Hastinaga was ablaze with word of Vrath’s amazing feat. Vrath’s stepmother, Dowager Empress Jilana, while taken aback at the manner in which it had been done, nevertheless bit her tongue when she saw what he had accomplished. That the two daughters of the king of Serapi were beautiful there was no doubt. At the wedding, they were the envy of every woman in the court. Tall, with full heads of thick, lustrous blue-black hair, fingernails and toenails painted blood red, heavy of hip and breast, heart-faced with a glow to rival the moon, they walked like queens already.
Virya was equally astonished the instant he met his wives-to-be, and he quickly found that they brought out the best in him. He never looked handsomer or more alive and virile than on his wedding night, and after a grand ceremony and lavish festivities which ranged across the land for days, it soon became evident that the quiet young king was in fact an artful lover. He disappeared for days on end with both his beautiful wives, and the reports the serving maids and wet nurses brought to Jilana’s ears were enough to make her blush with embarrassment. Clearly, the new groom and his brides were consumed by passion.
As the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and months into years, the passion of the lovers neither dimmed nor faded. Virya blossomed and became a great patron of the arts, compared by the court poets more than once to Cassa himself, lord of love and pleasure. He lived like Cassa, too, often seeming more interested in pursuing the arts of pleasure than the craft of kingship. Jilana often complained to Vrath that he took too much of the burden of governance on himself—indeed, that he took all of it on himself—and he spoiled Virya by letting him dally his life away in the arms of his wives. But secretly, she was glad to see her son so happy and full of life and vigor. For the truth was, Virya could never equal Vrath’s skill at managing the kingdom. In a sense, his real responsibility was producing heirs for the dynasty. And how else was he to accomplish that if not by pursuing such acts of pleasure?
And so Virya passed the next several years in blissful ecstasy, tasting of the fruits of desire to his heart’s content. Despite this, however, his seed produced no heirs. Neither of his wives conceived by him for eleven long years.
Yet as the seventh year came to an end, the royal healers came to Jilana and Vrath with even darker news: Virya had been stricken by consumption, the awful affliction of the lungs for which there was no known cure. The healers tried everything within their power, and Vrath sent envoys far and wide across the world to seek cures in other, foreign lands.
But, alas, all their efforts were in vain. For Virya steadily sickened and, even as his beautiful wives wept over his wasting body, he passed into Shima’s abode one dark evening of but his twenty-third year. As the sun set that night, so did it seem to be setting on the Krushan dynasty.
In the absence of an eldest son, Vrath performed the funeral rites at Jilana’s request.
And so once again, the Krushan dynasty was without a legitimate heir, or, indeed, without even the possibility of one. For now there remained no sons to further the lineage.
None except Vrath.
Jilana came to his chamber after hours. Vrath was never truly at rest. He seemed tireless, forever dealing with some aspect of kingship or another. Watching him work, she marveled at his ability to devote every iota of his energy to building, consolidating and expanding an empire in which he himself had no future stake—with no progeny of his own who would inherit the fruits of all this labor.
And during his lifetime, he was as much a servant as a ruler. Regent in name and deed, he had not once behaved like a king or sought undue power or credit. Truly, he was a god among men, Jilana thought as she waited for him to finish dictating some order of business to a trio of scribes who stood by listening reverentially to his every word.
When he was done, he thanked them for their time and effort politely. That in itself was a marvel. Most kings would have snarled and told them to be gone when the work was done, eager to get on with carousing and whoring. Even the best-behaved, most righteous lords would at best have remained silent.
To actually thank even the lowest minions who served under his aegis was a hallmark of Vrath’s regency. It earned him his loyal following and devout subservience, even though he did not do it in order to gain these benefits. Jilana herself had encountered her share of arrogant nobles and aristocrats, as well as rude warriors full of wine and their own self-worth, men who tossed coins at her, made lewd advances or comments, or generally acted boorish. And yet here was Vrath—the greatest warrior of the time, ruler of the wealthiest and most powerful empire, legitimate son and heir to the very dynasty that had originally settled and civilized this vast subcontinent—and he lived frugally, as austerely as any ascetic or hermit.
His chambers in which she now stood were as bare and bereft of luxury as the hut of any sage in a forest hermitage. He partook of no intoxicants, possessed no vices, and spent all his waking hours engaged in service to the kingdom. Truly Jilana had known priests who took more pleasure from life than he.
