Monday, 25 October 2010

Ayodhya - Five

Emperor

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.

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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.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Ayodhya - Four

Guide

It was only a few days after Father's announcement that Vishwamitra was on his way that he arrived in Ayodhya. While Bharatha knew that Sumitra was welcoming the Hermit, and as such it would be her sons who would greet him at the gates, he nonetheless felt it would be a good idea to get a glimpse of one of the great sages. It also gave him to go over the events of the past few days in more detail, hoping that this time they would make more sense.

First Father appointed Lakshmana spymaster. That in itself was nonsensical. Lakshmana, who couldn't hide anything from anyone if his life depended on it. Whose bond with Rama meant that he'd never be able to keep secrets from him. Whose hate of the court led to the natural conclusion that he'd be tied for the rest of his life to an institution he despised.

Then Lakshmana shut himself off from everyone. Lakshmana refusing to speak to Father was understandable. Him refusing to utter a word to Shatrughna was puzzling, but even that could be explained. But he had not spoken to Rama, or Rani Sumitra, or even Guruji! And whenever Bharatha confronted any of them, all he received were stony looks and vague nondescript mutters. And when he asked Guruji, in the most respectful tone he could muster, he had received a complicated sloka in high Sanskrit about the qualities of perseverance and sacrifice. It was all extremely frustrating.

But Bharatha knew one thing, that whatever troubles Lakshmana had, even he wouldn't miss greeting Vishwamitra, the youngest of the Seven Sages. Today Bharatha would confront Lakshmana, and knock some sense into him.

When he reached the outer gates, he was surprised to find that both Shatrughna and Lakshmana were wearing the exact same thing. They had played this game a few times when they were younger, trading places when Lakshmana was not interested in performing yet another sword drill, and Shatrughna didn't want to be locked up inside the palace for the third week in a row. It had been one of the few times Bharatha had spent with Lakshmana, before they had all been taken off to Guruji's ashram and any idea of playing any sort of game was pounded out of their minds.

While he could not be sure at this distance, the one he tentatively identified as Shatrughna was looking about, searching for their esteemed guest, while the one who may or may not have been Lakshmana was resting his back comfortably on the wooden gate, seemingly much more at peace with the world than the rumours would suggest. Then he jumped, looking at a man in the distance. Shatrughna did not seem to pay any attention, he continued to look around, and as Bharatha finally reached them he walked towards him and greeted him with a friendly hug.

'A very good morning to you, dear brother! What a surprise to see you here!' Shatrughna said with both mirth and irritation.

'How is he?' There was no reason to specify who he meant by 'he'.

'As well as can be expected. At any rate, pay him no mind. What has the esteemed Second Queen of Ayodhya have planned for us this afternoon, in joyful celebration at having not one but two of the Seven underneath our roofs?'

There it was again, the obfuscation that he would not have recognised if he had not been looking for it.

'I wish I knew, but Mother did not think it was important to tell me. She just said it would be something the First Queen would be jealous of, and then sent me on my way here. Which is probably why I am even awake in the first place. That, and I'm interested in meeting one of the Seven, of course.'

'Because Guruji isn't Sage enough for you, you mean?'

'Rather because I'm hoping not all of them are as Sage-y as Guruji seems to be'

Shatrughna smiled broadly at him, but he was cut off when he realised his twin was speaking to someone, probably for the first time in days.

As they both strained their ears, they both had the exact same thought. Namely, that Rama would never have to strain his ears, because he could be on the other side of the world and still be able to hear you talk. And they looked at each other and grinned, each knowing the other had thought it too.

What was curious, though, was that the man to whom he was speaking didn't look the least like a Sage. He was clean shaven, his face more solemn than a hangman at his own funeral, his head balder than a shined egg. And yet, Lakshmana seemed to be talking to him in what had to be old high Sanskrit. They all had a passable knowledge of the subject, but Lakshmana was having a full-blown conversation with him, complete with sixteen syllable lines! And then they both looked in the direction of Shatrughna, whose face turned momentarily contrite before going up to the Hermit and speaking in a fairly functional form of the same tongue.

Immediately the Sage called out to Bharatha, switching from an ancient language dead for millennia to the gutter dialect spoken by slumrats in the city with ease.

'Oy, little prince! You don't need to stand on ceremony for little old me! Come and join us. I'm sure your brothers will be willing to lie and tell everyone that they did in fact receive me in a proper fashion. There is no reason for you remain at a distance when we can all have a conversation instead, no?'

All three of them whipped their heads to look at Vishwamitra at that. A Sage not looking like a Sage was one thing, but to hear that language on the lips of one reputed to have written parts of the Vedas themselves was almost blasphemy.

If the Hermit had been Guruji, he would have only raised an eyebrow at them, and there would have been no other reaction. But the Hermit was the Hermit, and he burst out laughing, a laughter that continued unabated for more than a few minutes.

