Featured image source
“Where is she?” Kumar said, glancing for the hundredth time at the door. And for the hundredth time, it remained closed. “We’ve been waiting here an eternity.”
“Who the hell does she think she is?” Gupta said, gnashing his teeth. “The gall she has to make us wait here like this. To make you wait, master! She’s taking leave of her senses with every day that passes.”
“I hope she has a good explanation for this,” Subhodita said softly, index fingers pressed together at his chin. He closed his eyes, sitting in silence as if he could hear the seconds go by. He had a look of menacing serenity on his face, and the council members were satisfied to see that, Gupta in particular. For that meant he would surely not spare Abhinaya now.
The door swung open, screaming against old hinges as Abhinaya hurriedly entered. She watched the door wail as it closed shut once more, an amused look on her face.
“Spoils the whole ‘assassin’s guild’ image, doesn’t it?” she said wryly.
The four others in the room didn’t react, saying nothing as she went to her seat at the table. As if she was just noticing the silence, Abhinaya frowned, glancing at the others.
“What’s gotten you all so quiet?” she said.
“The time, Abhinaya, that’s what,” snapped Gupta. “An hour past noon you said. That’s when we got here. It must be close to two hours now.”
“What? Nonsense,” Abhinaya scoffed, waving a hand in dismissal. “That’s not possible. I’m late, true, but not that late.”
“Well, the point is, you’re late,” the guildmaster said, leaning forward on the table, folding his hands together. “But I think it’s better if we don’t waste any more damn time. You will explain yourself after this, I’ll make certain of that. Now then, what did you call us here for?”
He looked impatient. Abhinaya was nervous but she always saw his impatience as a good sign. It meant he wanted to hear what she had to say.
She nodded. “Very well. We all know what Neelkantha’s doing now, don’t we?”
“What do you mean?” Dhwaja said. “Attacking the towns? Of course we know about that. What’s that got to do with anything?”
Abhinaya narrowed her eyes questioningly. “I just started speaking. Will you let me get to my point?”
Dhwaja shrugged. “It was you who asked the question.”
“Will both of you shut up?” Subhodita said. He turned to the other councilman. “You especially, Dhwaja. You’re acting like a child. Let the woman talk.” He turned to Abhinaya, his thin lips stretched even thinner, and nodded.
“As I was saying,” Abhinaya said with a glare at Dhwaja, “Neelkantha has already attacked two towns in the kingdom, and nothing’s stopping him from going after more. Not until Bhagiratha declares war on him. Obviously that day isn’t too far away, but I think he’s holding out to see how much more damage Neelkantha’s willing to do.”
“But why wait?” Gupta said, his voice more truculent than curious. “Neelkantha’s surely not going to stop. Not with the momentum he has now.”
“Neelkantha knows the chances of finding Nalini like this are next to none,” she said. “But he’s trying to provoke Bhagiratha into either declaring war or coming to an agreement. To hand over Nalini in exchange over peace. There can’t be any other reason. Besides, if the citizens are harbouring the princess, they’ll be scared into giving her up. He’s thought this through.”
“And why does this warrant a meeting, Abhinaya?” the guildmaster said irritably. “Does this little story have a conclusion or…?”
“Now there’s only one man who’s going to see the opportunity in this. Karna. He’ll talk to Neelkantha, join forces with him. If he does, it’s going to be an all-out war. Whichever side is still standing when the dust clears, we can still profit from this. Think about this. If we send spies to both sides, people who can give us crucial information about army movements, strategies, then we’ll have leverage. So when we’re sure one side has the upper hand, we’ll help them land the death blow. When it’s all over, we’ll have lost nothing while a kingdom is in our debt.”
Abhinaya looked at all of them, the fire in her eyes blazing hotly. She leaned forward, her hands firmly planted on the table. Her gaze swung to the guildmaster’s. “Not the promise of all the gold in the world could turn you away from this, master. We would…we’d be gods.”
Subhodita’s iron mask was inscrutable. Deep lines furrowed his thin, ageing skin, his forehead creased into a permanent frown. But he wasn’t frowning. He was thinking. She watched him breathe, every second stretched into an hour.
And then he snorted, half a smile on his lips.
