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Friday, December 14, 2018
“I am worried,” Sumitra said to Arnava. “I don’t think that message we found in that room was a prank.”
They were in the room which Sumitra had chosen for his paintings. It was near the artificial waterfall in the palace gardens, and there was an ornamental fountain in the middle of the large circular room. The room had semi circular broad windows which were large enough for a person to get through. There was ornamental lattice work on the window panes and cream coloured gauzy curtains. All the windows opened to the garden, one showing the waterfall, another the grove of mango trees, yet another the winding jasmine vines, and then there was the door itself which opened onto a path with flowering creepers forming a natural canopy over it.
It was a room in which it was possible to have a private conversation without fear of eavesdroppers, since the sound of the waterfall and the ornamental fountain masked most sounds, especially if someone was talking in in low voices and Sumitra and Arnava were talking in very low voices. The room itself was large with the windows providing light, and the domed ceiling was made of glass, so there was always daylight coming in, and there were a row of flowering plants near one wall, and the rest of the room was bare, except for the fountain and the easel with an unfinished portrait resting on it. Arnava stood close to the portrait, as if examining it, and Sumitra stood to his right, also facing the portrait, though his face was half turned towards his brother as he spoke.
“I don’t think so, either,” Arnava said. “And there’s something else. Something I haven’t told anyone yet.”
“What?” Sumitra asked.
Arnava glanced to the windows and door as if to make certain they were alone. “I got a message to go the deserted mansion at the northwest corner of the Trader’s street. It said we were all in danger.” His voice was so low, Sumitra had to lean in close to hear him. “It said to go alone… and the note… it burned up when I finished reading.”
Sumitra sucked in a breath. “I don’t like this. Did you go?”
“I did, and… well, there was this…thing…”
“Thing?” Sumitra frowned.
“I don’t know what to call it, it wasn’t human.” Arnava licked his lips. “It… It felt evil, and it had a voice that still gives me shivers. It.. It told me that the usurper must die, and it mentioned Bhaskara by name.”
“That’s the second time that term has been used for our brother.” Sumitra said, his frown deepening. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”
“And you know, those men who attacked him that day?” Arnava continued. “Senapati Rishabha had said he’ll make enquiries about them.”
“And?” Sumitra gave him an enquiring glance.
“When the soldiers sent by Rishabha reached the temple, there were no bodies there. The weapons they had dropped were also gone. There was no blood nor any signs that a battle had taken place. The sword that Bhaskara had taken from them was also missing from the palace armoury.”
Sumitra moved away from the painting and started to pace back and forth rapidly. “I don’t like this!” he repeated. “I just… I like this less and less, and.. Damn it! What do we do?”
“What can we do?” Arnava asked. “I’m not happy with any of this, but we can’t always be shadowing him. Besides which, he can take care of himself. I don’t know what those men were trying to do anyway, since that enchantment makes him invulnerable.”
“That is true,” Sumitra conceded. “And he is a very skilled warrior. Arnava,” he paused, hesitating and then asked hurriedly. “Do you think Maitreya could be behind this?”
“No!” Arnava was shocked. “How can you even think that! He’s our brother!”
“Who’s fanatically loyal to you.” Sumitra said, though he didn’t sound happy. “I know he’s better these days, but he’s still not fully reconciled to the fact that Bhaskara turned up out of the blue. And then there’s the repeated use of the word ‘usurper’. We’ve both heard Maitreya refer to Bhaskara as usurper more than once.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s doing these things.” Arnava said. “Besides, none of this is Bhaskara’s fault. Maitreya is not so irrational as not to understand it. Also, he’s much more friendly with Bhaskara and yes, he still calls him usurper, but it’s – it’s like a term of endearment now.”
“I know,” Sumitra muttered. “But if it’s not him, then someone is trying to make us think it is.”
“Only a fool would entertain such a doubt. For one thing, how could he have conjured up something like that thing I saw?” Arnava lifted his brows.
Sumitra frowned. “What did it look like?”
“It looked- human, I think. I don’t know, it was covered in a cloak with a hood, I mean fully covered, as if… as if it was formed of shadows. It’s voice...” Arnava shivered. “I’ve never heard a human voice like that. I put an arrow through it, and it just vanished. I mean the arrow went through the cloak, but there was nothing underneath it.”
