and letting the pain linger under the nail. She flicked the knife again, and for a moment she felt the tip of her finger going numb, and then it slowly faded away, replaced by a sharp pain. The room was empty, unlit but for a lamp at the other end. Her side was steeped in darkness, and she could just make out the outline of her blade in lustre of the metal as it danced in repeating streaks of light. Spinning, spinning.
“Abhinaya,” said a voice, and she heard the door creak. It only did that when it was opened slowly.
“Abhinaya, you’ve been sitting here for ages. What’s the matter with you?”
The lamp cast a soft, dull light on Vasundara’s dusky features as she approached the table. Abhinaya closed her eyes for a moment, taking a breath as if to begin speaking. And then she just flicked at the knife again.
“Abhinaya, please answer me,” Vasundara said, her forehead creasing. “I’m worried about you.”
“What’s there to say, Vasu?” she said, sitting back in her chair as she threw her head over the backrest.
Vasundara glared at Abhinaya. “Lots of things, actually. And sitting around moping isn’t going to get any of that said. How could you squander your time like this? There are things to be done, Abhinaya. Things to fix after what happened.”
“You mean after what I did,” Abhinaya said.
“You made a mistake, Abhinaya, sure enough,” Vasundara said, walking up to her and taking the chair to her right. “But who hasn’t? You’re no more infallible than any of those fools in the council. And besides, the mistake is yours, so shouldn’t you be the one doing something about it?”
Abhinaya snorted, giving her a dry smirk. “You too, huh? What, did they send you here to talk to me?”
Vasundara’s lips thinned with distaste. “I hope you didn’t mean that.”
“I made a joke, Vasundara, all right?” Abhinaya said, shaking her head. “You want to burn me at the stake for that?”
“I just want to you to stop being this way,” Vasundara said, nudging her gently in the arm. “I can’t stand seeing you like this.”
“They don’t want me in the council,” Abhinaya said. She shrugged. “It’s rather clear from the way they spoke to me when Karna had left.”
“Abhinaya, look at me,” Vasundara said. She leaned closer to her friend, placing a hand softly on her cheek, turning her head to face her.
“I’ve known you ever since we became a part of this guild. I know we started off on the same footing, you and I, but that’s not the case anymore, is it? You’re a council member, Abhinaya, don’t you realise the significance of that? I don’t even think you realise how hard it is for a woman to be so much as considered for a place in the guild council. He even told some of us that he wants you as his second-in-hand.”
Vasundara took her hand, clasped it in both of hers. Their gazes met, and she saw that Abhinaya’s eyes were glistening.
“You’re so much better than the rest of us. You always have been. They’d never let go of you that easily. And I know you made a mistake when you brought that princess here, but that wasn’t out of malice that you did that. You were looking out for the guild. It just…it just didn’t work out.”
Abhinaya wiped a tear forming in her eye.
“I wasn’t just looking out for the guild, Vasu. I had a plan. Gupta, Kumar, Dhwaja – even Subhodita – they just don’t understand. They refuse to. It’s as though all they see in the world is the one target right in front of them and nothing else exists. I don’t just want this guild to survive. To hell with survival! I want more, Vasu. I – we could have so much more. If they just listen.
“There was a time when all an assassin did was kill for money. Guilds had ten people and charged five gold coins to kill a lord. And they were content with that. What if they still had been, Vasu? What if no one had decided to do something more and be a little ambitious? Somebody would have had to think they could do more with what they had. They’d have had to, or Subhodita’s council would be his whole bloody guild. And god knows, he’d probably be satisfied with that.”
Vasundara’s eyes widened, and she cast a furtive glance toward the door. “Abhinaya, don’t say those things about the master!” she whispered. “What’s wrong with you? If someone hears-“
“Let them,” Abhinaya said, loud enough for the words to echo around the walls. “Let them hear every word.” She leaned forward, bringing her face closer to Vasundara’s. “We can shape kingdoms. We can change the course of war. We can make this bloody continent what we want it to be, Vasu. Anything at all. That’s the sort of power we can wield. And we have everything we need.”
She sat back in her chair, her jaw hardening with exasperation.
“But these obtuse whoresons…” Her hand slid down her face. “They just can’t see it..”
The room fell quiet again, and all Vasundara could hear was the sound of Abhinaya’s heavy breathing, her chest rising and falling. There was a rage born of helplessness in her face, one that she was struggling to contain. She looked at Abhinaya, and all she felt was pity. And somewhere inside, deep down, she thought she felt the same way. But she could never say that.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if people like them were lower down in the ranks,” Abhinaya whispered. “The footsoldiers. The ones who just follow orders. They cannot question, so they just do.But these men are supposed to lead the guild. They’re the ones meant to look where others won’t, go where others can’t. And they’re the ones cowering behind bags of gold that count for nothing in the end. It’s just…” Her head slumped, her hand rising to support it. “I don’t know what to do.”
Vasundara pulled her chair closer to Abhinaya. Putting her hands on her leg, she tried to comfort her, giving her a smile.
“Abhinaya,” she said slowly, “for once – just this once – maybe you should do nothing. Just see where it takes you.”
Abhinaya looked up, her eyes meeting Vasundara’s. She smiled back, just a small one, and nodded.
But there was something in her eyes, something Vasundara saw only for a moment before it disappeared, that made her think this wasn’t the last she would hear of this.
To be continued…
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