When they were alone, she said, “Vrath, my son. We face a great crisis. A dynasty without an heir is like a pillar that could crack and crumble at any time, bringing down the empire it holds in place. All this work you do, your life’s work, your constant effort to build, grow, establish, expand, consolidate—all this will be for naught if the Krushan line is not extended.”
He sighed and looked down at his large broad palms. “This is true. It concerns me as well, Mother.”
“Then do something about it.”
He looked up at her. “What would you have me do?”
“Ember and Umber? Yes, what of them?”
“Claim your right as a son of Sha’ant and as half-brother to Virya. After the untimely death of a brother, if his wife remains childless, you are entitled to seed her in order to birth an heir. Take my daughters-in-law as your wives. You are no less than my son. Take them with my blessings and sire heirs upon them.” She added after a moment, “They will not object either. I know this well. They look up to you as a god ever since the day you brought them here. Marry your brother’s wives and sire children, Vrath. It is the right thing to do.”
He sighed again as if he had been expecting something along these lines. “I cannot. You know this, too.”
“Because of your oath of celibacy?”
He looked at her again. “Yes. Of course. Because of the oath.”
“That oath has no meaning anymore! My father only asked that my sons inherit the throne. My sons are both dead, and now their inheritance is in danger of being squandered forever! What do you think will happen once you pass on? Hastinaga will be stormed within the day, the Krushan empire will be dismantled, and each piece will become a trophy for our rivals and enemies. The Krushan line will become extinct in every sense of the word and your father’s and forefather’s efforts will all be in vain.”
Jilana paused, gazing at a portrait of Sha’ant which was the centerpiece of Vrath’s private chamber. “You loved your father deeply. You took your oath in order to ensure he found happiness once more in life, bereft and desolate as he was after losing your mother. How do you think he would feel today if he were to see this state of affairs? Would he smile and give you his blessing to remain celibate or would he try to reason with you, make you give up your vow of acolyte and do what is right under Krushan law?”
“What is right under Krushan law,” he replied, rising from his seat calmly and walking away from her, “is that a Krushan always abides by his vows. That is immutable.”
“Circumstances change,” she said, following him, “and we must change with them. In season, flowers bloom and give out sweet fragrances, and out of season, they wither and lose their aroma. Water changes color under different light. Light itself changes its appearance under different conditions. The great force of fire alters its form and appearance constantly. Everything changes when it must. That is part of nature. To be Krushan is to know what is natural and what is right for a certain time and situation. Your duty itself has changed now, Vrath! Rescind your vow, take back your terrible pledge, give up your state of celibacy, do what you must for the good of this House of Krushan. You alone have the power to save it.”
Vrath stood with his back to Jilana, gazing out a casement high on the western wall through which the setting sun was visible. “Flowers may lose their fragrance forever, light may lose its luster, water lose its form, fire fail to provide heat. The sun may cease its radiance, the moon may turn dark and set forever. The stonefire may extinguish itself, the Burning Throne no longer blaze forth with sacred flame, Hastinaga and the Burnt Empire may be destroyed and every last living being be reduced to ash. All this may come to pass, but I can never give up my vow. Accept it, Mother. You know this in your heart to be so.”
Jilana passed a hand across her face, her brow creasing with anxiety. “Then we are lost, my son. I know not what else to suggest. What can we do? How are we to resolve this problem? You know that this is nothing less than a calamity. Every day we do nothing about it, our rivals and enemies watch and plot against us, knowing that it is only a matter of time before the House of Krushan ends forever. Already they build their alliances and lay their plots to overtake us when the time comes. Only by taking decisive action can we stop this plotting and planning and restore our supreme authority. Tell me what has to be done. I suggested the only solution that seems possible. If you will not accept it, then you must offer a solution of your own.”
Vrath turned from the casement to meet her eyes. With the setting sun behind him, he appeared like a god with a corona of light around his head and beard. “I have a solution,” he said. “One that is acceptable under Krushan law and will violate no vows or laws.”
She stared at him, hope flowering in her heart. Vrath would not say such a thing lightly. If he had a solution, one that pleased him, then it would most certainly please her as well. “Tell me,” she said eagerly. “What is the solution you propose?”