“Now, you’re scaring me.” Sumitra moved back to the portrait, and touched it absently smudging the paint. “Who could actually control something like that?”
“That’s something we cannot know unless we know what it was.” Arnava said.
“Should we tell Maitreya, or father?” Sumitra asked. “Or do we keep this to ourselves?”
Arnava hesitated. “I don’t want father to worry.”
“And Maitreya?” Sumitra asked.
“I trust him, but… you know what he’s like. He’ll be so incensed that someone’s been trying to implicate him that he’ll just… I don’t know, try and go after whoever it is, tear that whole building down? Start questioning everyone?” Arnava shrugged. “I think it’s best if we keep this to ourselves for the moment.”
Sumitra opened his mouth and then closed it again. “I see, okay. So, you don’t want him to know because you’re afraid of how he’ll react.” He paused. “Can I ask you something? Why was he so upset when Bhaskara came? I mean, if you were upset, I can understand that. You weren’t. I love you just as much as he does, and yet even I knew that it wasn’t Bhaskara’s fault. Besides, Bhaskara… he’s so easy to like, so… why was Maitreya so upset?”
“As you said, he’s fanatically loyal to me,” Arnava said. “And somehow he felt that I’ve been shortchanged, and he feels that if Bhaskara hadn’t come here, none of this would have happened.”
“Father needn’t have acknowledged him, so openly,” Sumitra said. “Bhaskara did not know who he was. So how is any of this his fault?”
“It’s not that he blames Bhaskara precisely,” Arnava said, struggling for words. “He... he’s just disappointed I think, and not just for me, he never expected father would’ve been unfaithful to our mother, and… he’s just disappointed overall, and Bhaskara is a more convenient outlet than father.”
“Well, that’s how life is. I mean, nothing goes according to plan. He ought to realize that. He’s old enough. But yes, I do understand about being disappointed in father.” Sumitra glanced at the smudged painting. “It’s not something I expected either.”
“I know,” Arnava sighed. “I feel the same. And I think Maitreya does know that life doesn’t go according to plan, but… we’ve all pampered him a lot, and it’s more difficult for him to get over the disappointment. But it’s already started, he’s changed, and I don’t want him to feel angry or upset so he’ll throw himself into a situation where he could be in danger.”
Sumitra nodded. “So, we keep this to ourselves. But then what?”
“I don’t know,” Arnava said. “I think… whatever I saw was not human… and perhaps we need the help of an enchanter.”
“Somehow,” Sumitra said morosely. “I like that idea even less.”
“Let’s consider it a last resort then,” Arnava said. “I wish I could’ve seen the symbol drawn on the chests of the men who attacked him. It was in black, but the light was bad. Perhaps that symbol could have given us a clue.”
Sumitra nodded. “No use worrying about it now,” he said bracingly. “We just need to figure out how to protect Bhaskara without him realizing.”
Saturday, November 24, 2018
Abhi was sober too, a fact for which Aditya felt grateful. He laughed when Shyam told him he was coming with them.
"I'm not surprised," he said, chuckling. "I half expected your house would be too full."
"I should be offended," Shyam replied, grinning. "But I'm too relieved that you aren’t mad."
“Why the hell should I be?” Abhi asked. “I’ve known you long enough.”
They finished their dinner, Shyam brought his backpack and books, they bid good bye to Shyam’s parents and Vina who had a face like a thundercloud, and they were on their way. Aditya concentrated on the road, which was not too difficult since both Shyam and Abhi were quiet during the drive. Traffic was not heavy, it being a Sunday night and the night was clear. They reached home soon and Aditya was locking the car when something came hurtling out of the night to smash into the car window.
"What the fuck!" Abhi swore as he ran into the direction from where it came, with Shyam and Aditya following. They rounded the house and stopped. There was no one to be seen anywhere. It was a moonlit night and they would have seen it if anyone was there.
"What the hell was that?" Abhi asked.
"I'm as much in the dark as you." Aditya replied, a worried frown on his face.
"Let's go back," Shyam said. "There seems to be no one here."
They went back to the house and Aditya gave a rueful glance at the car. "How am I even going to explain that to my insurance company?"
Abhi shook his head, a heavy scowl on his face. “Let’s go inside,” he said. “We can have a look in the morning.”
