Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Terrible Oath

1

The nation greeted Vrath with great warmth and approval. The Burnt Empire regarded its liege as nothing less than a demi-god; in a sense, this was not far from the truth: Whether or not the Krushan dynasty was in fact born of stonefire, they were certainly something more than human. In the Krushan tongue, which was the official language of the capitol Hastinaga and the rest of the Empire, there was no word for “lie” or “falsehood.” If Emperor Sha’ant spoke words, they were the truth, plain and simple. They had never had reason to assume it was anything but.

Their gullibility notwithstanding, they were in fact told the truth: that Vrath was the son of their late Queen, that she had had to leave them unexpectedly before delivering him, and his nurture and education had been accomplished by the most renowned sages possible. Now that he was of age, he had returned to aid his father in administering to the needs of the kingdom.

And for those few political foxes and disgruntled allies (adept at concealing their disgruntlement while biding their time for an opportunity to strike, like cobras lurking in the shadows), there was the Test of Fire to prove or disprove any doubts.

The Burning Throne received Vrath with no less warmth and acceptance.

The great black stonefire-carved edifice blazed forth ropes of living flame, embracing Vrath’s magnificent form, entwining sensuously, sinuously around his muscled limbs and chiselled features, like fire dancers performing a body dance that would cause any person, male or female, to achieve ecstasy. As it drew him upon its fire-hewn, throne-shaped form, the sorcerous flames blazed up blindingly high, higher even than they had for Sha’ant himself decades earlier. The stonefire roared deafeningly for a long time, causing the all-too mortal spectators to perspire and remember their own lack of Krushan immortality, and its legion of voices spoke in tongues alien and unheard on Arthaloka in recorded history, as if discussing and debating the myriad merits of its newest occupant.

When the flames died down, reluctantly it would seem, revealing Vrath seated imperiously upon the Burning Throne, not a hair on his handsome head singed, nor a blemish on his flawless skin, his eyes open and as glacial as the ice crown that capped Mount Coldheart, any doubters were forced to bite their tongues and question their disloyalties, if any, to the great Burnt Empire. For none could doubt that not only was this new heir apparent a true Krushan, but that he was something exceptional even amongst an extraordinary lineage.

Even so, Sha’ant wisely waited a respectable amount of time before officially announcing Vrath as his heir apparent. He was a popular liege, perhaps the most popular of his line until now, and the people would need time to accept anyone else in his place, even if that person were the most worthy Krushan since the eponymous founder of the dynasty. During this period, the young prince won hearts and dazzled even the most skeptical minds with his natural boyish charm, incredible mastery of weapons, and unmatched valor. Soon, there seemed to be nothing Vrath could not do, and with the charm, grace, and gentle manner of all truly great men.

2

By the time Sha’ant installed him as crown prince and Vrath became Prince Vrath, he was already the most beloved crown prince to grace Hastinaga. In four short years, the young boy Sha’ant had encountered by the river had grown to become an admirable young man. His innocence had been honed away through exposure to the daily politics of statecraft, replaced by a canny understanding and insight into human nature and ambition.

Yet he never succumbed to shrewdness, grew wily, or resorted to manipulations in order to have his way. He proved himself a much more resourceful player than all those who stooped to such petty trickery. He was a master of the art of kingship and his natural innocence and boyish charms belied a keen and insightful knowledge of every aspect of governance. He routinely shocked opponents by turning the tables on them just when they were certain of success, or thwarting their designs by the simplest and most obvious of methods.

Even in his moments of triumph, he never rubbed salt in their wounds or pressed their noses into the foulness of their mistakes, choosing instead to smile with a twinkle in his eye and a friendly pat on the back. This won over more rivals and opponents than outright conflict, and in time, even those who had resented him the most began to ease their efforts to unseat him or thwart him, choosing instead to become allies and benefit from his rise and governance.

Many became his disciples in all but name, studying his canny moves and choices, marveling at the way he handled delicate matters, learning his methods—yet even they came to realize in time that his store of wisdom was far deeper than they could fathom in one lifetime. He had no set methods or approach; it was as if he knew precisely how to deal with each individual problem on its own merits. The only thing they truly learned from him was that they could never govern as wisely as he did.

In four years, everyone who knew him came to love, respect, admire, and rely on Vrath. Even those who hated him grudgingly accepted his superiority and allied with him for their own benefit, little realizing that it was he who was wise enough to let them stay alive and in power so that he might know, monitor, and control his enemies.

Even at that tender age—he appeared to be twenty-something in physical years—he was already wise enough to know that a powerful king always had enemies. It was best to keep them close to oneself and watch them closely, rather than foolishly waste one’s efforts constantly battling and chasing after them. This way, it was in his enemies’ interest to see Hastinaga prosper and the Krushan empire grow in strength and wealth, so that someday, when the time was right, they could reap the rewards of decades of sowing.

Sha’ant watched with constant amazement as his son took over the reins of kingship so effortlessly that it soon seemed as if Vrath had always ruled and always would. He was like a force of nature: immutable, constant, dependable, perfect in his judgement and knowledge, just in his choices, merciful in his sentencing, and wise beyond measure in his foresights and foreknowledge.

Even Sha’ant found himself learning from him rather than teaching him. He recalled Jeel’s words that their son had been well schooled by the greatest of gurus and he marveled at how much had been taught to the young man in so short a time. He had no way of knowing, of course, that Vrath had spent not merely fifteen years in study but fifteen hundred—for in the ocean of stories, time flowed at a different pace and his young son had imbibed all the collective knowledge of all the Krushan people and all the Krushan kings of his line, learned from their mistakes and successes, and gained wisdom that no ordinary mortal could ever hope to acquire in one lifetime.

There were many advantages to being the son of a goddess and the reincarnation of a demi-god; this was one of them.

The other great advantage was his prowess at war. In a sense, it was this formidable ability, coupled with his keen political acumen, that forced his enemies to resort to quietude and alliance to survive.

For Vrath could not be beaten in battle. This premise was tested frequently at first, then rarely, then almost never, for there comes a time when such a man’s fame itself becomes his most powerful weapon. Any challenger to Krushan dominance had only to be told the single word—“Vrath”—and he would pale and put down his weapon and go home to his cookfire. For the whole wide world soon came to know that the son of Sha’ant could not be bested in any form of combat: single, melee, or pitched battle. Or for that matter, in the use of any weapon.

Still, there were some who were foolish enough to test this reputation. They rarely survived long enough to realize their own folly.

After four years had passed, Sha’ant was satisfied that his son’s kingship and governance was secure and would endure even without his presence. Indeed, he had deliberately chosen to take a subservient role and let Vrath take on more power and responsibility with each passing year. He began to withdraw from the daily tasks of a king and to prepare for an early retirement.

Yet he was still too young to go into the forest and spend the rest of his life pursuing austerities. As his responsibilities decreased and his mind had more time to turn to other matters, the loneliness that had engulfed him those many years ago returned, gradually at first, then with an overwhelming rush that threatened to overpower and incapacitate him. The very sight and sound of Vrath reminded him constantly of his lost love. He loved his son dearly, but that intense love only made him long for his wife all the more. He frequently lamented the fact that they could not be together as one united family, enjoying one another’s company and love. But he also once more longed for a woman to love and be loved by. For having known true love once, the heart can never truly accept the solitary state as anything but a lesser condition.

