Dasaratha woke every day at four. It was a habit he was never able to break, his body trained by war to wake early and sleep late, and as a result he'd had to find something to occupy him in the times in between. During peacetime his life took on a predictable routine. A typical day would consist of him walking in Kausalya's gardens with her and her hangers on, eating in Kaikeyi's dining rooms with her and her hangers on, and playing shatranj with Sumitra and thankfully no hangers on, because most nobles in court hated it. They preferred games of chance, but Sumitra had always scoffed at them, and Dasaratha was happy to spend time with her learning how to strategise and think ahead in a game that was pitifully divorced from the realities of war.
He would spend time with each of his sons, collect reports from Pranjal, discuss ethics with Guruji, and solve any problems that came up at court. A king with a good administration had very little to worry about, and his administration was the best. He then spent his nights either alone or with one of his concubines, and so his day would end. This routine had served him faithfully in the past, and it would continue to serve him in the future. Unless an emergency came up. An emergency along the lines of what was happening today. The Hermit had come to Ayodhya, and he had a request.
Guruji had already gotten Pranjal's reports, and he'd told him what he would ask. He needed protection, and Ayodhya would give him protection. But there was always protocol. Vishwamitra would ask in a certain manner, and Dasaratha would give in a certain manner. At the end of the day, it ensured no surprises, no misunderstandings. It was a system, and it had worked since before his grandfather's time.
Which was why his entire court was assembled this morning, wondering why the Hermit had arrived. They didn't have the advantage of the intelligence corps of Ayodhya, did they. He'd heard that the Hermit and Guruji had had an argument the previous day. An argument! Between two of the Seven! And he'd missed it! Having spies was no good if they didn't find out these things. It was incidents like this one that brightened up his days.
He was looking forward watching to the two yogis meet again. The few histories that he'd read about Kaushik's kingdom had described it as the sort of utopia he'd always imagined Kosala as, with him at its head. On the other hand, there were more than a few allusions to the king's eccentricities, of how he had been influenced by stories of rulers of far off lands who went out into their cities disguised as peasants, and felt the need to know exactly what was going on in their capital. It was probably these same eccentricities that got him into trouble with Guruji, both originally when he committed his first offence and yesterday when they had argued.
Guruji had been second into the throne room; the first was always the king. But he'd insisted on following him and giving him advice and suggestions and instructions about how to handle the Hermit. Guruji seemed nervous, as much as any great swami of his stature could feel nervousness. Perhaps the entire point of ordaining not one but Seven Seers was to have them feel ordinary emotions like nervousness and embarrassment every now and again.
His sons and Queens had also been one of the first into the hall, Rama looking confident as ever, Bharatha's face betraying no emotion, Lakshmana and Shatrughna sharing the look of polite boredom that their mother had perfected in her years at court. Kausalya was seated to his left, more pleased than was proper that Kaikeyi no longer sat to his right, but had instead been relegated to her own official seat. Kaikeyi was busy discussing something with her head advisor, Manthara, and Sumitra was leaning back comfortably, still refusing to meet his eyes.
Vishwamitra was due to make his appearance any time now, but until then Dasaratha was content to try and imagine the look on Guruji's face yesterday when Vishwamitra had called him boring. He chuckled silently to himself. After fighting hordes of rakshasas and facing off against not only Ravana the Ten Headed, but also his brother Kumbhakarna the Sleeping Giant, very little amused him anymore, but the sight of a shocked Sage was one of them.
Dasaratha felt, more than saw, the approach of the Hermit. The nobles at the far end suddenly tensed, the announcer began shuffling nervously, and Guruji's eyebrows drew close together.
'The Venerable Hermit, Friend To All Men, Maharishi Brahmarishi Shri Vishwamitra has graced the court of Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala with his presence! May his knowledge be venerated forevermore!'
Dasaratha felt a smile tugging at his lips as he heard the announcer's slip in using the same word twice. He had done remarkably well, but that slip would probably cause endless amounts of ribbing from his fellow announcers, not to mention the royal messengers, the servant maids, the undercooks, and pretty much everyone else who worked in the palace.
And then he began the careful ritual, the give-and-take that he'd practiced once before deciding that if anything went wrong, he'd just wing it.
'Greetings, honoured brahmin! What can a humble kshatriya offer you on this fine wintry morning?'
Perhaps he was winging it earlier than he'd planned, but he had heard from Bharatha that Vishwamitra enjoyed a good joke.
'Not so humble, dear king. After all, no one else in this room has warred against a ten headed demon and won.' Maybe he did enjoy a joke a bit too much than was proper for a man of his stature, then.
