Book 2 | Chapter 16 | The Emperor confides to his daughter

That was when that the warrior realised that the girl was deaf and dumb. The warrior’s heart broke. Yet, his love for the girl increased. He did not feel that the loss of the two senses was significant. Her expressive eyes compensated for them.”

The next morning, the Emperor summoned his favourite daughter. He ordered the doctor, soldier, and others to go out of the room, so that he could speak in private to her.

“Appa, are you angry with me?”

“Why should I be angry with my dear girl?”

“I defied your orders and came to Thanjavur.”

“Yes. You should not have come here. This palace is not amenable for young girls like you to live in. You should now be aware of what happened last night? I am talking about the way the Kodumbalur princess was found unconscious yesterday night. How is she now?”

“She is fine now. She used to be like this even in Pazhayarai. She used to faint often, but then she would recover very quickly.”

“Did you ask her if she saw or heard anything in this palace that caused her to faint?”

“Yes. I asked, and she was saying something about losing her way trying to find the terrace. She was also saying that she heard someone crying piteously for help. And then she became afraid and fainted.”

“That is what I also thought. And this is why I do not want you to stay here. There are ghosts in this palace that roam around in the night.”

The Emperor shivered and his eyes glazed.

“If that is so, why are you still here in Thanjavur? Should you and mother not come to Pazhayarai too? I do not see any improvement in your health, by you being here.”

“My health is not going to improve. I have lost hope.”

“Why are you being so negative? The Pazhayarai Vaidhiyar seems to think that you can definitely be cured.”

“And I know you sent someone to Lanka to procure herbs for curing me. Do you love your father so much, my dear girl?”

She hugged him. “Of course.”

“Honestly, I am very happy that you have come here. I need to tell you something.”

“My illness is not physical. It is due to mental stress. I am under so much stress, that I cannot even rule this small kingdom of mine.”

“But then, why should you strain yourself? You have two wonderful sons. When you have them, why should you worry?”

“That is my worry, my girl. I am wondering if it would be the right thing to hand over this kingdom to my sons. This kingdom comes with a curse.”

“What curse can possibly come from this kingdom? The Chozha kingdom is the pride of South India. Our ancestors have done so much good in the past. Our ancestors include the great Manu Needhi Chozhan and Sibi Chakravarthy. How can you say that such a kingdom comes with a curse?”

“Appa, I think you are in a dazed mental state. Please come with me to Pazhayarai.”

“I would love to come to beautiful Pazhayarai, but this kingdom still exists only because I am here. If I leave, this kingdom will shatter. The play that was conducted yesterday – do you recall what happened during the play? Did you see the way the different camps of Pazhuvoor and Kodumbalur were boisterously cheering?

Imagine what would happen if I am not here. These camps would just start fighting openly. Like Lord Krishna’s curse, this kingdom will implode within itself, with these people fighting among themselves.”

“I do not want these people to fight among themselves. In the last hundred years, both these families have stood by the Emperor’s side and helped build the kingdom.”

“But what if I said that one of these families might be plotting against you?” The Emperor clearly was shaken. “What are you saying, Kundavai?”

“People who are pretending to be very close to you are plotting against you. They are plotting to ensure that your sons do not ascend the throne. They are planning to crown Madhuranthakan as Emperor.”

“Aha. If only they succeed in doing so, it would gladden me.”

Kundavai was shocked.

“Appa, what are you saying? Do you not want your sons to ascend the throne?”

“I do not want them to get this cursed kingdom. I would be glad if Madhuranthakan becomes Emperor. Would he accept?”

“He would gladly accept. But I am extremely shocked and upset at your views. Would you even want to ask my brother?”

“Of course, I would need to ask Aditya Karikalan. I would also need to ask the Royal Matron.”

“You are very close to the Matron. Please go to her and convince her to change her mind about Madhuranthakan becoming Emperor. Then, go to Kanchi, and convince Adityan to give up his rights over this accursed kingdom.”

Kundavai was shocked and had no words.

“Appa, you keep mentioning about a curse. What curse is this?”

“Sometimes, I get these haunting memories. I have not spoken to anyone about this. Please do not tell anyone about this.”

The Emperor sighed and looked up at the ceiling. And then, he began talking.

“It was an island. The waters were calm. The small island had a lot of greenery. Behind some bushes, there was a young warrior crouching. He was staring intently at a boat. He was staring until the boat was out of sight. He seemed to be relieved that he had escaped being spotted by someone in the boat.”

“The warrior was of a royal family, but was not the heir to any throne. He did not have any desire to rule either. His father had been the youngest of three brothers. Hence, he had never even imagined being the heir. He had joined the army and had a small force with him. He had embarked on a war on a distant land. The army had been defeated badly. The warrior’s force had been completely decimated. While the remaining few soldiers readied to head back to their land, this warrior did not want to go back. How could he, who had lost his entire force, head back? He found it disgraceful.”