In time he ceased his visits to the riverside that he had loved for so long. He had accepted the cruel sentence to which fate had condemned him and knew that his beloved Jeel could never return to him. Seeing her watery aspect, however remote that might seem from the living, breathing flesh-and-blood woman he had long ago held in his arms, kissed and loved, only served to aggravate his heartache.

Sha’ant took to travelling by different routes, hunting in different forests. Since being within reach of a river was essential and inevitable on his travels, he made sure that it was any river but the Jeel. Little did he realize that all rivers are sisters and Jeel watched over him no matter where he went, whether through her sister Yamuna or others, and not a day went by when she did not miss him as much as he missed her.

If anything, her heartache was greater, for she could see him anytime she wished and so she was constantly reminded of the love and companionship she had lost forever.

3

It was while walking by the Ye’al that the course of Sha’ant’s life took another turn.

Listless and unable to enjoy the pleasure of the hunt as he once had, he was wandering the banks of the river, lost in his own thoughts, when suddenly he grew aware of an exceptionally sweet floral fragrance that enveloped him on all sides. The sweetness of the odor was all the more remarkable because it was not the season for such aromatic flowers to blossom, and try as he might, he could find none in sight.

Using the same skills that served him so well as a hunter, he tracked the fragrance to its source. When he saw a boat pulled up by the bank and a woman seated within it, an oar in hand, he was struck by her beauty. She rose at the sight of the stranger, assuming him to be a potential passenger. He stood before her, staring unabashedly, unable to believe that she was the source of the powerful aroma. Embarrassed by his stare, she lowered her eyelashes demurely and waited for him to board her boat.

Understanding that she was a ferrywoman, Sha’ant climbed aboard her craft. She reached out a hand to help him aboard, and as she touched him, he felt his skin ignite with a fiery sensation he had never felt before. He jerked back his hand, seating himself heavily and setting the boat sloshing to and fro. The woman steadied it with the use of the oar, her shoulders and arms displaying considerable strength coupled with feminine grace. He could not help but watch her back and shoulder muscles move as she worked the oars, turning the head of the boat around to push it off shore.

As she rowed, Sha’ant was taken by the way her physical beauty and aromatic odor captivated him, and the intelligence and intuitiveness he glimpsed in her eyes caused him to respect her as well. He could not recall the last time he had been so overwhelmed by a woman. Except, of course, for his beloved Jeel herself. He was simultaneously surprised and a little guilty at the passion he found stirring within him and attempted to look away, staring out across the river as they commenced the long, slow crossing.

The tide was relentless if steady and it took considerable skill and effort as well as a keen knowledge of the currents for the woman to steer and row the boat in a reasonably straight line across the river. Lesser boatmen would have offloaded their fare half a mile downriver, given the width of the river and the strength of the current. In that he found another reason to desire her, for he admired great prowess in any person, no matter their varna or vocation. He could see that she was no mere beauty, but was a master of her craft as well.

Still, being a king and a widower in the eyes of society—for to all intents and purposes the woman he had wedded no longer existed in mortal form, so what else would he call himself but widower, or Vidhur, to use the ashcrit word—it would not be right for him to simply throw himself at a strange woman. She could be already married and perhaps even a mother for all he knew. Another complication was that so firmly had he put all thoughts of ever loving or marrying again out of his mind that it was difficult to even contemplate the thought of broaching the matter.

But the heart wants what the heart wants, and by the time the beautiful ferrywoman had rowed Sha’ant across the river to the far bank of the Yamuna, he could not bear to leave her company without at least speaking with her briefly. His opportunity arose when she brought the boat to rest on the south bank and waited quietly for him to disembark, keeping her eyes lowered to the rippling wash.

“How much do I owe you, beautiful lady?” he asked.

She started at his words. This pleased him, for it indicated that she had not become cynical about or inured to such compliments; with her extraordinary beauty, that could only mean that she was too young to have met many men, for he had no doubt that were she to go out into the world, there would be a rainstorm of such compliments showered down upon her daily. But then she spoke and her voice, too, thrilled him, sending a flurry of unwanted emotions surging through his being like a sudden flux of the current under the surface of the river.

“I am but a fisherman’s daughter, sire,” she said. “You may pay me what you can. My father says that it is our Krushan duty to help those who wish to cross and how can one put a price on duty?”

He was pleased at this response. It indicated good manners and learning. But that voice! And that beauty. It was beyond his tolerance to now ignore how he felt.

Yet he was a king and kings did not carry coin or items of trade, so he had naught to pay her with. He tugged off the first ring that came to hand and held it out to her.

The woman was demure and innocent enough that she accepted it without a glance. But as her palm opened to receive the payment, he enfolded her hand in his own, tightly. She gasped at the sudden contact and her eyes instantly went to his face . . . and as her beautiful dark eyes stared into his own, he felt a rush of pleasure such as he had not experienced since—since far too long.

His entire body felt as if ablaze, his skin tingling from the contact of their open palms. He had never known any woman whose scent alone could provoke such feelings in him. The way her back arched, her lips parted, her dark skin and coal-black complexion, her dusky aspect and perfectly shaped features, her musical voice . . . everything about her pleased him greatly. He knew then and there that if he were to ever find happiness again with any woman, it would be with her. He might search the world over and not find another like her. She could never replace his Jeel—no woman could. New loves do not replace old ones but only add to the layers of heart-knowledge by nourishing that essential muscle with new affections.

“My lord,” she said, “why do you take my hand thus? What is it you desire?”

He looked into her eyes and inhaled her anxiety and her excitement, and saw that there were indications of interest in her as well. She was flushed and blushing, a thin layer of sweat had appeared on her upper lip, and her body was arched towards his.

“I desire you, lady,” he said gently, unable to stop himself. “I would have you row me through the journey of life.”

She stared at him for a moment, then understanding dawned. Now she blushed even more profusely and he was thrilled to see the change in hue of her dark complexion as her excitement showed itself. Yes, she was not disgusted or dismayed by his proposal; she was intrigued . . . or perhaps even aroused.

She dropped her gaze to the river again, her free hand remaining on the oar, holding the boat in place, and it would occur to Sha’ant later that any fisherman’s daughter strong enough to row a boat across the Yamuna at one of its widest points could surely have struck him down and beaten down his advances with that same oar had she desired. There was no doubt at all about it: She chose to let her hand—and possibly her heart—be captured by Sha’ant.

“I cannot speak of such things, sire,” she said, keeping her eyes averted from his face. “You must speak to my father if you have such intentions.”

He nodded. “Very well then. Tell me your name and your father’s name that I may do so.”

She glanced up at him in shock. “You have only known me a short hour!”

“And I now wish to know you for the rest of my days.”

Her throat worked as she stared at him a moment longer, wide-eyed. She seemed to see something in his intensity and determination that had a profound effect on her and looked down again, but not before smiling briefly up at him: the smile of a woman who has just been paid the highest compliment and is overwhelmed with delight.

“I was born Kali but came to be called Jilana,” she said softly, her voice a lyric song pitched against the Yamuna’s background chorales. “My father is the chief of the Manchodri fishermen.”

Sha’ant frowned. “Manchodri . . .”

“It is the region known by the name Riverside to travelers.”

He nodded. He knew the territory of which she spoke—it was a patch of forested land on the vast north-central plain through which the Yamuna mysteriously chose to take a westward turn, doubling back upon its own course for reasons that none had been able to fathom. It was taken as one of many such signs marking the greatness of the Krushan empire, for it was one of several borders that marked the limits of the territories won by his ancestor King Sha’ard in the legendary and crucial Battle of Eleven Nations which first established the race of people descended of Krushan upon this mortal realm of Arthaloka. The bend in the river, if imagined from a bird’s eye view—or god’s eye view, if one wished—could be interpreted as a finger pointing to Hastinaga, the seat of the Krushan dynasty. The part of the river Jilana described was in that same region.