'Oh, the looks on your faces', he continued on that same gutterspeak, 'I bet you never even considered the possibility that I might know how the poorest of you talk. At least your little spymaster here', he indicated Lakshmana with a jerk of his head, 'recognised me for who I was, but even he looked shocked at my switch. I haven't played such a good trick in years.'

This threw all previous notions Bharatha had about Vishwamitra, and indeed any of the Seven, right out the window. He knew gutterspeak, didn't seem to like cultivating a long beard and a topknot, and actually laughed out loud! The casual throwing around of information he wasn't supposed to know was still the same, though. How had he known Lakshmana had been appointed spymaster, when it had only occurred days ago?

'Well then, my princes, I hope you've learnt your lessons about preconceptions and their flaws? Now that we've dealt with that, why don't you give me a tour of your city, and tell me a little bit about yourselves while you're at it?' the Hermit said with more than a bit of mischief in his eyes.

Bharatha was pretty sure that if anyone had told him fifteen minutes ago that the Hermit was a prankster, and a good one at that, he would not have even have hesitated for a second before throwing him in the palace dungeons for his disrespect to one of the Seven. And yet here was a man who could not be anyone else other that the Hermit, joyfully speaking in a tongue that even the princes shouldn't've known, who had hijacked their formal welcome and turned it into some sort of sightseeing trip!

But that was not the only surprise in store. As they walked from the outer slums to the markets, and from there to the army headquarters, and from there to the Palace of Poets, the Hermit seemed to take delight in changing his persona at the drop of a dhoti. At the markets he was suddenly a businessman from the southern kingdoms, sprinkling his common sanskrit with words that didn't belong, mispronouncing words and doing it so masterfully that not even Rama could have guessed it was an act.

As they reached the army he was suddenly an old veteran from Kekeya, a northern twang entering his cadence, his stride slowing to a world-wearied pace, and his left arm shaking with the phantom pain of an injury long since healed. He made bawdy jokes at the new recruits' expense, asked the old timers about arcane battle formations, and wished them a traditional Kekeyan soldier's prayer that Bharatha knew was only known by the elite royal bodyguards.

And then there had been the Palace of Poets. The closer they had gotten to it, the more energised the Hermit seemed. He and Lakshmana had suddenly restarted their conversation in high Sanskrit. Lakshmana was more upbeat and jolly than he had been since before his appointment. Shatrughna and Bharatha would try to have a conversation, only to stop when their companions started laughing about a joke that only the two of them understood. When they had finally reached, Vishwamitra had decided that he'd not needed to come to see the poets after all, for he'd had one walking next to him all this time.

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the palace, after dining in an inn near the theatres of Ayodhya, and Guruji was not happy. And an unhappy Guruji was a dangerous Guruji. Both Lakshmana and Shatrughna were standing stock-still, waiting for him to start his tirade, when suddenly the Hermit spoke.

'Greetings, brother. I hope you and yours have been well?'

'Fine, and the same to you too, brother. Would you care to come in, or perhaps you would like to continue horsing around and distracting the princes?'

'If conducting reconnaissance on a city that has the stench of rakshasas in it is distraction, then I shudder to think what real work would be, dear brother.'

The three princes and one Queen of Ayodhya watched, stunned, as Vishwamitra seemed to insult Guruji on his own home ground, and Guruji responded in kind.

'Your senses have clearly dulled, Vishwamitra, for the only stench of rakshasas here is what you've brought in with you. But this is all trivial, is it not?'

'If you say that it is, who am I to disagree? And look, the Third Queen of Ayodhya is here. I knew her great-grandfather well, her company will certainly be superior to the slim pickings offered in this hall.'

'Gurudev Vishwamitra, it gives me great honour and pleasure to invite me into our humble home', Sumitra interrupted, as she offered him the traditional blessed water and bowed to him.

Vishwamitra merely smiled, put his hand on her head, and said 'Tomorrow, dear Queen. Tomorrow you can tell me whether my visit brings you honour and pleasure. Until then, I give you all the blessings I can, of long life and good health, and more than your fair share of happiness'

He walked off, in the direction of the Third Queen's wing, Sumitra hurrying behind him, leaving one very vexed Guruji and three equally bewildered princes to stare in their direction, wondering just what the next day would bring.

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this was easily the weakest of the lot, but it was fun to write nonetheless.  despite setting out on this endeavour to write Lakshmana, Vishwamitra as a character is now my favourite.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ayodhya - Omake Two

The Entrance of Sumitra

When Sumitra first entered into the court, she was a little slip of a girl, with no idea how to deal with the cutthroat world of Ayodhyan politics. When it became obvious that the continual political war between the First and Second Queens might actually enter into a lull as they both tried to deal with this newcomer, she quickly capitulated to both sides. As tongues began to wag and it came out that she had pledged loyalty not just to Kausalya, but also to Kaikeyi, she played the part of a confused princess from the small, insignificant kingdom of Kashi to perfection. Both Queens dismissed her as airheaded, and continued their war on each other with renewed vigour. It certainly helped that Dasaratha spent perhaps three weeks with Sumitra before deciding that she, too, would not be able to help him sire an heir.