He shook his head. “It is not my solution, but is an ancient time-honored tradition of our culture. It dates back to the time when Viminor, son of Jarin Blood-Axe destroyed the warriors of the world. Their widows were bereft and childless. They beseeched the priests to unite with them in order that they might produce offspring and further their line. Thus was the line of warriors re-established on earth.” He looked at his stepmother. “An heir can be produced by either the father or the mother. Were Virya to father a son on either of his wives, the son would be accepted as his rightful heir. Similarly, in Virya’s absence, either of the wives may invite a suitable priest to her bed and engender a son. The child would legally be considered a Krushan and a legitimate heir to the throne.”
Jilana nodded slowly. “I have heard of this before. It is not common among my father’s people, but I have heard that it is a common custom among Krushan.”
“It is,” Vrath said confidently. “I have consulted with all our preceptors and they confirm it as a legitimate and acceptable way for the House of Krushan to further its lineage.”
Jilana rose and took a few steps away, thinking as she paced. “Then all we need is to find a priest who would cohabit with Ember and Umber. He need not even marry them, merely cohabit with them and then depart once his task is completed?”
“That is preferable. To all appearances, it will be as if the gods themselves have blessed the queens with progeny. As indeed they have, since priests are the caste closest to the Stone Gods on earth.”
Jilana thought deeply and did not say anything further. After observing her silence for a while, Vrath asked her gently, “Mother, is something the matter? Have I said something to offend you? Did this solution not please you somehow?”
She looked up at him as if startled out of a reverie. “No, my son! You could never say anything to offend or displease me. You are the epitome of goodness in every respect. I was thinking about the priest who would be suitable enough for this task.”
“Yes?” he asked, not sure what she meant. “There are many suitable candidates. I have already asked the preceptors to suggest the most appropriate ones for our perusal. Once we decide, we shall summon the one we have chosen and—”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “I understand. But what if I told you there might be a way to achieve both things at once.”
“Both things?” Vrath was puzzled. “I fail to follow your meaning, mother.”
“The ideal situation of asking a Krushan himself to further the Krushan dynasty legitimately, and resorting to the time-honored tradition of asking a priest to sire a child upon a widowed wife.”
“Yes,” he replied. “That is what we are discussing. Since the first option is not possible, we are considering the second . . .”
“Yes, but what if I told you there may be a way to do both. By calling upon a Krushan of the same bloodline as us who also happens to be a priest possessed of all the auspicious qualities one would seek.”
Vrath stared at her. “How is that possible? There are no Krushan priests! I am the sole Krushan male and I am a warrior.”
She paced a few times, revealing her anxiety. “Son, what I am about to tell you is a secret I was forced to keep for many, many years—and from your father as well. I regret keeping such a secret, but I had no choice at the time. I feared that it might deplete his store of happiness and make him sorrowful. He already had so much sadness in his life, I had no desire to risk endangering the joyful companionship we enjoyed together. I thought in time I would tell him . . . But then we ran out of time.”
He frowned, sensing that she needed something from him . . . acceptance? Understanding? Forgiveness? A combination of all the above, perhaps? “I understand . . . And I do not mind. My father is no more. You need have no regrets and feel no guilt at keeping this secret. Whatever it is, I will not judge you for it nor blame you. It is not a son’s place to do so anyway.”
She sighed deeply as if achieving some great release. “Thank you, my son. In that case, I shall tell you my secret.”
She turned away, as if embarrassed to show him her face when she made her admission. She appeared to struggle with herself before speaking further.
Vrath waited patiently.
Finally, Jilana said, in a tone far softer than her usual authoritative voice. “I have a son by a previous union.”
Vrath stared at her, seemingly unsure how to react. Ultimately, he said nothing.
She went on. “It was no mere dalliance, I assure you. The great sage Shapaar was a passenger on my boat and he grew amorous and was overcome with a powerful lust for me. He expressed a desire to lay with me. I was reluctant as well as flattered, for to have one as illustrious as he father a child upon me would be to guarantee progeny of great qualities. He assured me that the child of our union would be born swiftly and would ascend to manhood just as quickly. After much further discussion, I agreed and we consummated our mutual lusts upon a small island in the middle of the Jeel river.” She paused, reflecting. “One might even say that Goddess Jeel herself blessed our mating.” She continued briskly. “The copulation was intense and illuminating to a young woman such as I was at the time. Afterward, Shapaar departed after some kind words. To my astonishment, I felt my womb quicken at once, and expand with our mutual conception. The child, my son, was born only moments after. Before my very eyes, he grew to adulthood and stood before me within the hour, a fully grown man, capable of eloquent speech and already gifted with his father’s knowledge. Such was the power of Sage Shapaar. Later, I learned that Sage Shapaar was in fact the erstwhile master of Hastinaga, Emperor of the Burnt Empire, and that he had retired voluntarily from the throne to pursue his spiritual advancement. Which meant that my son was a Krushan by bloodline.”