She looked up at him bashfully again, and he saw her gaze flit across his person from head to toe, taking in his attire, his jewels, his bow and quiver, seeing him with a frank curiosity he found refreshingly direct. “Clearly, you are a great lord, sire.”

He smiled. “I asked your name and about your father. You have every right to ask mine as well.”

She smiled and kept her eyes lowered to the level of his chest, saying nothing.

“I am Emperor Sha’ant, son of Shapaar, lord of the Krushan.”

Her eyes widened but her gaze remained fixed on his chest. “Emperor of the Krushan,” she said, wonderingly, “Master of Hastinaga.”

He bowed his head. “Hastinaga, Nagapura, Krushan kshetra, Krushan rajya, Krushan-varsha . . . call it what you will.”

And he raised her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. He kept his lips parted and moist, tasting her hand as much as kissing it.

She gasped with pleasure, as if he had put his open mouth upon her body, not merely her palm.

“I am eternally your servant,” he said.

Her gaze shot up to his face, her eyes startled, yet still displaying signs of obvious pleasure. “Nay, my lord,” she said, “I am but a humble fisherman’s daughter. You are the greatest emperor of our age. It is I who will be always in your service.”

He shook his head. “You do not know me yet, Jilana. Once you come to know me well, you shall understand that love is the greatest kingdom of all, and she who rules the kingdom of love is the most powerful emperor. I have given my heart in tribute to you, and now it remains only for your father to accept my offer, and put me in eternal loving subjugation to you.”

She stared at him directly, her breathing hastened, her face flushed. Drops of perspiration were visible on her bare shoulders and upper chest.

Sha’ant kissed her palm again, then released her hand at last. “I now take your leave,” he said. “I shall go to your father in state and ask for your hand in marriage. Then I shall bring you to Hastinaga where you shall rule as the empress of my heart, queen of my nation, and mistress of my race.”

His heart sang as he walked along the bank of the Yamuna and it was all he could do to not dance and sing in joy, for it felt as if a great cloud that had been lurking over his head for years had at long last dissipated, permitting the sun to once again shine down on him and bathe him in its golden warmth. All he desired now was to return home and arrange for an entourage to visit Jilana’s father with due pomp and ceremony as soon as realistically possible.

It took him the better part of an hour of brisk walking before he realized he was on the wrong side of the river and he would now have to travel miles out of his way to return home.

4

Jilana heard a commotion outside her home and knew it must have something to do with her suitor Sha’ant.

She had made an excuse to be let off ferry duty for a few days and had stayed home, rarely venturing away, in anticipation of Sha’ant’s arrival. Her father had found this odd, since Jilana hated being cloistered at home and was always out and about when she was not ferrying. His concern for her behavior manifested itself in various puzzled glances and sounds of curiosity, but since she made no move to explain herself, he did not press her further. But now, when the entire fishing village of Riverside seemed to be in an uproar, she knew her patience had been rewarded. Her suitor had come as he had promised!

Several people burst into her house, chattering excitedly. “Chief!” they called to her father. “The great emperor himself comes to grace your house! He has come with a fabulous procession, in full state and finery!”

“Chariots!” cried another man.

“Elephants!” someone else said.

“Jeweled crowns!”

“Soldiers, on horses, in fine uniforms!”

“Banners and flags on lances!”

And from the sounds of the conch shells, elephants lowing and horses neighing and clip-clopping, it was evident that the procession had now arrived at the doorstep of the chief.

Her father shushed his people and told them to make way if the great lord wished to enter. Then he glanced at Jilana, frowning as if wondering whether this unexpected event had something to do with her being at home.

She blushed and looked away.

When she glanced back again, he was grinning shrewdly, a knowing look on his face. He nodded to her, still grinning, and twirled his moustaches as if to say: I knew it! I knew you were hiding some secret! She blinked her eyes at him affectionately and smiled back.

Then the royal crier was at the door, calling out the name and titles of the visiting royal, while soldiers clattered into the house and formed a corridor for their liege to walk through safely. Her friends and neighbors and relatives all stared and gawked between the soldier’s raised spears and swords, even bending to peek under their armpits for a better look.

Nothing such as this had ever happened in Riverside. A king! Visiting here! The emperor of the Krushan empire, no less. The air was electric with excitement, like the crisp air on the high mountains before a thunderstorm, just before lightning began to fall from the sky.

The sight of Sha’ant took her breath away. The day she had met him, she had been vaguely aware that he must be someone important but she had never dreamed he could be a king, let alone the king of all kings. On that day, he had been bedraggled from long travel, and listless, and she had thought him to be nothing more than a rich nobleman fallen on hard times. After all, why would a king—let alone the emperor of all Krushan—be wandering through that remote region alone?

She was still curious to know the reason, but it hardly mattered now. What was important was the way she had felt when he had expressed his desire for her. She was familiar with arrogant male lust and it always revolted her. In Sha’ant, she had seen something else: respect for her, the kind of respect that came from genuine love.

His words, his manner, his gestures, the way he had taken her hand, the way he had kissed it . . . she had felt a sense of something impossible. Something she had never expected to feel in her life. To be loved so madly and by a great emperor? It was hardly the fate in store for every fisherman’s daughter!

Yet it also felt perfectly right. As if it was meant to be. She had felt her own being stir when he held her hand and they exchanged glances. She could love this man. She could bear his children. She could see herself spending her life with him. She knew these things implicitly even having spent no more than a brief time with him, most of it spent in silence as she rowed him across the river. A few such moments can be worth an entire lifetime. Most lifetimes pass by without a single such moment. And Jilana felt she well enough knew Sha’ant’s heart and her own feelings for him to stake her life on this union. The rest was a gift from the gods.

She watched as the initial formalities between her suitor and her father dragged on with excruciating slowness. The visit of a king could not be treated like that of a neighbor dropping by for a drink of local brew. As chief of the fishermen, her father had to show respect for the king of the land, but also display his own status, too.

The formalities went on for what felt like ages. Finally, when the time came to speak of the things that truly mattered, Sha’ant and her father went into her father’s inner chamber and spoke privately. Jilana waited in agonizing anxiety. She had no doubt her father would agree to the match—why would a fisherman refuse a king as a son-in-law? But she still feared some hitch, something unexpected. After all, surely it could not be this simple? That a king would appear one day, fall instantly in love with her, and ask her father for her hand in marriage?

Why not, she asked, defiantly. Even fairy tales and legends grew out of some truth. Reality did not always have to be harsh and unforgiving.

But there was a secret dread in her heart that she could not dispel.

It was the knowledge of her own indiscretion. She had cohabited with a man, had borne his child. She was a mother. It did not matter if nobody else knew or could ever know—it did not matter if her virginity had been restored and her body returned to its virginal state in every respect, as if her womb had never been filled with child, her hips had never parted to birth a babe. She knew. That was all that mattered.

And though she knew that what had happened was more in the nature of a supernatural aberration than a typical everyday occurrence, she nevertheless felt guilt over it. She had mated with another man. She had experienced the bliss of physical union. She had watched her own belly swell with child then undergone the wonderful trauma of birth. She had held her newborn babe in her arms, slippery and beautiful. Whatever else had occurred, however bizarre and extraordinary, was beside the point. These things had really happened. She could never change that fact. Even the power of stonefire could not undo her memories, her feelings, her experiences.