And so she watched Kausalya and Kaikeyi plot and machinate against one another, saw rumours spread and saw them crushed, learned to read the spaces between lines and the gaps between words. She learned from not one, but two masters.

It was a fine day in the spring, about five years before the birth of the princes, when she proved to the court of Ayodhya that she was not to be underestimated. It was two weeks before Holi, which was traditionally when new members of the court would be given lands and titles, which meant that it was wartime for the First and Second Queen. The resources and political standing of both sides were used most quickly during this period, for the induction of new houses into the ranks of the court would provide them with new advantages with which to wage their battles. But while they were busy strategising, Sumitra made her move. Although her sister-queens prided themselves on subtlety and misdirection, Sumitra preferred the attributes of clarity and straightforwardness. The most powerful of the new houses, intimidated by the power and wealth on display, were quickly drawn to Sumitra and her seemingly nonchalant approach to politics. But Sumitra saved her best for last, she made her most explosive move in the same fashion as Kaikeyi had when she first entered the court: in full view of all concerned.

As the king and Queens watched, the former amused, the latter aghast, Sumitra performed the arghya ritual for the three most powerful houses to enter the court that spring, drawing them under the formal protection of the Third Queen of Ayodhya. Just hours later, rumours of the Third Queen's aims began circulating. She did not wish to engage in the political war, nor did she plan on joining one of the other Queens. She would simply better the standing of any house that came to her, in a way that ensured the ruffling of no feathers. They would not enjoy the massive advantages that one Queen would give them, but they would also not reap the wrath of the houses on the side of the other. And so, every spring, those houses which did not know or want to care about the politics of Ayodhya's court joined the side of Queen Sumitra. While most major houses continued to ally themselves with either Kausalya or Kaikeyi, there were always one or two who thought their best interests lay with the minimalistic yet dignified approach perfected by the Third Queen.

She had no wish to be a real power. The fact that she was, in fact, a princess from a small, insignificant kingdom meant that any truly weighty political capital she gathered would quickly dissipate in the face of one or the other of the Queens. But she made it very obvious that she would not be trivialised, and she would not tolerate anyone taking advantage of her. Gurudev had been very impressed, and so had the king. Things in the court would never be the same again.

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if the first omake was my favourite, this is easily my second favourite. according to the legend, Sumitra was in fact the wisest of the three queens, which is why she got two servings of whatever prasadam that makes women pregnant, while Kausalya and Kaikeyi got only one. while this kind of classification is exactly what makes the myth so appealing, it is also what makes it so open to reinterpretation.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ayodhya - Three

Heir

Rama had always been precocious. Perhaps it had something to do with him being the eldest, or the fact that his wet-nurses read him the vedas where his brothers' had read them nursery rhymes, or maybe it was just genetic chance. At any rate, he knew the scriptures as well as any kshatriya could want to know them, his bow and sword-work put the best in the army to shame, and he drew conclusions from things that no one else could imagine using as evidence.

Take this morning, for example, and a fine one it was. He was up early, as he was every morning, a habit he shared with Lakshmana, and was walking towards his mother's apartments when it occurred to him that his mother was already awake, and had been awake for quite a while. It was obvious, from the way the hallways were freshly scented with rosewater, the pleasant smell of puja incense, the slightly strained stances of the maids and bodyguards at the doors. As he left her rooms he had met the messenger who informed him of the announcement, and he knew she was probably already in the throne room, but had left her bodyguards behind. As he told the messenger the First Queen was no longer in her chambers, the almost unnoticeable release in tension in the boy's neck told him that the news was very important. Pages always knew things they were not supposed to know. That was how they survived the numerous sackings that they were given on an almost daily basis.

But even Rama, first prince of Ayodhya, champion of a dozen sword tournaments and archery competitions and poetry contests, even he got things wrong on occasion. In this case, he assumed that the only news that could be important enough to summon the Queens of Ayodhya and their sons in informal wear, given that no one else was attending, was that Father was finally going to unofficially announce Rama as heir to the throne. Anticipating an explosion worthy of Agni and Vayu, he made his way to the throne room, dreading Kaikeyi's reaction.

Which was why even he was caught off-guard, if only momentarily, when Father announced that Pranjal Da was no longer spy master, and that he had decided on a successor. The reactions of Sumitra and Guruji both made crystal clear sense. Lakshmana was going to be named successor. He would dwell on the ramifications of that later. What disturbed him now was Lakshmana. He knew his brother as well as the back of his hand, scarred with the whiplash from bowstrings. One look at him screamed that something was wrong. The official declaration should have made him feel betrayed, even if he had known to expect it. He should have been feeling confusion, fury, grief.

