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.
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.