That guilt made her fear that perhaps, just maybe, she did not deserve to be loved by such a man—not without him knowing the truth about her past . . . and naturally, she could never tell him that truth. For regardless of how much he loved her, it would change everything. She would not be what he had perceived her to be; she had kept a great thing secret, and that act of secrecy was what made her feel shame.

And yet.

Keeping that secret was the only reason the king of Hastinaga was in her house now, asking her father for her hand in marriage.

And as for the question of her deserving this . . . yes, she decided, she did deserve it. For whatever had happened in the past, she was genuinely attracted to Sha’ant, genuinely felt a powerful connection. Surely he, too, must have experienced love before now. She knew he had been married, had a son, and there were mysterious rumors surrounding the late Queen’s demise in childbirth. Something scandalous that no one knew about fully. So he was no virginal innocent either. He must have his secrets, too.

If he loves me and I love him then that is all that matters, she reasoned. Today we begin our life together. And it is our life together that matters.

She smiled, straightening her head, releasing the dread that had been clouding her heart at unexpected moments these past days as she waited.

We all deserve love. No matter what went before, no matter what might come later. Today belongs to us, today we stand naked and true before one another, and today is all that matters.

Jilana waited for Sha’ant to emerge and for her new life to begin.

5

Sha’ant liked Riverside—both the town and the chief himself, for the chief shared a name with the community he led. He was a man rarely seen in royal circles. A man unconcerned with appearances and protocol beyond the bare necessity required for social nicety. His oiled moustaches, bulging belly, hairy chest, and arms unabashedly exposed in his simple fisherman’s vastras, the simplicity of his house and belongings, all represented a man who was exactly what he appeared to be. Honest, hard-working, tough yet soft-hearted, fair, decent, and a servant of Krushan in his own right.

Such men were the backbone of a nation. Nobles postured; traders cared only for profit; soldiers protected and expanded the borders; priests guarded the precious light of learning—but it was men like Riverside who did the work that actually enabled a nation to prosper, grow and progress. Farmers, fishermen, workers. They built, maintained, fed and clothed their fellow people. Citizens. Praj.

It made Sha’ant proud to be Prajti, lord of the people, when the people he ruled were of the mettle of Riverside. Even Riverside’s name, simply an appellation referring to the region and tribe he administered to, was a demonstration of his true nature. The individual man and the chief of the people who worked alongside them daily were one and the same.

When Sha’ant spoke to him, he felt as if he were speaking to all of Riverside . . . and as if all of Riverside listened. That might have something to do with the fact that the whole population of the region was gathered outside the Chief’s house, waiting eagerly to know why the King of the Krushan was paying a visit to their humble village. But it was also indicative of the grassroots power such men possessed. They were of the land, and like their region’s copious fruit-bearing trees, they and the land grew and prospered—or fell—together.

Presently, Sha’ant was eagerly waiting for Riverside to agree to his proposal. The chief had listened with an impassive face, his broad, coarse features displaying no clear emotion. Now he was stroking and twirling his moustaches, a gesture Sha’ant was familiar with. From the odor in the room, it was evident the chief used fish oil to lubricate and maintain his considerable facial hair, but the stench of fish did not bother Sha’ant overmuch; not when the sweet, unmistakable fragrance of Jilana wafted in. River Lily she had been dubbed because of her unusual sweet odor. And that fragrance overpowered all the fish smell in this entire village. But even had it not, it would take far, far more than the stench of fish to dissuade Sha’ant; indeed, he thought there was nothing that could.

Yet there was something in the chief’s manner, the heavy-lidded gaze with which he observed the emperor, the way he kept sighing again and again made Sha’ant feel a curious foreboding. Sha’ant typically had a good instinct for how his proposals or ideas would be received, the result of a lifetime spent in political deal-making, yet he sensed that, for reasons he could not fathom, his proposal was about to be rejected. Impossible though it seemed, a fisherman was about to refuse a king as a son-in-law.

In a sense, he was right as well as wrong.

“Lord of the Krushan,” said Riverside in a rough voice, “I am a simple man of plain mind. Therefore forgive me for speaking plainly.”

Sha’ant said nothing but dipped his chin in acknowledgement.

“What father would not want you for a son-in-law?” Riverside said, gesturing as if to indicate the whole world. “It would be a father’s dream to see his daughter marry such as you.”

And yet . . . The caution was implicit in his tone. Sha’ant waited with pounding heart and sweating palms. He had never felt so anxious in his entire life, not even before major strategic battles. Yet here he was in a fisherman’s hut, waiting on the man’s next words as if his life depended on it. And it does, he thought, for I must have Jilana; she is the only chance I have to find love and hope and happiness again in life.

“I would be proud to call myself your father-in-law,” the fisher king said. “You know this and I know this; the whole world knows this, for it is sense. All I ask is that you pledge one thing to me. If you pledge this thing, you may marry my daughter at this very moment, if you so desire. I shall bless both of you with all my heart; I shall even throw a lavish wedding that all of Riverside will recall for a hundred years.” He paused, thinking as he stroked his oiled beard into curls. “Perhaps not lavish by Hastinaga standards. But the most lavish that this little hamlet has ever seen or will see again. I will see to it that nothing and no one prevents you and my daughter from spending the rest of your lives together in blissful harmony—”

“Speak then,” Sha’ant said, almost stepping on the Chief’s last words. “I am a direct man, too. But I cannot pledge something unless I know what it is. Name your condition and I shall grant it if it is within my means.” Now it was his turn to pause thoughtfully, “And as you can well imagine, there is little in this world that is not within my means to possess, gift, or grant.”

Riverside nodded, looking oddly glum. “Yet the condition I am about to pose may not prove as easy to grant, especially for a Krushan.”

Sha’ant smiled with complete confidence. “You have but to ask and it shall be given. Name your condition.”

Riverside sighed. “Her son.”

Sha’ant frowned. “Her son?”

“Her son by you. Whenever a son is born to the both of you.”

Sha’ant felt a glimmer of hope. “Then you consent to our marriage?”

“On condition that as and when she bears you a son—”

“Yes?” Sha’ant leaned forward, eager now, anxious, a spark of joy igniting in his heart. “When we have a son, yes . . .?”

“You must pledge that he and he alone will inherit the throne.”

Sha’ant blinked, absorbing the meaning of the chief’s words. “Of course. Any son of mine will inherit . . .” He stopped. “. . . will inherit the throne, in order of succession. Naturally. That is Krushan.”

Riverside sighed again. “I know this. Yet I also know you already have a son, and he is already acting regent and a good one at that. He is loved, popular, efficient, a great warrior, a formidable emperor . . . He has no flaws, lacks nothing. He is healthy and robust and indomitable in battle or combat. And he is the son of Jeel the river Goddess, our patron deity. He will almost certainly outlive us all!”

Sha’ant was silent. The spark that had flared was already flickering, the glimmer fading.

Chief Riverside continued: “So long as Vrath lives, he is the rightful heir to your throne and legacy. I know this. That is why my heart cries. It cries like the female wetun who loses her partner, for dolphins of the river are like wolves and hawks: they mate for life.” Riverside spread his large hairy hands wide. “What can I say? I ask only that you pledge that when you and my daughter have a son, it shall be that son who inherits, not Prince Vrath. I have no animosity towards Vrath. I hear he is a fine king. But as a father-in-law, I wish to see my line continue as well. I need to ensure that my grandson should have his fair share in life. If he is a fisherman’s son, then he should inherit his father’s boat and nets and fishing sticks and other belongings. If he is a king . . .”