Lakshmana's face was acceptance, relief, and wistfulness. Rama's first reaction had been to go to his brother at once, to comfort him and reassure him of his place in the court. But both he and Bharatha had been drafted by their mothers, and for once found himself on the same side as his brother as he tried to convince his father that Sumitra did not deserve to welcome such an august personage as Vishwamitra, and he should instead -

And that was where it broke down. They were united on the point of replacing Sumitra, but not on the point of who should do it. The Queens were not fools, and they knew that it was imperative to get the king to agree to the replacement in the first place. Rama and Bharatha, on the other hand, had other ideas. They were quite happy to let Sumitra welcome the Hermit, even though they both suspected she did not much care for that honour. And so the brothers devolved into an old argument, one that both knew almost by heart. It began with Bharatha calling Rama the son of a stuck-up stick in the mud, and continued with Rama wondering how Bharatha knew words of more than one syllable in the first place, and things only got worse from there.

Rama knew that in their heart of hearts, both he and his brother enjoyed these verbal sparring matches. The words themselves were highly inflammatory, and neither of them meant what they were saying, but they enjoyed the thrust and parry, the rhythm that these arguments took. It was good to let loose, once in a while, and at least it stopped both his and his brother's mothers from saying the words themselves. As long as they had their sons to do it, any misspoken words could be attributed to the natural boisterousness of the sons of Dasaratha. And it would not do for the Queens of Ayodhya to be engaged in a mud slinging match, however private it might be.

Eventually the king had gotten tired of his sons shouting at each other, and dismissed all of them before retiring to his private chambers. Only then did Rama get the chance to go to Lakshmana, and confront him with what he had seen. But instead he met with a very different scenario. As he walked up the corridor to his brother's rooms, he heard shouts and angry footfalls. With his keen ears, he could almost visualise the scene unfolding.

'DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE SAYING? WHY WOULD YOU EVER ACCUSE MOTHER OF SOMETHING LIKE THAT?' That was Lakshmana. Rama had had the most experience with his brother's temper. He could imagine him now, leaning against the far wall, hands gesticulating wildly, eyebrows furrowed into harsh ridges. He looked like Father most when he was angry.

'I only ask you to consider the possibility! Is it so far out of the reach of logic? Am I mad, to speak of this? Why can you not see what Mother has done?' And that was Shatrughna, his low voice echoing out into the hall. He was the one pacing, his finger probably pointing at his brother, in the direction of their mother's chambers, up at the devas themselves. This was a conversation that Rama should not have been eavesdropping on, and yet he found himself unable to make his presence known, and unable to leave.

'I CANNOT SEE WHAT DOES NOT EXIST, LITTLE BROTHER!' Oh, he had done it now. Shatrughna hated being reminded that he was the smallest of the four, if only by three minutes. He would explode, and then Rama would have no choice but to enter the room.

But the explosion did not come. Almost shocked, Rama heard Shatrughna master his rage, and continue in the same tight tone he had been using so far. 'Really, Lakshmana? Try. Try very hard. You may be being handed the reins of the most powerful intelligence network of all the kingdoms, but I know the court. I have been involved in it ever since I discovered it for what it was. Have you heard the stories? Of how they speak of Father, and Rani Kausalya, and Rani Kaikeyi, and Mother? Of course not! You and Rama despise the court! You stay away from it even more than Rama does! We see neither hide nor hair of you for entire weeks! But some of us do not have that luxury, big brother. Some of us have to survive, and when you try to survive in the court, you hear things. Tell me, big brother. Does your appointment make sense?'

'Sense? This is the court of Ayodhya! Since when does anything make sense?' This had always been a sore point for Lakshmana. Even more than Rama or Bharatha, it was Lakshmana who resented the divisions in the court and their consequences.

'Well, let me explain it to you, big brother. We're not just any princes. We're princes of Ayodhya, of Kosala. Each of us will marry a princess from one of the great kingdoms, we'll become fathers to more children than we can count, and we'll be talked and gossiped about by everyone. This is the court that everyone dreams of coming to. This is where the words are sharpest. And trust me when I say no one, not even Mother, can survive without learning how to be ruthless.'

'There is a difference between being ruthless, and using your own sons as political capital, little brother! Mother is not -'

Rama knew his brother's temper, knew he was prone to putting his foot in his mouth, but Shatrughna was not like that. Everything Shatrughna said was considered carefully. Even if he said it in anger, he had thought it in a moment of peace.

'Not who, Lakshmana? Not Rani Kausalya? Not Rani Kaikeyi? They're all Queens of Ayodhya, big brother! This is not a coincidence!'

Rama could not believe his ears. Was this how they truly saw his mother, saw Rani Kaikeyi? As scheming mothers who would not hesitate to put their sons to use in their war? As ruthless women who could not look past their own squabbles to help the kingdom?

'Tell me, big brother. Why do you think I am so close to Bharatha? Are you and I not twins? Didn't we spend the first ten months of our lives with each other? And yet, aren't you closer to Rama than you are to me?'

Rama was shocked, not only by what Shatrughna seemed to be alleging, but also by Lakshmana's lack of response. Shatrughna was not the only one who had given a thought to this idea.

'You have no idea what you're saying.' Lakshmana hissed.