She looked at her stepson. “This is a secret I have shared with no one. I entrust it to you.”
Vrath received the extraordinary tale with his characteristic equanimity. “I thank you for your trust, Mother. May I inquire as to the name that you gave your gifted son?”
“Vessa,” Vrath repeated the name slowly. “So named after my own siblings and myself in our earlier lives for his dedication to the lifelong task of collating and archiving the sum of human knowledge in his legendary scroll, The Vessad. Naturally I have heard of him. He is a great mind and a renowned scholar of Krushan law. They say his gift for poetry and composition is unparalleled. I have long sought to engage him as a court poet, but he is dedicated to pursuing his own course and seeks no patrons. He is regarded as the greatest scholarly mind of our age. He is your son?”
She was pleased to hear such high praises for her son from the lips of Vrath. “He is my son,” she said proudly. “Although I have not seen him even once since I gave birth to him, he gave me the power to summon him at will at any time. I have but to think of him and he shall arrive here instantly.”
Vrath mused on this extraordinary revelation. “He is most appropriate. It would be our great fortune for the House of Krushan to have a priest of his stature and immense qualities further our line. And since he is your son, and you are Sha’ant’s widow, therefore he is my brother, and the brother of Gada and Virya as well. And since Virya is dead, he may legitimately cohabit with his brother’s wives and produce offspring. Even if he were not a priest . . .”
“But he is,” Jilana exclaimed. “And being a priest, he is celibate! Hence there is no fear that he will engender other progeny who might lay claim to the throne of Hastinaga either. This shall be the sole exception and only on my request.”
Vrath rubbed his beard briskly as he did at times when arriving at a solution to some long-frustrating dilemma. “It is an excellent solution, mother! You must summon your son Vessa at once. I can find no fault with this plan.” He frowned, as if remembering something, then added, “Except that I must offer one caution . . .”
“What, my son?”
“There is one risk involved with asking priests to produce progeny. Even a cursory study of our Krushan history reveals numerous instances of this danger. Priests are notorious for being easily offended and for cursing or inflicting conditions upon those who offend them. We must take great care that this does not happen.” He added quickly, “This has nothing to do with our calling your son to do the task. It applies to any priest.”
She nodded, understanding. “Tell me, what is it?”
In ancient times, Vrath said to Jilana, there was a great sage named Utay’thayan. He had a wife named Mamita and they loved each other deeply. Now, Utay’thayan’s younger brother was the sage Brihas, who is known to us as the famous guru to the Stone Gods, preceptor of the gods. Brihas coveted his brother’s wife and was filled with desire for her. He wooed her with great eloquence and passion. But she spurned his advances, saying that she was already pregnant with his brother’s child. Undaunted, Brihas made love to her and spilt his seed inside her. Utay’thayan’s child, though still an infant in the womb, had already mastered Krushan law. When his uncle’s seed attempted to enter his mother’s womb, he complained aloud, saying “There is no room for your seed here, I was here first. You have unnecessarily wasted your seed.” He spoke at the exact moment of climax, spoiling Brihas’s pleasure.
Brihas was angered by this reply. “Little one, because you spoke at an inappropriate moment and ruined my pleasure, therefore I curse you to be mute.”
Thereafter, Utay’thayan and Mamita’s son was born incapable of speech. He grew up to become the Sage Dirgha. In time, he fathered many illustrious sons of his own, starting with the renowned Guntam.
But, in time, Guntam and the other sons of Dirgha grew greedy and avaricious. They felt their unseeing father was a burden and sought to be rid of the responsibility of caring for him.
Deluded by maya, the urrkh art of magical illusion, they sought to commit the terrible crime of patricide. Binding their blind father to a log of wood they threw him into the waters of the Jeel, leaving the fierce river to do the rest. But Rishi Dirghatama did not drown and die as they expected.
Rishi Dirgha floated down the length of the mighty Jeel, passing by many kingdoms and despite all odds surviving, even in his helpless condition.
As the river took him through the Banaspulan, he was seen by a king named Banas, who was a scrupulous man. Banas was troubled because his wife was unable to bear sons and his line was at risk of ending. When he saw the sage tied to the timber, he felt as if the gods themselves had offered him a solution. For he recognized Dirgha from a previous encounter and had great reverence for the sage.