Riverside gestured as if the rest was obvious. It was.

6

Jilana almost cried out with excitement when she saw Sha’ant emerge from her father’s chamber. Several in the crowd did cry out and the cry was taken up and carried throughout the village and perhaps even throughout the whole region. But when she saw Sha’ant’s face, her heart caught, like a fish trapped on a hook that would rip its life out if struggled to break free. And she knew without having to ask that something had gone terribly wrong.

Jilana pushed her way forward through the crowd of well-meaning relatives and neighbors, all the women eager to see and be seen by the king. Sha’ant caught sight of her and his eyes softened for a moment, but then filled with a look of such pain, she thought her heart might literally break. He then shook his head once, slowly, and walked past her. His gait was as heavy and forlorn as if he were attending a funeral rather than a potential marriage. He was utterly lost and heartbroken, leaving no doubt of their fate.

7

When his father returned from his travels, Vrath sensed something was seriously amiss.

He had been aware of his father’s gradual withdrawal from matters of state and governance of late, but this was something that he himself had encouraged over the past four years, assuring Sha’ant that as prince regent he would take care of whatever needed doing.

It was a matter of pride for Vrath that he live up to his assurances—and indeed Sha’ant himself had embraced him warmly on more than one occasion and congratulated him on how well he was managing the affairs of the kingdom. His father had even admitted that for the first time in his life he felt able to take time off for himself without the constant sense of anxiety that had always plagued him earlier in his reign.

Vrath had encouraged him to do as he wished—go hunting for weeks on end, or travel to remote places he had always wished to see incognito, unburdened by the military and royal entourage a king had perforce to take along. The past year, Sha’ant had taken to coming to court only occasionally, dropping by unexpectedly just to observe and listen in on the sabha sessions, often without saying a word the entire time.

What a contrast this was to the king who had rarely slept a full night and was constantly on edge—dealing with one political crisis after another all day long, day after day, during the first several weeks after Vrath had come to live with him. So concerned with the affairs of the kingdom was he that he had rarely found time enough to do the things he dearly wished to do with his newfound son. Any time they tried to travel together—if they were out visiting some site of pilgrimage, or viewing the actual field where great battles had taken place, or observing wildlife in its natural habitat—a messenger would invariably appear with an urgent summons that the king return to the city.

Yet Sha’ant continued to make the effort and clearly enjoyed that time away immensely. Vrath was young and innocent by mortal standards, but knew how much his father pined for his mother and that lost companionship.

A king has no real friends. His only true friend is an understanding spouse or child, thus Vrath was all Sha’ant had; accordingly, the king poured his heart out to his son often, not by bursting into long, sad monologues, but through the subtle way he said or did things, communicating more through pauses and sighs than by eloquent elocution.

Over time, this burden of sadness reduced considerably as he found genuine companionship and support in Vrath’s company and came to rely on his judgement not only as a statesman but also as a friend and confidant. Over the course of these four years, their relationship had developed to the point where Vrath would see his father looking troubled over some issue—of a border dispute or political complication—and could simply put his hand on his shoulder, smiling, and that would be enough for Sha’ant to lose his wrinkles and smile back, then pat his son on his shoulder in return before walking away, confident that Vrath would handle the problem, whatever it might be.

And Vrath had handled it—had handled everything that came his way since coming to court, to the point where those wrinkles rarely appeared on Sha’ant’s forehead at all anymore, and his father actually began to look younger and healthier. It was amazing what a difference the simple removal of daily stress could effect on a person: Sha’ant had become fitter, leaner, more confident, less given to outbursts and dark depressions. He drank less, slept more soundly, ate sensibly, and indulged himself in leisurely pursuits that he would never have dreamed of pursuing just one score months ago: He painted from time to time, played musical instruments, taught children their alphabets, and did things because they pleased him and not because they were expected of him as a king. In the past several months, he had even begun to take frequent trips, returning with a spring in his step and a sharpness in his eye. At night when he told Vrath of his experiences in the wild, Vrath felt a great sense of joy and satisfaction, for he knew that he had helped make this possible. Had he not come to Hastinaga—had he not taken the reins of the kingdom from Sha’ant so efficaciously—Sha’ant would never be this happy and relaxed today.

It pleased Vrath to see this dramatic change. He looked forward to those times when he and his father would sit and sip freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and he would listen as his father regaled him with stories and anecdotes gleaned on his travels.

But ever since his father had returned from his latest trip, Vrath had felt that something was amiss.

He knew this because Sha’ant had not spoken with him for several days, had seemingly been avoiding him in the palace. This was not unusual in itself, but Vrath also received reports that said the king was looking like his old gloomy self again, that reported that Sha’ant was drinking again, had cloistered himself in his rooms and was not seeing anyone or venturing forth . . . had given up all leisure activities and pursuits and sent everyone away.

All this had happened after Sha’ant returned from a trip which he had made with a full royal entourage. Since all matters of state were overseen by Vrath himself, he had been curious as to the nature of this state visit. Sha’ant had laughed and said that it was a secret he would share with Vrath if the trip was successful, but that in any case it was not a matter of state, it was a matter concerning the state of his heart! Vrath had laughed at the pun and wondered if this meant his father had found a woman he desired. His mother had told him that this day might come and when it did, that he was to encourage his father in every way, and do whatever was required to ensure that his father found happiness in the new match.

He had been a little surprised at her insistence that her own husband find happiness with another woman, but after he had come to court he quickly came to understand how bereft Sha’ant was that Jeel was never coming back, and thus resolved to do exactly as his mother had instructed.

Sha’ant deserved happiness again. So when he had received word that his father had returned from the visit of state—or state of the heart, as Sha’ant had wittily put it—he waited eagerly to hear the good news. But it had never come, and then Sha’ant had avoided him for so many days. Coupled with these disturbing reports of his father’s lapse into the old, gloomy depressive ways . . .

Now, he entered his father’s palace with only one goal in mind: To find the source of Sha’ant’s sorrow and resolve it.

He was shocked at what he found.

Sha’ant lay sprawled on a couch, his hair and face and garments unkempt, disheveled, uncared for, eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep and too much wine, the discarded goblets around him testifying to his lapse into the old over-indulgent habits. But even more, it was the look on Sha’ant’s face that alarmed and dismayed Vrath. His father looked as if he had aged a decade in as many days. He had not looked this haggard and miserable even during the worst crisis that had occurred in the first several months after Vrath’s arrival.

Vrath went to the couch and sat beside his father; he said nothing, waiting instead for Sha’ant to speak first. That was always their way: Eventually Sha’ant would speak, confiding in him, speaking his mind—and his heart—and Vrath would listen and advise.

But this time, Sha’ant said nothing. There was only silence between them. Silence and a sense of something dark and dismal that hung over them like a fetid pallor.

Finally, Vrath took the initiative and spoke.

“Father? All is well with the kingdom. The last peace pact with the border rebels was sealed three days ago. The foreign envoys returned home to their respective distant nations with our gifts, beaming with pleasure, and promising to tell their nations of our great hospitality and rich resources. Within the sabha, the feuding over the sudra-vaisya land disagreement has settled as well. We have reached a mutual compromise that is more than acceptable to all concerned. There is no fear of rioting any longer. Things are very well. They are as close to perfect as possible. Yet you sit here all day, quaffing copious quantities of soma, alone and in darkness, seeing no one, speaking with no one, uncaring for your own appearance and well-being. What ails you, father? Tell me.”