Aditya nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Sorry about that, Shyam.”
“Oh don’t worry about me,” Shyam said as he took his back pack and entered the house in Abhi’s wake. “I’ve been around Vina and her boyfriends. A smashed car window is nothing. It’s not as if it’s your fault, anyway.”
"Shyam can share my room," Abhi said as they entered the house. “No need to spruce up the guest room just for a night.”
"Okay," Aditya said, distracted. "I’ve some work to do. You two can go to bed if you want."
"I think I'll watch TV for a while, if you two don't mind," Shyam said.
"Go ahead," Aditya said as he went into his own room.
He went into the bathroom and was surprised to see a faint line of blood on his face. He remembered his face had stung when the stone or whatever it was had smashed into the car window. Probably, he got grazed by it or the broken window glass. He washed his face, grimacing at the faint scratch. Hopefully it would not leave a scar. He was not vain, but he did not like the idea of explaining how he got the scar to anyone.
He sat down at his desk and pulled the stack of assignments that he had to grade, towards him. But he could not concentrate. Giving it up as a bad job, he went to bed, but sleep was fitful and he woke well before the dawn. Rising, he made his way downstairs and out of the house. He opened the car door carefully, trying not to cause the broken glass to shatter further. He frowned as he picked up the object that had caused the glass to shatter. It was not a stone, as he had assumed. He examined the object, feeling quite confused.
"What’s ‘at?" Shyam came down the steps, yawning. He looked dishevelled and sleepy. Aditya could tell that Shyam was probably not used to waking this early. Very much like Abhi in that respect.
"This is what broke the window last night," he said as he carefully closed the door and straightened, holding out the object to Shyam.
Shyam gasped, his eyes losing their drowsiness. "That is-"
Aditya grimaced. "It’s weird, actually."
"I'm really feeling freaked out," Shyam muttered, “I’ve lost all my wish to go back to bed.” He held it gingerly his hand, and gasped again, "It's got blood on it!"
"Yea, it grazed my cheek last night," Aditya’s hand went to where he had put a sticking plaster on it. It no longer stung.
Shyam looked at Aditya, his eyes sharp. "Shame," he drawled. "Hope it won't scar your handsome face, big bro."
"I’m more worried about other things," Aditya said as he jerked his head in the direction of his car.
"No insurance company is going to believe this," Shyam said. "You better concoct a convincing story."
"I would have thought it a random act of vandalism but for that thing," Aditya said. He was feeling quite worried.
"Wha’ th’ng?" A sleepy voice spoke as Abhi came out into the porch, with a jaw cracking yawn. "And why ‘re you both up s’ early? It's a holiday, isn't it?"
Shyam bounded up the stairs. "Yes, it is, but Prof Aditya just found what was the thing that broke his car window last night." He held it out to Abhi. "Here’s the culprit, and it grazed the Professor's face too."
Abhi held his breath, his gaze focussing. "That's an arrow!"
"Very perceptive," Shyam, said, grinning.
Aditya gave him a reproving glance as he nodded. "Yes, but it's like no arrow I've ever seen."
"Er.. Are any of us experts on arrows here?" Shyam asked.
Aditya chuckled. "No, I accept that. But all of us have watched enough sports events and movies to be familiar with the general shape of one. And that looks like an arrow, but it also looks very strange."
Abhi took it from Shyam's hand. Aditya was right. It did look strange. It was very light for one, almost too light. It was made of metal, though Abhi could not guess what metal could be this light. It was long, slender and straight. The arrowhead was diamond shaped and the fletching was some feather of a grey colour. The arrowhead and the shaft appeared to be one unit, and the shaft was as thick as his finger. He tapped it, and it didn’t sound hollow.
"It looks so," he paused, not too sure of how to put it in words. "So perfect," he said finally.
"It nearly killed your brother and you are admiring its beauty?" Shyam rolled his eyes.
Aditya could see what Abhi meant though. Once the initial shock was over, it was impossible not to admire the craftsmanship of the object. "It didn't even come close to killing me," he corrected. "It only broke a car window. And yes, I see what you mean Abhi. Whoever made it is a master craftsman."
"Was, probably," Shyam said. "What are the odds of someone in our times making stuff like that?"