“I think you’ve finally gone insane,” he said.
He pushed against the table, rising shakily but in perfect balance, turned around and left the room.
Abhinaya sat motionless, stricken by the nonchalant way he’d dismissed her. She heard the other three men break out into laughter, slapping the table as they watched Abhinaya stare dumbly at the door creaking closed. There was surge of fire that rushed through her veins, filling her entirely with an impossible rage that made her feel like she was about to explode. Even as she quivered in anger, shock, humiliation…pain…she balled her fists, clenching her jaw so she wouldn’t scream. Rising in a flash, she yanked the door open, and there he was, his slightly hunched figure making its way down the stone-walled corridor. She hurried to his side.
She grabbed him by the shoulder and he smacked her hand aside, whipping around to face her.
“What do you want from me?” he said, gritting his teeth. “Huh? What do you want? You want my guild? You want to be guildmaster? Go ahead then, assassin! Unsheathe your blade! Finish me off now, here! That’s what you want, isn’t it? To be in control? Well, take control now. Do it. Because I’d rather die than see the day my guild burns to the ground because some reprobate in my ranks thinks she can take on a bloody army!”
“But we won’t have to take on any army!” she said, struggling and failing to keep her frustration from showing. “We’re assassins. We’ll always have that leverage. And once the war is won, no one could touch us. Not Bhagiratha, not even Karna!”
“You don’t understand, do you?” Subhodita said, shaking his head. “Bhagiratha’s unpredictable. You don’t know him like I do. If he’s driven to the edge, no one can say what will happen. He might even sacrifice family for the sake of destroying us.
“And Karna? That snake could never be trusted. Just you watch and wait. You say he plans an alliance with Neelkantha? See how he’ll wait for his chance, wait for Neelkantha’s army to thin, for all those kings and their armies to grow weak from fighting. He’ll stab them in the back, each and every last one of them. And then he’ll come after us. You know better than anyone else we don’t stand a chance against half his army.”
His nostrils flared, silencing Abhinaya with a glare as hard and brittle as stone.
“No, Abhinaya. I refuse to allow it. I won’t let you endanger the lives of my assassins, nor will I allow you to threaten the existence of my guild. I’m sick of these conversations, and I’ve been far too gracious in letting you speak even this much. So much as speak of this again and I will…” He faltered, his gaze breaking away from hers, dropping to the ground.
“Enough,” he whispered, shaking his head. He clutched his shirt as though his chest was aching. “Please, Abhinaya. Just…please, no more of this.”
He inhaled deeply, slowly turning as he walked down the corridor. “I need air. Don’t follow me out.”
Abhinaya watched as he disappeared down the dimly lit corridor, and then she was the only one there. Just her and the slow, deliberate crackle of the torches, filling the air with fine smoke.
The breeze swept through the branches of the trees, whispering against the cool, rough bark. Leaves shivered as though they’d been caught in the wind’s breath, flailing against the light of the moon. Old, dead leaves covered the floor like a thin mattress that smelled of soil and damp, and it gave under Abhinaya’s shoes as she approached the neem tree up ahead. The two others were already there, raven cloaks wrapped around them so not even shadow escaped it. She couldn’t tell if they were conversing. What about? she wondered. As they sensed her approach they turned, standing slightly apart. Even now they didn’t pull back their cowls.
Out of instinct Abhinaya’s hand felt for the blade against the left of her hip, slipped into its soft leather sheath. That was the knife she could draw the fastest, and it was her best one too. She still remembered the feel of it in her hand the day her guru Venkat had given it to her. The handle had been newly wrapped then, and still felt raw and unfamiliar in her hands. It would be months before the calf leather moulded to her hand, before it truly became hers.
“He is your husband now,” Venkat had said when Abhinaya had held the blade for the first time. “He’s a cheeky fellow. Doesn’t take no for an answer. He does what he wants, and people get hurt for it.” He’d looked into her eyes then, very seriously so that the metaphor had been lost to both their minds in that instant. The instant when she’d understood.
“You must play your part as more than just the dutiful wife, Abhinaya. For your husband strays off his path if he isn’t controlled, and that is precisely your task. Look after him. Make sure he never grows too bold or too eager, for that will surely spell disaster. He’s yours to bear now, if you shall have him.”