Still, Sha’ant was silent. As Vrath had begun to speak, his father covered his face with his hand, as if closing his eyes for a moment, and the hand remained there even now, masking his features and expression.

Vrath tried again. “Father, in the time since I came to live with you, you have confided everything to me. Have I ever betrayed your trust? Have I ever given you reason to regret putting your faith in me? Have I disappointed you somehow without being aware of my lapse? If I have offended you in any way, then I beg your forgiveness and ask that you please tell me how I may atone for my mistake. For I cannot bear to have you angry with me and refusing to speak with me. A day without hearing your voice and feeling your arm upon my shoulder is like a day when the sun has failed to rise.”

At this emotional appeal, Sha’ant removed the hand covering his face, revealing eyes filled with tears. He reached out and took hold of Vrath’s forearm. “Nay, my son. Nay! You have done nothing to offend me. Do not blame yourself. You are the perfect son. No father since the beginning of time has been blessed with a son as fine as you. In every respect, you are perfect. Do not question your own merits or blame yourself for anything.”

“Then what is it, father?” Vrath asked earnestly. “What ails you? I have not seen you this troubled since I first came to live here and you were sad over the loss of my mother. I know you well, father. I know something is eating at your heart, destroying you from within. Confide in me. Tell me. Perhaps I can help you.”

Sha’ant shook his head vehemently. “No, my son,” he said emotionally. “This I cannot tell you. This is a problem you cannot solve. It is only the misery of my own dark soul. I must bear this myself and I shall. Pray go about your life as usual. Do not worry unduly on my account.”

“How can I ignore my father’s sadness? How can I smile and live my life happily if you are not happy? What is a son if not his father in a new life? How can a part of you go on living as normal when another part of you is suffering some inner turmoil?”

But still Sha’ant would not confide in Vrath. He spoke in elliptical riddles, referring to ancient texts that advised men to father more than one son. He then lapsed into a discussion debating the merits of a man taking a new wife, and spoke on this for a time. He spoke also of his lineage, of the uncertainties of life, of war, and of the risks a king faced; of fearing for Vrath’s early demise in battle . . . but then argued the opposite, musing that Vrath’s prowess at arms was so formidable that it was his enemies who should fear losing their lives, not he.

And so it went for a time, Sha’ant speaking round and around the subject without clearly stating what troubled him. Yet Vrath managed to understand much even if he didn’t understand fully.

Eventually, Sha’ant became exhausted, emotionally and physically, and Vrath put him to bed tenderly. Watching his father fall into uneasy sleep, he vowed to find the source of this misery and end it at once.

8

Vrath went in search of the old guard.

Older warriors who had once fought and seen great conflicts in yesteryears, now the old guard were ailing or aging and unable to take part in active combat, but they gathered daily in a garden adjoining the royal palace and talked robustly of old wars and fierce battles and slain enemies. Sha’ant had brought Vrath there shortly after he first came to court to listen to their wisdom, to learn about the art of war from those who had actually waged it. “This score of old warriors,” he had told Vrath fondly, “when taken together, they represent close to two millennia of fighting knowledge and experience. No guru could possibly tell you all they know. You can learn more by simply listening to their arguments than you would from most masters of weapons and pundits of strategy.”

Vrath did not tell him that in his short lifespan he had seen, experienced, and learned possibly far more than these twenty old warriors had in their combined lifetimes—indeed, he possibly knew the same battles and conflicts they spoke of as intimately as they did, for he had “watched” many of those wars when they were waged, thanks to the intensive training of his great-grandfather Coldheart and his own divine gifts.

Despite his prodigious advantages, he still learned a great deal from the old guard. And in time he began to share his own observations as well. At first, the elder warriors were suspicious, even hostile to this upstart young boy who dared to speak of conflicts waged when he was not yet born. But they soon realized that far from being some self-important prince airing immature views, he was a prodigy who somehow knew crucial details and elements of battles that even they who were there lacked full knowledge of, and spoke of sieges with an authority that suggested that he had actually been present.

The old guard began to use a term to describe this extraordinary perceptiveness that Vrath displayed: They termed it blood memory. “His blood is the blood of his Krushan ancestors,” said one of them, “and that rich blood carries with it the knowledge of all the deeds and experiences of his forebears. Somehow, young Vrath is able to access that vast store of knowledge and speak of it.” At this, the others had all dipped their white heads and beards and agreed solemnly, “Blood memories.” And in time, they began to respect his deep insights and formidable store of knowledge and even sought his opinion on occasion. Whenever any two or more of them reached an impasse in an argument over some detail of a battle or campaign, they would eventually turn to Vrath and sigh, “My prince, settle the matter!” And Vrath would provide the crucial missing detail that would enable them to resolve the argument, without actually taking sides.

He came to them now. They greeted him with warmth, for since his duties of kingship had increased, he did not have as much time to spend with them as before. But they did not resent this. They were old warriors. They knew their place in the world. They felt proud that he came to them at all, deferred to them and treated them with such respect. They were even wise enough to refer to him jokingly as their “guru.”

“Guru!” they cried out as he entered their corner of the garden. An argument over the Battle of Eleven Nations and whether or not Thunderhead had actually descended to aid Sha’ard against the enemy was raging; it died down as they saw Vrath enter and they greeted him warmly. Yet they saw from his face that he had come not simply to chat but on some important matter. They were warriors, and they believed in coming straight to the point, so they insisted he tell them what was troubling him.

“My father,” he said simply. “What is it that ails him? Do you have any idea?”

They glanced at each other as if they had been expecting him to ask this very question, then looked back at Vrath and nodded.

Vrath sighed and sat down. “Tell me,” he said.

And they did.

When they were through explaining, Vrath said, “I see.”

He was silent for a long while.

They waited.

They were old men, and lifelong warriors; waiting was nine-tenths of their lives.

When at last, Vrath rose, they saw from his face that his time here was over.

“I take your leave,” he said, showing each of them respect and gratitude for their part in his continuing education.

As he turned to walk away, they called out, “What will you do?”

He paused, and replied without looking back. “Ensure my father’s happiness.”

9

Chief Riverside was holding a meeting of the fishermen when Vrath arrived. He received Vrath with great respect and proper protocol, and once again the word spread that someone from the royal court of the Krushan had come to see Jilana’s father.

Heartbroken after Sha’ant’s proposal had failed, Jilana had overcome her own despair and reluctantly gone back to her old routine, and when Vrath arrived, she was away, back to ferrying her boat across the Yamuna. But where she had often sung sweet songs while ferrying passengers across the river, she now sang melancholy dirges that brought a tear to the eyes of those she transported.

She did not hear of the news of Vrath’s visit until later that evening, and even then, she did not allow herself to dare hope that this might bode well. What was to be would be, nothing she did could change that now. She loved her father too dearly to ever go against his wishes. And much as she had come to love the idea of marrying Sha’ant, she had always known that their union was a highly unlikely one. It did not make the disappointment any easier, but it did make it seem more logical and inevitable.

How could a fisherman’s daughter marry a king! It was quite absurd, of course. And yet, when she sang of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, and of how Shakuntala had pleaded for hours in full court, and been repeatedly humiliated and insulted by her own lover and husband, father of her child, her voice had such pain in it that even the cranes on the shore cried out in commiseration.

