Nothing bored Lakshmana more than a puja. There was no rhyme or reason, it seemed, to what was done and when it was done, except that a long time ago someone had said ‘This is how it shall be done’. However, the Hermit insisted upon them, morning, noon, and night. Incense became his constant companion, its heady aroma clouding his mind. But it was in the middle of those pujas that Lakshmana gained the time to reflect on the journey so far, to think about the startling changes it had brought upon both him and his brother. While Lakshmana had become leaner and faster after each puja, Rama did not seem to have changed physically at all. It was almost as if he was perfect already, just waiting for the right moment to show it.
But something had changed. Rama was finally grasping whatever Vishwamitra as throwing at him. Far from perfect he might have been, but whatever solution he had found clearly worked for him. Rama always did have a knack for weaponry, his hands always quick to adapt to some new exotic implement someone had presented to Father. The darker part of Lakshmana’s mind knew it to be something much bloodier, that Rama’s hands would wreak terrible havoc upon any that threatened his kingdom, that nothing would stop him from defending Ayodhya.
Lakshmana, on the other hand, had still not found a way to manipulate the gods, as Rama seemed to be able to do. There was one way, but still the argument raged in his skull, in the quiet times he found. The day he had seen Yama, he was glad to be alive. But after that, when he had tried to see him again, that was truly terrifying. Death was everywhere, when you looked for it. Predators killed prey, and were preyed on themselves. And then he had appeared. The same man, dark as the midnight sky. When he had the time to observe him, he realised exactly who he reminded him of. His grandfather Aja had had the same grin Yama was wearing plastered on his face. His eyes were a deep russet red, his teeth impossibly white. In his hands he still held his weapons, his noose and his rod, but they were now at ease. The buffalo on which he was seated no longer shook its head, this way or that, but was content to remain still.
Nephew! You are in need of help, it seems. Well, I can give it to you, but I demand my price. And honestly, it will be one that you will not like. I’m not like Brahma, vulnerable to emotional blackmail. There is a monkey who is indestructible because of his weakness, you know. An indestructible monkey! What has the world come to? But I happen to have a reputation to maintain. If you want my help, I’m afraid you will have to work for it. The only reason I am here at all is because you finally gave me Tataki. She’s been avoiding me for centuries. Do you have any idea how many times she was nearly killed? NEARLY! Who cares for nearly when they’re still alive at the end of it? But no matter, she is with me now. So, you would like dominion over the Devas, eh?
Lakshmana had remained far more composed that he’d thought he would, for he’d thought that seeing a god would cause some sort of fainting spell, at the very least.
Of course you do, you’re a kshatriya, after all. Red-blooded and eager for battle and all that. Well. Here’s what I can do for you. I can ask a few friends of mine for their secrets. They all come to me eventually. I’m sure there is a Raghava somewhere who’s had the same problem you’ve had. So he’ll tell me, and I’ll tell you. Simple.
But in return, you have to do me a favour. There are certain individuals spread across Bhulokam, ones that are not unlike Tataki. They refuse to die, because of one boon or another. Now, I can’t directly interfere in the affairs of another god, and I wouldn’t dare! Yama’s grin grew positively evil at this. However, their husbands and wives and children are another matter entirely. And if there were one person who could tell me the whereabouts of a man who hasn’t been seen in centuries, whose appearance seems to change by the decade, well, it would be the spymaster of Ayodhya, wouldn’t it?
Lakshmana’s face had frozen, then. Yama was asking for information on total innocents, for nothing more than a grudge!
Oh dear, it seems I’ve struck a nerve, have I? Don’t forget, young kshatriya, I come for all of you, in the end. And they will be well taken care of. The balance demands it. If they’ve done nothing wrong, I can do no wrong to them. They’ll live like lords in Patalam, completely under my care. Yama’s voice, if it could be called that, seemed to harden. Their relatives up above, on the other hand, well. Perhaps they shall learn that immortality is not as sweet as it seems. And then it lightened again, the pressure that had been building in Lakshmana’s skull mercifully receding. Tell you what, I’ll not even ask you for all of them. Just give me the whereabouts of two of them. Mahabali, once the king of Asuras, and Markandeya, rishi and devotee of Shiva. I’m even fairly sure the Hermit over there knows where Markandeya is. Promise me information on the king and the brahmin, and I will give you control over the Devas.
Think on it, young kshatriya. I have all the time in the world. The question is, do you?
And he had been right. Lakshmana was running out of time, their destination growing ever closer, and while Rama was working double-time to make up for the hours he had lost, Lakshmana was still floundering in the darkness, searching for the right answer.
‘Is there something troubling you, Lakshmana?’ the Hermit said, breaking him out of his reverie. It seemed he had gone through the entire puja, making all of the relevant motions and repeating all the necessary hymns without paying any attention whatsoever.
‘Nothing, Guruji, just a minor philosophical conundrum that I have been grappling with for the past few days’ Lakshmana replied, hoping that the Hermit would be in one of his rare good moods.
‘I hope I am not boring you with my instruction, am I? After all, if you have time to think about minor philosophical conundrums, clearly I am not doing enough to occupy your mind!’ Some hopes were always in vain, it seemed.
‘Of course not Guruji, I apologise for my distraction. It will not happen again.’ He replied smoothly, hoping against hope that the Hermit would leave it at that.
‘Well, if this distraction is so important, why don’t you share it with the rest of us, then?’ Sometimes Lakshmana wondered why the word hope even existed.
‘Yes Guruji. I was merely wondering whether it was acceptable to sacrifice the freedoms and lives of a few innocents so that a greater purpose might be served, and if so, how far should one be willing to compromise one’s principles before it became too far?’ There. He hadn’t even lied about his problem.
The Hermit grinned, an action completely dissonant with his behaviour for the last week or so. Perhaps hope did come through, occasionally.
‘That is neither minor nor a conundrum, my young disciple! What we have here is nothing less than a philosophical debate that has raged since the birth of man. Your own Guru Vashishta and I have been on opposite sides of this debate many times. Suffice it to say that I personally believe that everyone sacrifices something, sooner or later, and it is better to do it for some purpose than for no purpose at all. It is a harsh truth, but valid nonetheless. Everything has a cost, but what truly determines it is whether you remember that cost, or forget the value you once placed on your sacrifices. There is no greater sin than to ignore the burdens you have placed on others so that everyone might live a better life.’
‘But enough of that! I expect you to apply yourself once more to the task at hand, Lakshmana. Time is running out for all of us. We shall be at the puja grounds within three days, and all of us must be ready.’ And with that, he walked away from Lakshmana, to where his brother was meditating on his latest astra. He would not put it past the heir to have listened in to every word of that conversation despite being on the other side of the clearing, and would not have it any other way.
Lakshmana’s face turned stony for a moment, but he accepted the truth of the Hermit’s words. If the kingdom were to prosper, the only way to do it would be to accept Yama’s help, and the strings that came with it. After all, one did not become immortal without some degree of cunning. He had no doubt that Markandeya and Mahabali had other means of fighting Death. Any information that he might give Yama would only be one piece of a giant puzzle, and would certainly not be very reliable.
His decision made, his resolve strengthened, he turned towards the fire, ready to turn in for the night. In the distance, he saw a dark man with a grim smile on his face, and just for a moment he looked like exactly like Lakshmana.
bala and atibala, the twin power of the astras of the gods. now that both of our heroes have some semblance of power, maybe it's finally time for some action!