'Don't I? It's always been clear that the next king would be either Rama or Bharatha. You and I never stood a chance. Give Mother some credit! All she did was divide her resources efficiently. The minute we showed our preferences, she made sure we spent every minute of every day with the one we liked. It was impossible for us to bond with each other! And Mother's secured her place in the court. Whether the next king is Rama or Bharatha, either you or I will be right hand to the king, Mother will certainly be in a better position than she is now, and we will take care of each other.'

'You speak as if whoever does not become king will be exiled!'

'Ah, but that's what they will be, won't they? Either Rani Kaikeyi will go back to Kekeya, or Rani Kausalya will go back to Banglar, and I can't imagine that they won't take their sons with them. They will be exiled. Can you imagine Rama or Bharatha disobeying their mothers on this of all matters? If Mother was not the cleverest of the Queens, you would not have been made spymaster! You and I and Bharatha know that Rama would make the best king. So the logical move for Father to make would have been to make Bharatha spymaster. That would have ensured Rani Kaikeyi had no more pretensions to the throne, that Bharatha would never have a chance of becoming king, and would clear the path for Rama! Even if Father were blind, and thought that Bharatha would make a better king, he would have appointed Rama for the exact same reasons! You are spymaster for a reason, Lakshmana, and Mother is that reason!'

'SHUT UP! SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP! You have no idea what you're talking about! Spymaster isn't something they just throw at someone, Shatrughna, they choose their candidates with more care than that!' Rama's eyebrows rose at that. Lakshmana wouldn't say something like that unless he knew something, something he clearly wasn't willing to tell anyone, something that it sounded like he'd known for a long time.

'You and I both know that any one of us could be spymaster. Any one of us could be king. All of us have been trained for this. No one else expected it, but I would not have been surprised to leave that room to find you king and Rama spymaster under you. We're princes, and we're in the court of Ayodhya, and the sooner you understand that the better, big brother.'

Rama started, knowing that one way or another they had finished their argument, that Shatrughna was going to walk out that door. He walked purposefully towards his brother's outer room, and the door opened just as he was about to knock on it.

'Shatrughna! How is he? Is he alright? I got held up, what with Mother and Rani Kaikeyi being Mother and Rani Kaikeyi-' None of that was technically a lie, but perhaps it didn't convey the whole truth.

'He's not well, and I don't think you should go in to see him. In fact, he shouldn't see anyone for a while. He's got some things to think about, and so have I.' And with that, Shatrughna left his brother's room, his eyes as hard as tempered steel, his gait that of a man far older than Shatrughna's seventeen. And Rama stood there, unsure for the first time in a very long time of what to do and how to do it.

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it is very easy to imagine Rama as some sort of mini sherlock holmes, no? it is for me, anyway. perhaps his omniscience was merely due to the fact that he had very good logical skills. the science of deduction, as one consulting detective might put it.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ayodhya - Omake One

The Man With Three Eyes

Pranjal was called Triambakam, in his time. Triambakam, The Three Eyed One. It was a name for Shiva, the all-seeing, He Who Has An Eye In Each Of The Realms. While Shiva knew all that went on in Swargam, Bhulokam, and Patalam, Pranjal was content with omniscience over Kosala, Videha, and Kekeya. Not a sparrow took flight without word of it reaching the spymaster of Ayodhya. But Triambakam was also Shiva, the destroyer, He Who Possesses A Third Eye. Pranjal was a destroyer, but not in the direct fashion that Shiva favoured. He destroyed using lies, and rumours, and shadows. There was never any evidence that he or Ayodhya ever had anything to do with the several dozen assassinations that he'd recommended, or the five rebellions that he'd toppled. To catch his attention was to risk annihilation. But fear was not Shiva's only aspect. Triambakam also inspired respect. Why else would Ravana be a solemn devotee of Mahadev? And in turn, he respected everyone who showed themselves worthy of it, regardless of their previous associations. Why else would Shiva bless Ravana?

And so, right under the Sage's nose, Pranjal made deals with Ravana's spymaster. He traded secrets, improved on sketchy intelligence, gave away the locations of petty outposts for details about the armies of the southern kings, and while doing so his esteem for the cunning of the rakshasas began to eclipse his fear. Even as his king went to the aid of the Devas, he met personally with the Asuras, and plotted with them, and plotted against them. Their clandestine arrangement stopped only when his king had won a decisive victory, his enemies beaten back to their island kingdom.

In his spare time, he often wondered who his demonic counterpart was. He had received reports of a sect of brahmin rakshasas, ideal for infiltrating the kingdom, but they had never been seen leaving their home. Equally implausible was the idea that it was one of the hulking beasts that were the kumbha rakshasas who was avoiding him so deftly.

He would never find out that Ravana's spymaster was, in fact, his brother Kumbhakarna, the largest of them all. Even the gaze of The Three Eyed One could not pierce that veil, and it would be one secret he would not be privy to until he reached his grave.