Wading out into the roaring rapids of the river, he risked his life to rescue the sage. Untying him and bringing him to solid land, he bowed down before Dirgha and beseeched him, “Great one, surely you have been sent to eliminate my anxiety. Grant me the blessing of fathering sons who are knowledgeable in morality and law.”
Rishi Dirgha was thankful for being saved and so readily agreed. Unable to speak, he conveyed his gratitude by laying his hand upon his rescuer’s head. Banas rose to his feet, invigorated by the sage’s blessings.
But when King Banas told his wife Sudina his intentions, she was repulsed. Rishi Dirgha was old, mute, and cantankerous. She had no desire to cohabit with him, however urgent the need for heirs, so she sent her wet nurse, a low-caste, in her stead.
Rishi Dirgha blessed the daiimaa with his seed time and again, fathering eleven sons upon her over time. The eldest of these sons was named Kavikshat and he was a handsome boy with many fine qualities. Seeing him, King Banas assumed he was the son of his wife Sudina. But the sage shook his head in denial, surprising the King. It was evident from Dirgha’s expressions and manner that he was deeply offended by the queen’s refusal and resented her greatly. On further probing, Banas learned what his wife had done and was shocked.
Banas pacified the rishi’s anger and persuaded him to give the queen one more chance. This time, he personally ensured that Sudina went to the sage. The sage felt the queen’s limbs carefully, pressing them hard enough to draw tears from her eyes. But she had been warned by her husband not to object to anything the sage said or did and kept her silence. Pleased by her silent acceptance, the sage thought to himself, “She is contrite and sincere. Banas and she deserve my gift of progeny. I will ensure she bears a great and powerful son, who will always be truthful.” Thus was born the seer-mage Anakh from Sudina.
Vrath finished his tale and then cautioned Jilana, “Therefore you must ensure that the queens Ember and Umber are well prepared and wholly willing to accept the procreator who comes to them. They must not offend him in any way, or he may well curse or inflict some condition upon their progeny.”
Jilana understood. “I shall see to it.”
She then left Vrath’s chambers and secluded herself in her own palace. Meditating, she thought of the day she had cohabited with Shapaar and in a rush, the memories coalesced into actual events. She experienced every detail of that day all over again: the fog that enshrouded them during their act of coitus; the departure of the sage; her rowing back to the island, her giving birth to an infant who grew from a babe to a full-grown adult male within the space of an hour; the tall, dark, fierce, and proud Vessa standing before her and joining his palms in greeting to his mother. She recalled his last words to her: “Mother, if at any time you have need of me, you need but think of me and I shall arrive before you instantly. Whatever the purpose, do not hesitate to call on me.” She remembered thinking at the time that this extraordinary message indicated her own conviction that their bond was an unusual one that would serve some greater purpose in time. And she knew now that this was that purpose—the reason for which she now wished to summon him.
Closing her eyes, she conjured an image of Vessa in her mind. Even across the great physical distance that separated them, Jilana was able to see her son as clearly as if he sat only yards away in the same chamber.
He was seated on a cloth beneath a banyan tree in his hermitage, reading a scroll and thinking deeply. She knew that he was likely reading through Krushan law and separating individual mantras and verses into separate volumes and sections. She hesitated to interrupt his brilliant work. But Vessa himself sensed her presence and opened his eyes.
“Mother, do you have need of my services?”
“Yes, my son, I do,” she heard herself reply. Her voice sounded strange, for though she spoke here in her chamber in the palace, her words resounded in that distant forest hermitage where Vessa resided.
Vessa smiled and rose to his feet. With a single step he covered the distance from his hermitage in the forest to her chamber.
Jilana opened her eyes.
There, before her, stood her son, much as the he had appeared the day he was born. Tall, as black of complexion as she herself, fierce of visage, and with the knobby, bony limbs of an austere penitent who devoted his days to meditation and self-deprivation.
His palms were joined in respectful greeting. He touched her feet and took her blessings. “Mother, command me. How may I serve you?”
Her throat was choked with emotion. “My son! First come and let me embrace you. That is my first command!”
She embraced him warmly, tears spilling onto his back as she unleashed the dam of pent-up emotions she had kept hidden in her heart all these many years. Her son! And she had not seen him but once in all his life, since the day she had given birth to him. She was flooded with feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.