"Why not?" Abhi asked. "This is a work of art, not a weapon. Any number of artists might have made it."
"A weapon masquerading as a work of art," Shyam said.
"Let's go inside," Aditya said, hugging himself. It was a cold morning, but suddenly it seemed colder. "At least it might be warmer there."
Abhi grinned. "You always hate the winter."
"I don't hate it, I just don't see the need for it," Aditya responded. The cold seemed to be attacking his very bones.
Abhi shook his head with a smile as Aditya went inside. His eyes met Shyam's. Shyam smiled at him and they followed Aditya.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
The room was in shambles. Broken pieces of furniture lay everywhere. Cushions and mattresses were slashed to pieces. Curtains were ripped from their frames and torn apart. Bhaskara stared at the room in dismay. True, he did not live here any more, yet such malicious devastation was inconceivable to him. Sumitra who was with him, growled in anger as they both stopped at the threshold.
"Who has done this?"
"I’ve no idea," Bhaskara muttered. "The house has been uninhabited since, well, you know."
Sumitra knew all too well. This was the house that Bhaskara had found and repaired when he had first come to Jwalamukha. He had lived here over a month before that fateful and momentous day when he had come to the palace to meet the King for a job in his army. After that day, the house had again fallen into disuse. Sumitra had been curious to see the place and Bhaskara had offered to take him which was how they happened to be here.
"All the other rooms are intact," Bhaskara said. This was the room he had used as his bedroom. It was not a large house, just three rooms and a small courtyard.
"That somehow worries me more,” Sumitra said. “First that attack on you by unknown masked assailants the other day, and now this, this -wanton destruction of a room you used to live in... Someone doesn’t seem to like you much. In fact, they seem desperate to get rid of you!"
Bhaskara shrugged. "I can take care of myself." He believed that. And it wasn’t all because of his mother’s enchantment either. He could not remember her. The sage had told him that childbirth had weakened her, and he’d assumed that that was how she’d died.
"I know," Sumitra muttered. "But doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried."
The two men stepped into the room. Broken pieces of furniture were strewn all over the floor, interspersed with the cotton from the mattresses and cushions. Near to the window, a glint caught their eye.
"It's..." Sumitra paled. "Now I am officially worried."
Arrowheads were arranged near the window to form words: "The usurper must die!"
“That means you, I think.” Sumitra gave his brother a concerned glance.
"A prank," Bhaskara said, though his teeth were gritted in anger.
“I think not. Not after that attack the other day.” Sumitra sounded agitated. “We need to find who’s behind this. We can’t just let this go.”
“I never asked for any of this,” Bhaskara muttered, looking around the room in bewilderment.
Sumitra looked at his brother, but with a tact inborn in him, he kept silent. Bhaskara swept away the arrowheads with his hand, looking furious. Sumitra was furious too, but he was also frightened. Someone wanted their brother dead, someone thought of him as a usurper. The use of that word worried him the most. He had heard someone use that word to describe Bhaskara, and he was scared that this was the handiwork of Maitreya.
Maitreya was almost blindly loyal to Arnava and had always been, but he was not malicious and he had been warming to Bhaskara ever since he had realised that Arnava was happier and that he genuinely cared for Bhaskara.
And yet, there was the word usurper which was how Maitreya had always referred to Bhaskara. Sumitra wasn’t sure what to think, and who to talk to. Could he tell Arnava? He didn’t know what else to do.
Monday, October 29, 2018
Aditya sat in a corner, feeling out of place and bored. He and Abhi had arrived at Shyam and Vina’s house at six and had been ushered into this room. It was a large room which was already full of people the same age as Abhi and Aditya had immediately felt out of place. He had found a seat in a corner and Abhi had stayed at his side for a while before Aditya told him to go and have fun. Abhi had resisted before gravitating towards his friends. There were a lot of Aditya’s students among the guests, and they came over to greet him before going back to mingle with their friends. Abhi was dancing with a girl whom he remembered having seen once or twice around the campus. Vina was flirting with one of the boys from their class named Aakash and Shyam was nowhere to be found.
He was wondering if it might be polite to leave and was looking around to see if he can spot Shyam anywhere when a stranger came and sat down on a chair next to him.