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omake is japanese for extra, an aside to a story that has little to do with the main arc, but is useful to distract you while i try to get over my writer's block. this little bit is, inexplicably, my favourite of anything i've written in this series so far!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Ayodhya - Two

Noble

Shatrughna woke in the morning with a blinding headache. He groaned as he reached for the glass of milk that was normally by his bedside. The glass of milk that Lakshmana would set out for him, a gentle rebuke at being out so late and so drunk, combined with concern at his brother's predicament. Spending the best part of the day with Bharatha necessarily meant joining the Second Queen in whatever revel she had planned for that night. While Shatrughna drank his glass of milk and wondered what news the day would bring, one of his father's errand boys knocked on his outer door.

'My Prince, His Majesty wishes your presence in the throne room within the hour. He does not need you to be formal, merely presentable', he said in an emotionless voice. Of all the various staff in the court, it was the expertly trained pages for whom Shatrughna had a soft spot. It was they who had the unenviable role of rousting everyone in the palace when they overslept, they who delivered bad news that the king had no intention of relating in person, and they who had the least job security of all in the palace. More than a few of them had been fired by the king on a bad morning, and they'd never be allowed to work for him again.

He acknowledged the boy with a grunt, sent him off with a wave of his hand, and set about the task of looking, as his father had put it, presentable. Being a prince meant that presentable still consisted of more finery than most other nobles even owned, though only he and Bharata would be wearing so much. Rama and Lakshmana would follow the example of the First Queen, and wear simple clothes, and look more stunning in them than should have been possible. He grimaced, picked out the first things in his wardrobe, and tried to shake the last remnants of his hangover out of his system.

Forty minutes and a bath later, as he was walking towards the throne room, whistling a tune he was fairly sure was a Bhairavi, he came across his eldest brother.

'Shatrughna! Father's summoned you as well, has he?', he asked, in a tinkling voice that practically made you smile.

'Yes, though the boy he sent for me didn't bother to tell me why', Shatrughna replied.

'It's definitely some sort of important announcement, Mother was awake and ready for battle even before the boy came for us', Rama said, with the sort of irritated amusement only the four princes of Ayodhya would ever hear, let alone understand. Kausalya and Kaikeyi's political battles were the stuff of legend, and an actual physical meeting between the two of them would prove explosive.

'Well, I only hope I'm out of the room before the sparks start flying', Shatrughna said with a wry grin.

'Either you take me with you, or we're both stuck in that room!' Rama threatened, half-seriously, as they both turned the corner, nearly walking into Bharatha.

'You should watch where you're going, my prince.' Bharatha sneered. To all but the most experienced observers, it would seem that Bharatha held nothing but contempt for his elder brother. In reality, the two brothers loved and respected each other, but the ramifications of freely associating with each other were too dangerous for either of them to contemplate. They rarely dropped their guards, only doing so in the privacy of their chambers, when one or the other had been smuggled in under the cover of playing politics for the Queens.

'Well, perhaps I wouldn't need to if you weren't such a blundering oaf!' Rama replied, his face screwed up in a smirk of its own.

As this rather unkind banter continued, Shatrughna intervened, suggesting that they were getting late, and had best be on their way.

'Oh, you need not worry, little brother, I've been invited to this little get-together as well. Can't have the First Queen hog all the limelight, can we?'

The three of them continued down the hall, Bharatha and Shatrughna talking about the carousal that the Second Queen had held the previous night. As they reminded each other of details, and sometimes entire incidents, that the other had forgotten, they eventually reached the throne room.

The throne room itself was a grand affair, typical of any room in the palace that had survived the dozen wars that it had faced, with high vaulted ceilings and painted floors, a throne that could have seated several dozen lions comfortably and windows the size of murals. The First Queen was at her seat, on the left of the king, and the Second Queen had usurped the Chief Minister's seat on the right of the king. They were both glaring daggers at each other, though they spared a glance for their respective sons. At that moment both visages transformed from anger and frustration to looks of pure beauty. Sometimes Shatrughna entertained the notion that if Kausalya and Kaikeyi had ever gotten along, there would never had been a need for his mother to join the court.

Speaking of which, he looked around, wondering where his mother was. He spotted her a third of the hall down. While her sister-queens were extremely territorial about the places of power they occupied, his mother had always been content to remain where she was. Which was not to say she was weak. Third Queen of Ayodhya was still queen of all Ayodhya. She was deep in conversation with his last brother, Lakshmana, who looked unusually pale, and Guruji, who had an uncharacteristically grim expression on his face.

That was always a bad thing. Guruji always, always, always had a smile on his face, a kind word of advice, and a solution to every problem. He wondered what could be so important, that it had disturbed him so much. He glanced about the otherwise empty room, waiting for his father to start.

'Right!', the king said in his booming voice. 'Now that the rest of my sons are here, perhaps it is time to begin with my announcements. Before we start, I will make one thing clear. I will brook no interruptions to what I am about to say. My love for you may be the stuff of legends, but interrupt me, and you will have to deal with a very irate king.' Strangely, he was not looking at the First or Second Queens as he said this, both of whom were the most likely to blow up at any announcement he might make. Instead, he was looking straight at Mother. Quiet, demure Mother, who never got angry, certainly never with her husband and king, and certainly never where anyone else might see, who at that very moment was glaring venomously back at him.