She’d nodded then, so confident of her place as a new assassin. She knew she’d have Venkat to go to if she needed help. She’d be safe. That was before he died, and in the worst way possible. His bowel disease had left him shrunken and hollow, a mere skeleton wrapped in skin, swallowing soup and gruel at every meal, slowly whittled down to a shell of his former self. That was the worst way to die by far. Abhinaya knew, for she had watched the man shrivel more with every day, seen how little of his food or water his stomach could keep down.
Her shoes pressed into the damp leaves as she came to a stop underneath the neem tree. She appraised the two figures before her for a moment, then cast her own hood off her head. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear. Vasundara took off her hood first.
“Abhinaya,” she said with a nod. Then the man next to her did the same.
“Vasundara, Ishwar, do you know why I’ve sent for you all the way out here?” she said.
“No, we don’t,” Vasundara said. “Why? Has something happened?”
“Were you two followed?” Abhinaya said. “Both of you were careful to avoid being seen, weren’t you?”
They both nodded.
“Very well,” she whispered, almost to herself than to anyone else. Without thinking, her feet began to move, and she stepped past them, and they glanced at each other in confusion before they hurried to her side.
“I’m not asking for either of you to change your loyalties. Whatever you choose to do, you’re still doing it for the sake of the guild.” Abhinaya didn’t need to turn her head to know they agreed with her. It would be unfair for her to ask them to choose between her or the guild. Besides, her intentions were never anything but in the guild’s favour. “But I nevertheless need to know if you’re up to the task.”
She didn’t wait for them to reply.
“For better or worse, Neelkantha is forcing Bhagiratha into a war,” she said. “The Pallavas are the most powerful kingdom in the region, true, but when you see how badly they were weakened in the rebellion, it’s clear Neelkantha saw an opportunity. This is more than just revenge he wants to exact.”
Abhinaya stopped at a rocky outcropping in the middle of the woods, looking at the ground that continued ten feet below. The stone overhang was like a wave of rock, giving her a far-reaching glimpse of the otherwise featureless wood.
“Both sides will gain and lose allies as they prepare for and fight this war. I can say with certainty that Karna will coax Neelkantha into his lap. It’s expedient, so Neelkantha will probably agree. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
Ishwar snorted in amusement. “So where do we come in?” he said.
“The only way this war will be of any use to us is if we involve ourselves directly. We have my indiscretion to blame for the war even starting in the first place. So we need to wait and watch how events unfold. When we’re sure who’s got an upper hand, we give them the information they need so they land the killing blow. Our position is secure after that.”
She turned around to face Ishwar and Vasundara.
“That’s what I want you two for. We need spies to gather that information. Army movements, strategies, plans. We need accurate numbers and solid intelligence for either side. You have to be smart, smarter than you’ve been as assassins. You can’t just hide, you need to hide in plain sight. No one can suspect you, no one can even know you’re there. You must blend in. One false step and it could mean your death.”
Abhinaya flung her cloak wide, over her shoulders so it fell on her back like a cape, freeing her arms.
“By agreeing to this you’ll put everything, including your lives, in someone else’s hands. But I’d never ask this of anyone if I wasn’t damned sure of myself. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’d never let my brothers and sisters come to harm for the sake of my vision for this guild.”
The two of them were silent as they watched Abhinaya, contemplating everything they’d heard in the last few minutes.
“I can’t do this without your help,” Abhinaya said. “I need you, or this plan fails and the war passes us by and we remain in our hovels where no one can find us. We’ll be forgotten, only called upon when someone needs a swift, handy blade to stick in a lord not worth the trouble he’s causing. So tell me now, Ishwar, Vasundara. Will you join me in making this assassins’ guild a thing such as this world has never seen before, and never shall again after us?”
The two assassins hadn’t spoken this entire time. But their eyes didn’t even have to meet to know what the other was thinking. They both looked at Abhinaya and smiled.
To be continued…
Hey guys! Aneesh Bhargav here. If you like my work, please follow my blog and share it with all your friends! Let me know what you think in the comments! Hit me up on Twitter: @aneeshbhargav