“Hi,” said the man. “You are Abhi’s brother, aren’t you?”
Aditya looked at the man. He had never seen him before. He was tall, with a pleasant open face, and pair of very keen eyes.
“Yes,” Aditya said. “But how did you know?”
The stranger chuckled. “Easy to spot the resemblance. I’m Savit, by the way. I’m not from the college, I’m a family friend of Shyam. That’s how I met Abhi.”
Aditya nodded. “Nice to meet you,” he said, before relapsing into silence. What did one say in situations like this? He had never had any skill in making small talk.
“You’re a professor, aren’t you? What do you teach?” Savit asked.
“Economics,” Aditya replied, nearly suppressing a groan. It looked as if Savit wasn’t going to leave soon.
“I’m a total ignoramus where that is concerned,” Savit grinned. “Just scraped through with pass marks in school.”
Aditya smiled faintly, not knowing how to answer or if any answer was expected.
“You’re not drinking,” Savit observed.
“I have to drive home,” Aditya answered.
“Hmm… and your parents are on holiday, I heard.”
“Not exactly. They have gone to visit our grandparents.” Aditya wondered how Savit knew about their parents not being home, but he did not explain that his grandmother was ill and his parents would not be returning in the near future, not till she improved anyway.
“I see,” Savit said, smiling. “Well, nice talking to you, Aditya. Be seeing you around.”
Aditya heaved a sigh of relief as Savit disappeared into the crowd of dancing youngsters. But the sigh turned into a groan as Aakash sat down onto the vacant seat with an ingratiating smile.
"Here you are," an unknown girl with a bright smile grabbed hold of Aakash before he even greeted Aditya. With a muttered apology, Aakash went with the girl.
"Enjoying yourself?" Shyam took the seat.
"Would you feel offended if I say no?" Aditya was tired of trying to make conversations. At least with Shyam, he didn’t have to pretend.
Shyam shrugged. "Not really. Abhi did warn me you were kinda anti-social."
"I'm not, but I'm not comfortable with people I don't know." Aditya was offended. He wasn’t anti-social. He just liked his own company or those of his books more.
“Sounds anti-social to me,” Shyam teased. “If you’re tired of the party, go and have dinner. Buffet is arranged outside. You can go home afterwards."
"Abhi planning to stay here tonight?" Aditya asked.
"I think so. We'll be glad to have you too, you know." Shyam said.
"I think I'll go. I dread having to make small talk to people I don't know." Aditya hadn’t meant to have said it, but he wasn’t regretting having said it either.
Shyam laughed. "Well, Saina saved you from Aakash, didn't she? You didn't have to make any small talk."
"Not with him. But there was no one to save me from that Savit guy."
"Savit?" There was a slight frown on Shyam’s face.
"He said he was a family friend." Aditya said.
"Oh him! Yea. He's a bore. Come to think of it, he wanted to stay the night too. And so did a couple of others." Shyam frowned. "I’m beginning to see that we don’t have enough room. Abhi will need to go home. How am I even going to explain that?"
Aditya chuckled. "How fortunate l did not take you up on your invitation!"
"I'm bad at organizing," Shyam grimaced. "I will probably need to sleep on the couch too. Never mind. You go have your dinner. I shall bring Abhi too."
"He won't be happy," Aditya muttered.
"No, he won't. I'm hoping he'll..." Shyam's brow cleared. "I got it! I'll come with you two. I just need to throw a few things in a bag. How lucky tomorrow is a holiday!"
"What? But it's your birthday! You can't just leave your guests and go like that!"
"Vina will manage them. She owes me one anyway. And mum and dad won't mind too much. You did meet them today, didn't you?"
"Yes, when we came in. Why do you ask as if they’re strangers to me?”
“Just ‘coz they’ll be asking me later if you and Abhi attended. They’re not familiar with most of this crowd, but they know and like the two of you.”
“Well, I haven't seen them since I came in." Aditya couldn’t really make head or tail out of Shyam’s explanation.
"Oh, they'll be around somewhere. They don't enjoy this crowd, but they enjoy parties. I’ll just go and tell them I’m coming with you, and we’ll all have our dinner and we’ll go.”
"Well, if you're sure, you're welcome to come with us." Aditya gave in.
"Thanks big bro." Shyam flashed him a bright smile.