This was very, very bad. What news could possibly induce this reaction in Mother, Guruji, and Lakshmana?

'I have two things to announce today. Firstly, I have received news that the great sage Vishwamitra will be gracing us with his presence in the near future- Let me finish!' he thundered

At the end of that first sentence, the First and Second Queens both starting speaking rapidly, hoping to secure the right to welcome their august guest before the other, but both stopped when it became apparent that the king was serious when he said he would not tolerate disruption.

'Vishwamitra will be arriving, and when he does, he will be welcomed by the Third Queen, Sumitra- THERE WILL BE NO ARGUMENT!' Strangely, while the First and Second Queens were horrified by this development, Mother did not look pleased in the least. She was still glaring daggers at Father, something that baffled Shatrughna to no end.

'Secondly, it appears that my spymaster, Pranjal, is no longer able to carry out his duties. It has now become imperative that I choose someone to replace him.' As he paused for breath, Shatrughna sneaked a glimpse at the faces of the rest of his family. Kausalya and Kaikeyi were both listening raptly, their faces too well trained to give away whatever they were feeling. Bharatha's face was puzzled, wondering what relevance this could have. Rama's face was also puzzled, but that expression was quickly replaced by one of understanding. He had always been the most perceptive of his brothers. Mother was still angry, though it was now tinged with grief, Guruji was determined, though for what Shatrughna didn't know, and Lakshamana, well, Lakshmana's pale face had gone tight for a moment, almost mirroring Rama's, before accepting his fate.

'After many weeks of careful deliberation, I have settled on his successor.' Shatrughna had a very bad feeling about this.

'It gives me great pride to announce that my son, Lakshmana, will now lead the intelligence corps of Ayodhya, and he will be guided in this endeavour by none other than our esteemed Guruji Vashista!'

Shatrughna felt his face go slack with shock, and he was sure Bharatha's face was doing the same. His brother, third-in-line to the throne of Ayodhya, son of Dasaratha and Sumitra, whom they'd always known to be capable of running several kingdoms blindfolded, was consigned to being a spymaster? It defied belief, and rationality, too.

In all the commotion, he never noticed the look on Lakshmana's face, not of shock or betrayal, but of dread and relief at the knowledge that the day he had been fearing for so many years had finally come.

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Shatrughna in the Ramayana is like Nakula and Sahadeva in the Mahabharata. You just don't hear enough about them in the simplified versions of the stories. You have to go digging around to find out things like apparently Sahadeva was a master astrologer and knew exactly what was going to happen in Kurukshetra. 

Ayodhya - One

Spy


The spy master of Ayodhya. That's what he was. Third son of the king, de facto second prince of Ayodhya, he had been roped into his duty before he had even turned seven.

Previous spy-masters had always been bastard sons (and in one very special case, a daughter) of the king. Their continued loyalty was ensured by a mix of the knowledge that while their half-siblings ruled, they would live in comfort, a tacit understanding that their children would somehow be inducted into the minor nobility of the court, and the blue sparks behind the Sage's eyes. The first lesson everyone in Ayodhya learned was not to say his name. To even think his name was to invite his attention, to say it was to court his wrath. While the royal line never saw that side of him, believed him to be a wise old man with a spring in his step and a piece of advice for all, it was a lie. Well, a half-lie. That side existed, no doubt. But there was also a side of the Sage only those in the darkness knew. The ruthlessness with which he would hunt down Asura sympathisers, the barely restrained rage in his eyes when the spy master came to him with a tidbit of information that he, with his mystical powers, had missed, the silky voice with which he made his threats to those who contemplated crossing him. Not that there were many of those, of course.

But while previous spy masters had always been bastards, that had not been possible with Dasaratha's progeny. The famed virility of Surya had not passed on to all of his descendants, it seemed. The king had had to marry thrice to finally sire heirs, and even then he begged for help from the Devas. The man had three titled wives, and only Vishnu knew how many concubines, and he was impotent. If it were not for the sheer amount of loyalty he inspired in his people, he would be a laughingstock.

The spy master knew these things. It was his job to know, to document any and all threats that the ordinary police force either could not or would not investigate, everything from the rumours that emerged from the king's kitchen to the price of rice in Gandahar. He was given free reign, as long as it did not harm the princes, and the royal line. This was neatly done away with, given that he was a prince, and part of the royal line. While others who had headed his organisation in the past had always been viewed with distrust, he could not have been. He was bonded to the heir in a way almost no one understood. Only now, in the dark of the night, behind all of his secret walls, in the most hidden chamber of the palace complex, only now would he contemplate the possibility that the unthinking, unblinking devotion he had for his brother was the Sage's doing. Why else would he have bonded with his half brother, and not his twin? He knew his twin almost as well as he did his heir. But why did he know his heir better? He had shared his womb with his twin, he had spent nine months with him even before they were ever born, and he had bonded with the heir.