10

Chief Riverside knew of her pain and felt it himself, for she was the jewel of his heart. His own sorrow lay heavy in his breast, knowing that his beloved daughter pined her youth away. When Vrath arrived at his chieftain’s hut, he felt hope leap up in his heart like a playful trout in the Jeel.

“Prince,” said the Chief warmly. “How may I serve you?”

Vrath leaned forward. “It has come to my notice that my father, Emperor Sha’ant, proposed to marry your daughter. And yet you refused.”

Riverside paled at Vrath’s words. “Nay, prince! Who am I to refuse the lord of Hastinaga? Even the King of Gods could not refuse such a match for his daughter. Besides, Jilana is no ordinary fisherman’s daughter. I have always known that her future lay in palaces with kings, not ferrying a boat across the Yamuna and cooking river fish for one of us! So when Samrat Sha’ant came to see me, it was the fulfillment of all my dreams and expectations. Where is the question of refusal?”

Vrath looked around. “And yet, I see no signs of preparation for a marriage. I see no festivities. No indication that you are expecting a bridegroom’s procession to arrive, much less a royal one.”

Riverside cleared his throat. “I cannot dispute what you say, great one. Your reputation as a master of governance is formidable, outmatched only by your reputation as an indomitable warrior. Who would dare argue with anything you say? But I did not refuse the proposal of Sha’ant. I merely laid out a condition. Should he promise to uphold that condition, I shall be happy to make the arrangements at once!”

The other fisherman all nodded vigorously, lending their chief support and encouragement. Vrath saw the anxiety and genuine concern on their faces. They genuinely desired to see a daughter from their village marry a king of the Krushan. There was no ulterior motive here or secret agenda. All was as it seemed. Vrath could even close his eyes and sense Jilana’s sorrow as she rowed her boat and sang her sad songs, for the Yamuna was his maternal aunt and he was privy to her knowledge as well. “Your condition is that your future grandson—the progeny of your daughter Jilana and my father the king—should inherit the throne of the Krushan, is it not?”

Riverside glanced at his fellow fishermen, a glance that communicated the fisher king’s own concern and doubts. As the obvious heir and already crowned Prince, Chief Riverside’s condition affected Vrath far more than it affected Sha’ant. There could only be one reason why Vrath had come to confront Riverside personally: He must resent anyone asking that he be set aside in favor of a future son of his father.

Vrath knew that fishermen across the village were secretly preparing to take up arms and attack him if need be. Not because they were violent or aggressive but because they feared his motives for coming here. He could glimpse men surreptitiously taking up hooks and fish-spears behind and around him.

He held up his hands and turned a full circle, addressing the village at large. “I am not here to make war on you. Look at my companions.”

He indicated the old guard. The toothless white-haired men waved and grinned at the fisherman who stared at them curiously.

“Does this look like a war party? I deliberately brought only my father’s oldest advisors in order to show you that I have only peaceful intentions. Had I meant you harm, I would have brought an army and you would all already be dead.” He did not need to add that even an army would have been overkill; he could have massacred the entire community single-handedly if he had desired . . . and still could.

But he meant what he said: He had no desire to do harm to anyone here. These people were relatives of his father’s chosen beloved, therefore they were related to him as well, or would be soon. Being fishermen, they were also close to the river and that affinity gave Vrath a sense of greater understanding of their ways and attitudes. He knew such men well enough to know that they had their own sense of pride as well. They might not live in palaces and their homes and clothes may always smell of fish, but in their own way, they were kings and queens and princes of Arthaloka.

“You are kings of the river,” Vrath said to them, and at once saw a change come over their faces. “You are no less masters of the world than my father or his illustrious ancestors. The goddess of the river is herself your patron and she watches over you in all you do or say. I bow to her, mighty Yamuna-devi, and in her sacred presence, I ask you sincerely: What can I do to make this marriage possible? I love my father deeply and desire his happiness more than anything else in the world. Tell me what I must do to ensure his marriage to your daughter and I shall see that it is done. You have my word as Prince of the Krushan kingdom and leader of the Bharatas.”

Chief Riverside stared up wordlessly for a moment then rose suddenly and raised his hairy arms to Vrath in a gesture of acknowledgement. “Great one, what they say about you is true. You are a great, great prince and someday shall be a great king. You are capable of easily defeating your opponents yet you choose to use conciliatory words and kindness instead. But I fear there is nothing that can be done here. I have told your father my only condition for this marriage. If he cannot fulfill that condition, then what can I do?”

“Your only condition is that your daughter’s son shall inherit and rule after my father’s passing, not I, is it not?” Vrath asked.

Riverside nodded, gesturing broadly again. “Aye. So it is. For it is the duty of a girl’s father to ensure that she is always treated well by her husband and I know that if Jilana were assured that her son would inherit, then she shall be queen mother in time and guaranteed of lifelong security and status.”

“She shall be guaranteed all that in any case,” Vrath said, “but if it is this assurance you desire, then I shall give it to you right here and now. Your daughter’s son shall inherit the throne, not I. I give you my word in this matter.”

Riverside stared at Vrath in wonderment, then turned to look at his companions, who also raised their eyebrows and gestured as well. “What a great being! He offers to step down as heir apparent and surrender his rightful inheritance in order to secure his father’s happiness! What other son would do this for his father? Truly he is a great one.”

“Aye!” said the other fisherfolk. Even the old guard joined in heartily.

Riverside paused, bent over in thought, his back to Vrath.

Vrath waited a moment then, when there was no further word from the fisher king, then said, “Is it agreed then? You will make the arrangements for the marriage?”

Riverside turned suddenly and stared at him. “Would that it could be so, Prince! Would that it could.”

Vrath frowned. “I fail to understand. I have agreed to your condition. You have the assurance you desire. Now what prevents this marriage from taking place?”

Riverside sighed heavily. “Alas, young prince. Your assurances are honorable and I have no doubt you shall keep your word from now to the end of your days. I know you would never violate your oath once given. But . . .”

“But . . .?” asked Vrath.

“But what of your sons?” the fisher chief said, looking up at Vrath. “Your future sons by any wives you may take in years to come?”

Vrath frowned, listening.

Riverside went on, gesturing as he explained. “You are a virile young man. Handsome. Powerful. Wealthy. Even if you step down as heir apparent, you shall always remain prince of the Krushan empire. You shall have no dearth of wives or lovers. You shall love them in time and produce sons of your own. You will adhere by your vow, of that I have no doubt. But will they? What about after you have died of old age or perished in combat? Might not one or more of them rise up and attempt to claim the throne for themselves? My grandson’s place—and indeed his very life—would be jeopardized, for the people love you dearly, I have heard, and thus they may well support one of your sons over that of my daughter.”

Vrath listened silently and looked at the faces of the old guard. They had finally stopped smiling and were now shaking their white-haired heads in commiseration. The other fisherfolk stood, their eyes downcast, for they did not wish to spurn a king’s offer, nor miss the opportunity to align their tribe with the most powerful one in the world. Yet what Riverside said was true: Any assurance that Vrath might give was useless because he could not predict what any sons he might have would do in future. And by law, regardless of whatever he promised, it was his rightful claim to be King of Hastinaga, and, by extension, his sons who would inherit that throne. This was indisputable.

“Therefore, great one,” Riverside was saying sadly, “I fear we still face the same dilemma. Even if you swear the most powerful oath on Arthaloka, it will not prevent your future heirs from rightfully staking a claim to the kingdom, and that would disinherit my daughter’s line, which is unacceptable to me and my people.”