'I suspect that is the reason you are here and not in any other court, great Sage.'
Vishwamitra chuckled. 'It is indeed an encouraging sign of your kingdom that your suspicions are well-founded, Emperor of the Line of the Sun. At any rate, I assume you've been informed of my purpose here. Ayodhya knows more than is good for her even at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. But for those who do not know, I am conducting a puja in the woods of Tataki, precisely for the purpose of driving her out. I am afraid I am in need of professional help from those best suited to give it, as I can no longer wield a weapon without putting the entire realm in danger. I am here to ask for your best.'
'And you shall have my best. Ayodhya is a centre for all innovations, military or otherwise. Perhaps elephants and horses would not be suited for treading around holy ground, but I can offer you nine of the finest warriors Ayodhya has ever seen, headed by my own nephew Sharanyan. With the might of Surya's line on your side, you cannot lose.'
'I agree that I cannot lose with Surya's might on my side, but I was thinking along different lines. I am here for your best, King Dasaratha, and however worthy a warrior young Sharanyan is, he is not the best.'
It was at this that Guruji interrupted. 'You are not taking-'
'This is not a matter for old men, would you not agree, Suryaputra? This is a conversation between those who still possess their wits, and interruptions by codgers who do not know when their time has come are not appreciated by young men intent on changing the world.'
Guruji was seething. 'I am Guru of Ayodhya. I am it's spiritual advisor. You are nothing more than an arrogant little upstart who bludgeoned his way into a holy brotherhood, too arrogant to be denied and too stupid to realise it.'
'I am not speaking to you, old man! Dasaratha, you know what I ask. Are you willing to do what is necessary, or shall I seek aid elsewhere? At the kingdom of the descendants of the Moon, perhaps?'
The king was dumbfounded. Surprising things happened around the youngest of the Seven with alarming frequency, it seemed. But he did indeed know what the brahmin was asking. He wanted the best, and the best were his sons. And when it came down to it, Rama and Lakshmana were daggers to their brothers' maces. Bharatha and Shatrughna strategised battles and marshalled armies; they did not have the soft touch required for leading elite units of warriors. Vishwamitra was asking for his heir and his spymaster-in-training. If either one of them fell, Kosala's strength would halve. If both of them died, he was not sure Ayodhya could recover.
And yet, to refuse one of the Seven would forever be a black mark against him and his people. If there was one thing that Aja taught his son, it was that there was nothing more important than the pride of the kingdom. He knew what he had to do, but he didn't have to like it.
He held his hand up, preventing Guruji from speaking. 'I know what you ask. And I have no doubt that you do as well. You are asking for two of my sons. Ayodhya's strength has always lied with it's children, and the royal line has always been the best of the best. You ask for Rama and Lakshmana.' It was not a question, merely a statement of fact.
'Yes. I will take them with me, train them in the arts of summoning the gods to fight for them, and perhaps show them a little bit of the world while I'm at it.' Suddenly the Hermit was mischievous again. 'When was the last time these boys were allowed out into the world without chaperones, hmmm? Royalty should always know what every subject in the kingdom feels, yes? I would take your other sons as well, but I fear that would cause the old fogey to keel over with shock. He can train your other sons in Bala and Atibala. I'm sure they are up to the challenge. Give me your sons, little king, and I will give you back demi-gods.'
'VISHWAMITRA!' The Hermit shot Guruji a dark look, but kept his peace, knowing that anything he said would only add fuel to the fire.
He'd said what he needed to say. Now he needed to leave, and so he did, so that the court to absorb this, gossip and whisper to each other about the consequences of it, play their little games. Vishwamitra had ruled a court, a very long time ago. Dasaratha had no doubt he still remembered what went on in them. He stayed silent for a moment, suddenly feeling that what had seemed interesting in the morning now seemed extremely troublesome. He raised his hand, and gave his official consent for the debate to begin, and at the same time sent his sons out of the room. The ones who were being discussed could not remain in the room, and the king knew Rama and Lakshmana well enough to know what would happen, in the end. They would go, and then they would come back, victorious, having faced rakshasas and relished it, yet eager to be back home. The might of Surya could not be denied.
This was all just a formality, just something to hammer out the details. In three weeks, his sons would return more mature than they'd ever need to be again.
and that's that, then. i have plans for a sequel, detailing how Rama gets exiled and all that, but first i shall take a break from writing for a bit. i hope you've enjoyed it so far, and if you haven't, well, i have, so bully for you.
sequel is now up: Forests. Read from bottom to top.