He was sitting at his desk, studying the journals of previous masters. There were no details of conspiracies, of assassinations, in these journals. Those were just as important, but he had finished studying them for the night. These were merely day to day journals, of life in the castle as a bastard child, of how their children had learned to walk and talk, of how they would wield a bow and a sword. But even in those, there were hints of something deeper. And it always, always came back to the Sage. The Sage meddling in the education of their children. The Sage choosing their wives and their husbands. The Sage, the Sage, the Sage. Meddler and coercer, dealing in things he should have been too dead to interfere in. Gods-cursed fool!

He looked over the latest reports again, searching, hoping, yearning for a different conclusion. He shook his head. It was unavoidable. Vishwamitra was coming to Ayodhya. He had received reports of a puja being desecrated by Asuras, in the same forest that Vishwamitra was last seen in, nigh on four generations ago. The spymaster who had written it down had added a little note at the end, wondering how long it would be before he surfaced again. To anyone else, the unconnected possible sighting of an old man with a staff a couple of centuries ago, a faint chanting heard by travellers in the distance interrupted by screams, and the complete lack of reports from anywhere along the southern outposts would have implied a dozen other explanations. But he had grown up with a Sage, and he knew how they worked. He was not worried for the lives of his spies in the south, merely for their mental well-being.

Vishwamitra. He turned the name over in his mind. A simplistic interpretation of the name would mean He Who Was Friend To All The World. But dig a little deeper, let your mind twist and blur the meanings of the words, and you'd get He Whose Friend Is The World. A reference to the nature of the brotherhood to which he belonged, and his connection to Brahmadeva. And even deeper, you would get He Who Had A Friend Everywhere In The World. He smiled with grim satisfaction. Language had changed in the three millennia since the king became a hermit and discarded his old name for a new one, but it had not changed too much. The double and triple meanings of old high Sanskrit were always difficult to work out, but they were always there. At it's peak, Vishwamitra's spy organisation rivalled Ayodhya's own. Undoubtedly the king had known how it, and by extension spy networks in general, worked. Vishwamitra was no fool. He knew that the spymaster of Ayodhya would have noticed the pattern, would at least account for the possibility that he was headed their way. Ayodhya would be ready.

The next logical step, then, was to ask why. What aid could Ayodhya possibly offer a three thousand year old king-turned-monk? The Sage, that's what Ayodhya could offer. But despite begging for forgiveness, and being forgiven in turn, relations had never quite normalised between the two brahmins. And if he was only approaching to beg the Sage for aid or advice, he would never have alerted anyone who was watching. So then, he must want something only the king could offer. Military aid, perhaps? But the presence of too many kshatriyas would probably disrupt the balance of whatever delicate puja they were conducting. A cadre of elite warriors, then. Possibly headed by a lesser member of the Suryavansha line, one who had yet to prove himself in open combat. His half-cousin, Sharanyan, would do. Yes, he would recommend it to the Sage in the morning, along with the rest of his reports.

Vishwamitra did, however, inspire a sort of grudging respect in the spymaster. After all, it was he who had come the closest to toppling the Sage from his seat many millennia ago. It had also been Vishwamitra who put paid to the theory that it took complete control of one's emotions to become one of the Seven. Vishwamitra's emotions were famously prone to swinging from wrath to mirth and back again, even after his ascension to brahmarishi. The spymaster's personal theory was that all that it took to become a great yogi was sheer, bloody-minded determination. It just so happened that in the pursuit of such power, it was all one could do to hold on to one's will, let alone any of one's other emotions. This was probably also the reason for the attitudes of the Seven in general. The knowledge that they were, in fact, holier than you, and that they had laid eyes on one or more of the Three, and only six others in the world had the capacity to do so. If they were as lacking in emotion as they claimed, they would certainly not be as sanctimonious as they were in reality.

The spymaster stood up, his work for the night mostly completed. He had yet to finish reading some of the older journals, which had to be copied on to new paper with new ink. The first thing that a spy-master in training was told was the importance of maintaining these journals. They were the only thing remaining of the ones before him, who had spent their lives in the shadows, who would never be recognised.

Secure in the knowledge that the next week would the most interesting for many weeks to come, and that he could do absolutely nothing about it, he left his chamber, through passages and hidden doors opened by secret levers, and eventually made it back to his bedchamber. His absences in the middle of the night were never remarked upon, mostly because no one knew they ever happened. Perhaps his heir had an inkling, he knew his twin had wandered into his room once or twice, drunk, and fallen asleep without realising he was not in his own room. His father could not care less, still under the impression that it was his half-brother who ran the networks. His mother might know, he had never told a lie to her, merely never told her the whole truth.

And with that final thought, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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completely, totally, only slightly-ashamedly inspired by sharan. though i am more than slightly biased towards my namesake, much more than he is.