Vrath held up his hand. “I shall take a greater vow.”

Riverside shook his head, sighing again. “No vow can suffice, Prince.”

“Hear the vow first, then decide,” Vrath said. “As of this moment, I relinquish all rights to the kingdom. I divest myself of the title and status of Prince. I am neither prince nor heir to the Krushan throne. This I say in presence of my father’s oldest advisors, they who are most wise in the knowledge of warrior Krushan.” He held his hand out to indicate the old guard, who dipped their heads soberly to acknowledge his words. “They will assure you that such a pronouncement is akin to a writ of law, as I speak with the full authority of the position bestowed upon me—even as I divest myself of that very authority and position. Confirm that my words are truth, wise ones.”

The old guard nodded and said as one, “Vrath speaks truth!”

Riverside looked stunned. “You disinherit yourself? But for what purpose? I have already told you, it will not suffice to appease my fear—”

“Your fear is that I may someday, knowingly or even unknowingly, sire one or more sons who will lay claim to the throne, thereby preventing your future grandsons from inheriting, correct?”

Riverside nodded, looking around at the gathering as if asking if they were also seeing and hearing this extraordinary debate. All raised their voices in agreement, speaking for Riverside. “Aye!”

Vrath raised his fist, clenching it tightly, and held it to his chest. “Then let me remove that last fear from your heart, king of the Yamuna. Now that I am no longer Prince of Hastinaga, my Krushan to my people has ended. Therefore I am merely an individual and may choose to do as I please with my life and body. I am not required to produce heirs for the sake of the continuance of my lineage. Therefore, from this moment on, I swear the oath of acolyte. I am a virgin and have never known the pleasures of woman and never shall I know those pleasures. I shall remain celibate as I am now for the duration of my life on Arthaloka.”

A great outcry rose from across the village. Even the old guard rose to their feet, astonished and shaking their heads in dismay. Every single fisherman and woman cried out in horror and shock. Riverside himself staggered back, as if struck a heavy blow.

Vrath continued: “Riverside, king of the Yamuna! I have fulfilled your condition! As I am now an acolyte, and incapable of fathering children, the throne of Hastinaga has no heir. Only by wedding your daughter and siring a son upon her can Sha’ant produce an heir. So what say you now? Do you consent to allowing your daughter to marry my father?”

Riverside fell to his knees. “Yes! Yes! Of course. But this vow you have taken . . . it is too terrible! It is a vrath, a God’s vow! Which means it can never be broken or undone, no matter the circumstances!”

Vrath lowered his hand at last, uncoiling his fist. “Perhaps that is the reason I was given this name at birth. In any case, it is what I had to do in order to ensure my father’s happiness. And his joy is my only goal.” He reached out the hand, open now and offered as a gesture of friendship. “I have your word then? This marriage shall take place at the earliest?”

Yes!” Riverside said. “As Goddess Jeel is my witness, yes!” He was crying now, tears rolling down his face. It was impossible to say whether they were tears of joy for his daughter’s impending happiness or tears of shock at Vrath’s extraordinary sacrifice.

Vrath gestured to the old guard. They came towards him, their faces pale and shocked, gazing up at him as if seeing him for the first time. He turned to the chief one last time. “I shall go and make arrangements. When next I return, it shall be as my father’s charioteer, bringing him as a groom to collect your daughter. Ensure that all is in readiness. You are about to be allied with the House of Krushan and join your fortunes to those of the Burnt Empire.”

With that, he turned on his heel and made his way through and out of the village. As he went, people crowded close to get a better look at his face, his aspect, his eyes. From behind, he heard the chief call out again, “Vrath! The most terrible vow ever!”

The fisherfolk took up the chorus: “Vrath! Vrath! Vrath!”

Overhead the skies growled thunderously as if echoing the same utterance.

The old guard struggled to keep pace with Vrath but caught up by the time he had reached his chariot. They peered up at him, then, spreading their hands in plea. “This vow,” they said, “how could you promise such a thing? To give up your life, your own future, your happiness . . . all for your father’s sake? It is too much! What the chief said is true, this is a monstrous oath. Vrath! Never before have we heard of any warrior swearing to the life of an acolyte for his father’s sake.”

Vrath shrugged. “It is what had to be done, and it is done.”

He climbed aboard the chariot and clicked his tongue at the horses.

One of the old guard was saying to the others, “He shall henceforth be known by the vow he took here today. It shall make him legendary!”

Behind him, the fisher tribe of Riverside roared with one voice: “Vrath!”

11

Sha’ant wept when he heard of Vrath’s terrible vow. But the old guard informed him that as per his son’s wishes, the vow was already taken and in effect, and he would not take it back under any circumstances. Therefore, they argued, Sha’ant must wed the fisher king’s daughter now. “He sacrificed his happiness for you,” they said, “we have never seen or heard the like of it before. Accept it. This is a gift from the gods!”

Sha’ant, still weeping, held his son. Vrath held his father upright, embracing him fiercely as well. “Vrath,” he called him in this moment of extreme emotion. “What have you done?”

“What any son would have.”

“No,” Sha’ant said, shaking his head. “No other son but you. I shall honor your sacrifice. Jilana’s son shall be king of Hastinaga in time. But you shall be king among all sons everywhere, from now to the end of time,” he said, then continued, fighting through profuse tears: “If the gods are listening, then I pray they hear me now: Any boon you desire is yours to have. Ask of me anything. You have given up your inheritance, your throne, your status. What shall I give you in return, my son?”

Vrath bowed his head. “I desire only your blessings, father. But if you wish to grant me a boon, then grant me this one gift: Give me permission to die only when I will it. Not a moment before, regardless of my wounds or condition.”

Sha’ant was taken aback at this extraordinary request. Even though, as a Krushan, he had the ability to imbue such powers, it was not customary for sons to make such requests.

“What boon is that?” he cried. “Why do you speak to me of your death? You are my first-born son. Jeel herself granted that your death never comes to pass for a thousand years after my own life ends. Ask me a boon worthy of kings and emperors. Ask for untold wealth. For the richest bounty of the world. For power and glory. All that I have is yours to command.”

Vrath shook his head. “All that you have is the future property of your heirs, and I am no longer included in that category, by my own choosing. Father, grant me only what I ask. For it will take nothing from the inheritance of my future siblings and yet it would bring me great satisfaction.”

Sha’ant did not know what else to say. However, he remembered the obduracy of his former wife Jeel, the River Goddess, and from many instances, already knew that Vrath possessed the same stone-like obduracy, too. It would be of no avail to argue further.

“Then consider your boon granted, my son,” he said.

Vrath kissed his father’s hand and rose.

As word spread through the city and the kingdom, people began to gather and talk in crowds, then cry out in lament and wonder at the great sacrifice of their Prince. Soon all knew of the terrible vow he had taken and of the word the Riverside fisherfolk had shouted as he left.

The Burning Throne flared, as if marking the moment when it was deprived of a future occupant. It burned deep red and those courtiers nearest to it swore afterward that on that historic occasion, its fire burned cold, as if mourning the loss of a great Krushan heir.

UPON A BURNING THRONE by Ashok K. Banker

The stories in the Legends of the Burnt Empire series take place in the same world as Ashok K. Banker's Upon a Burning Throne, the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata.

April 2019
John Joseph Adams Books
ISBN: 978-1328916280
Hardcover / Ebook

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than sixty books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. His works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. His latest novel is the first in a new epic fantasy series, Upon a Burning Throne. He lives in Los Angeles.