But Vessa reassured her. “Do not blame yourself, Mother. I have had a good life. I am content.”
This made her cry even more copiously. But finally her tears subsided and she was able to explain to him why she had summoned him.
He listened carefully to the full account as he fetched water and washed her face of the residue of her tears.
“I shall do as you ask, Mother,” he replied when she had finished speaking. “I shall produce sons as magnificent as Varuna and Mitra. You have my word.”
She was overjoyed. She had never expected him to agree so readily and was thrilled at his acquiescence.
“I shall explain some vows and rituals Virya’s wives must follow,” he said. “They must observe these strictly and without deviating for a full year. When the year is over, I shall come to the palace and do as you ask.”
Jilana was dismayed at this response. “A full year? But my son. The kingdom could well be in disarray by then. Already we are hearing reports of unrest and conspiracy. We must act soon. Can you not forego the observance of vows and cause them to conceive at the earliest?”
He thought for a long moment then said, “I understand, Mother. And, indeed, I can make them conceive this very day if you wish. For it is a propitious time, I sense, and if I cohabit with them now, then all the signs point to their bearing great sons who will further your lineage. Bid them prepare to receive me at midnight. I shall come directly to their chambers.”
Jilana thought rapidly. It was a sign of great fortune that the very day on which she summoned Vessa was suitable for the act of conception. She took that to mean that she must ensure the deed was done at once, rather than risk waiting for the next suitable time. “Very well, then,” she said, “I shall go and prepare them.”
Vessa nodded. “But you understand that due to my ascetic vows, I am not bathed. As a hermit, I live in this manner, unwashed, clad in rags, my beard and hair wild and unkempt. My own natural appearance is none too pleasing to women either. I fear your daughters-in-law may not welcome me to their beds in this condition.”
Jilana said, “I shall make sure they do. Have no doubt. When you arrive in their chambers at midnight, they shall be ready to receive you.”
Jilana passed that night in tense anticipation. She found herself questioning her own decision to summon Vessa more than once but finally her sense of duty reaffirmed itself. If you don’t act, this family will die out like so many other dynasties have for want of progeny, she told herself. An empire is only as powerful as its current lieges, and without a suitable heir, the Burnt Empire would be devoured alive by its enemies.
And then there was Jarsun. Both kin and mortal enemy to her and all her family.
He was out there, somewhere, building his own unearthly powers and earthly assets, biding his time. She had no doubt of that. Sha’ant had warned her of the inevitability of their greatest enemy returning someday. For all she knew, once he heard of the absence of heirs, he might well turn up and lay claim to the Burning Throne. In point of fact, he had a legitimate right to the claim, and there might even be allies who would support him. To deny him would be to defy Krushan law, the bedrock of their society.
Vrath was the only one strong enough to stand against such a claim, but his own unwavering adherence to law might well see him come down on Jarsun’s side. The only reason Vrath had not brought up his name thus far was because he knew that if Jarsun took the Burning Throne, that would be the end of Jilana. Vrath’s loyalty to his late father extended to Jilana and he would give his life for her, but when it came to matters of law, Vrath could be vexingly adamant. His loyalty to his stepmother might make him avoid suggesting Jarsun’s name, but it would not extend to denying a possible claim. Which was all the more reason why she had felt the need to act now. And this had been her only remaining option.
She was still ruminating when Vessa returned to her chambers.
Jilana knew something was amiss the instant she saw his face. Her heart pounded. What had gone wrong? Still, she waited for him to speak and only when he remained silent for longer than she could bear did she ask aloud: “How went it, Vessa? Were the signs auspicious? Will she conceive an heir as desired?”
He did not meet her eyes as he responded. “The son she births will have the strength of a thousand elephants and the knowledge of as many seer-mages. He will experience good fortune, great progress, and be both valiant and wise.”
She felt a great burden lift from her heart. Smiling, she said, “That is wonderful news! Then the line of Krushan is saved.”
He went on in the same tone as if she had not spoken, “In time, he will sire many, many sons of his own. There will be no shortage of heirs in the Krushan line henceforth. If anything, there shall be too many.”
She laughed, thinking he was jesting. “Too many! There can never be too many heirs in a royal line.” Then she saw his face remained as rigid and unmoving and felt another twinge of concern. “All is well, is it not? The goal we desired has been accomplished successfully. Then why do I sense such ambivalence on your part, my son?”
He turned to look at her. She saw his eyes were sorrowful, angry and vexed. “Your daughter-in-law refused to look at me during the act. She kept her eyes shut. Clearly she found me ugly and undesirable.”
Jilana’s hand rose to her mouth, shocked. “But . . . what does that mean? She still conceived, did she not?”
He nodded once, grimly. “She did, Mother. Of that do not worry. But though she gave herself willingly, I was made to feel as an unwelcome intruder in her bed, and I fear that this will bode ill for the young prince.”
She swallowed, suddenly afraid. “But you said her son would be a great man, a great king, even . . .”
He looked at her silently for a moment longer, then said, “He will be that, and more, Mother. But he will also be born blind.”
Jilana staggered back, her hand to her chest. “Blind! But . . .” Her voice caught and she found herself unable to speak for a moment. With an effort she regained her voice. “But how can a blind boy become king? It is not possible under Krushan law. He must confront and overcome his enemies face to face in order to earn respect. Without the power of sight, he will be an object of ridicule and scorn!”
Vessa did not say anything.
Her mind in turmoil, Jilana thought of the choices available to her.
Finally, she spoke up decisively. “You must cohabit with my other daughter-in-law, Umber. Conceive a son upon her. I ask this of you by the bond that binds us together eternally.”
He nodded once. “I shall do as you ask, Mother. But prepare this one carefully. She must accept me willingly and with joy. The state of mind of the mother is vital to the creation of a suitable son.”
Jilana nodded. “It shall be done.”
But once again things did not go according to plan.
Umber reacted similarly to her sister. In fact, as the youngest and most sheltered, she was so deathly frightened at first sight of Vessa, she turned white as milk with shock. This time, Vessa was incensed and angered by her reaction. He told her, “Because you have turned white on seeing me, therefore your son shall be born white-skinned and unnatural among men. He shall have your beauty, but his skin shall be without hue, marking him out as unique in a world of wheat-colored and crow-black people. He shall be derisively known as Shvate, The White One, by all men.”
When Jilana heard this news, she was shaken to the core. Her magnificent plan to save the dynasty seemed to be worsening the situation rather than resolving it. Vessa told her, “Shvate the White shall in his turn sire five great offspring, who shall be famous and remembered to the end of human history. I have done my part, Mother. I cannot help it if your daughters-in-law were unwilling to cooperate and do their part as well.”
Jilana acknowledged his words. “What you say is undeniable, Vessa. But even this will not suffice. The Krushan line cannot be ruled by either a blind king or one whose appearance is certain to earn the derision and laughter of his people. After a suitable interval, you must father yet another son upon one of my daughters-in-law.”
He bowed his head. “I shall always serve you, Mother. But this time, prepare them well.”
But the third time, when Vessa went to Ember’s bedchamber, he found another woman in her place, bedecked in her garments and ornaments and lying in her bed. He knew this was not the queen he was to mate with, and yet this woman was wholly willing and eager to cohabit with him. Pleased at her reaction, the son of Jilana united with her with great pleasure and they both achieved mutual satisfaction in the act. After the night was over and daybreak came, he rose to leave her, saying, “Blessed One, I know that you are not Queen Ember but her maid servant. No matter. Henceforth, you shall no longer be a maid nor shall you serve anyone. You shall bear a great and virtuous son, who shall embody the aspect of Krushan itself upon this mortal plane. Indeed, though I sired him in body, in spirit he shall be Shima himself reborn, the lawful son of the Lord of Death and Law.” So saying, he disappeared.
The next day, Vessa came to visit Jilana again, and when she heard that her daughter-in-law had substituted her maid and that though the son born to the girl would be a great man and an incarnation of Shima himself, he would not be an eligible heir to the Burning Throne under Krushan law, she despaired of resolving the problem of progeny in this manner. She thanked Vessa profusely for he had done what had been asked of him.
Vessa then disappeared for the last time but before he left, he said these prophetic words:
“The seeds sown in the wombs of these Queens of the Krushan line could well yield a harvest of great heirs and descendants in this great House. But they may also be the seeds of a less desirable outcome. Be cautious in the extreme, Mother, for I fear that they may be the seeds of war.”
In the years to come, Vessa’s parting statement proved prophetic, for everything that followed thereafter in Krushan history would be the bitter harvest reaped from those same seeds, culminating ultimately in the greatest war of all time, one terrible enough to almost entirely wipe out the entire Krushan race from the face of Arthaloka, and shatter not just an empire, but a continent.
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.
John Joseph Adams Books
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