“Silently, without anyone knowing, he had jumped off the boat, and had swum to this little island. And he waited for the ship to vanish out of his sight. He then explored the island. The island seemed to be uninhabited. He suddenly heard a human voice – it was the voice of a lady. He turned around and saw a ferocious bear chasing a young girl.

The bear was catching up to her. He grabbed his spear and flung it at the bear. The spear wounded the bear, but did not kill it. The girl was safe, but the wounded bear had turned towards the warrior. The bear and the warrior wrestled for a short time, but the warrior was victorious.”

“He then looked around and searched for her. His eyes found her, hiding behind a coconut tree. He realised that she was a tribal girl. Her behaviour and her mannerisms gave her away. She did have a wide smile on her face – happy to be alive, he guessed. But her beauty was unmatched. He had never seen anyone as beautiful as her.”

“He tried approaching her, but she started running. He did not follow her. He realised that this was a small island, and that he would meet her again very soon. He was tired. He lay down on the sandy beach.”

“Very soon, she returned. With her, came a man. He came to know that he was from a fisherman community, which lived in the Lankan coastline. The man told our warrior that the girl had saved his life from a bear. The man had been on a tree, when the bear had attacked. The girl had distracted the bear and saved his life.”

“The warrior noticed that, for all the questions that he had been asking, the girl did not reply. It had always been the man who had answered. That was when that the warrior realised that the girl was deaf and dumb. The warrior’s heart broke. Yet, his love for the girl increased. He did not feel that the loss of the two senses was significant. Her expressive eyes compensated for them.”

“The warrior stayed on in this heavenly island with his lady love. Days turned into months, and months into years. He stopped keeping count of time. This heavenly time ended very abruptly.

One fine day, a ship anchored close to the island. Men came down to the island in rafts. He came to know that they had come for him.”

“He came to know of several untoward incidents that had happened in his kingdom – an uncle passing away, an uncle who did not have any children, and his father grievously wounded. He came to know that he was suddenly the Emperor that his kingdom was waiting for. He did not want to leave his heavenly island and his lovely lady. Yet, he had to go. His kingdom was waiting for him. He had no choice.”

“He promised a thousand times to the girl, that he would be back. The tribal girl, who had been raised in this isolated island, did not even want to come out in the open, in front of these strange men. As the warrior boarded the ship, he saw the girl sitting on top of a bent coconut tree trunk, with tears streaming down her beautiful face.”

“Kundavai, this sad scene keeps coming to my mind all the time. “

“There is one more scene, which keeps coming back to haunt me. Can I tell you about that scene too? Will you listen to me?”

Kundavai was choking with sorrow, but managed to nod her head, egging him to continue.

Book 2 | Chapter 13 | Ponniyin Selvan

While the Princess’s mind was flitting between so many of these thoughts, Vaanathi’s clear thoughts were focused on only one person – Prince Arulmozhi. She was worrying about the Prince, and the potential hardships that he was facing in Lanka. She was thinking about when he would return.

While Vandhiyathevan was walking towards Maathottam, and while Nambi was narrating his experiences to Chief Minister Aniruddha Brahmaraayar, Princess Kundavai and her best friend Vanathi were nearing Thanjavur in a covered ambari atop an elephant. The Princess had not travelled to Thanjavur for a while, because of one predominant reason. Thanjavur did not have separate palaces for the ladies of the royalty. Everyone had to reside in the main palace of the Emperor. The rest of the palaces in the city had been taken over by the Pazhuvettarayars, their family, and various members of the administration.

In Pazhayarai, Princess Kundavai and her hand-maidens could come and go as they pleased from their independent palaces. Movements in Thanjavur fort were much more restricted because of security rules imposed by the Pazhuvettarayars. The Princess did not also like the attitude of the Pazhuvoor queen. It was also the wish of the ageing Emperor that the Princess stay at Pazhayarai.

However, ever since she had met Vandhiyathevan and heard his stories, she had felt very guilty about being in Pazhayarai. Her elder brother was in Thondainaadu, the younger was fighting a war in Lanka – it did not feel right not to be with her father in Thanjavur. She felt obligated to play a role in the administrative affairs of the Kingdom. The sinister plots that Vandhiyathevan had mentioned reaffirmed her decision to go to Thanjavur and be with her father. Her father’s life itself might be in danger. She guessed that several of these plots were being driven by her arch-enemy Nandini. She had to be there at Thanjavur.

There was one other reason why she had to be at Thanjavur. She had to get regular updates about Vandhiyathevan. She had heard that the Pazhuvettarayars had sent guards to capture Vandhiyathevan. If the guards were indeed successful in capturing him, they would bring him to Thanjavur. She could help reduce the sentence and perhaps even free him. The Princess also had one more thing in her mind – she had to somehow convince Kandanmaran that it was not Vandhiyathevan who had stabbed him in the back.

While the Princess’s mind was flitting between so many of these thoughts, Vanathi’s clear thoughts were focused on only one person – Prince Arulmozhi. She was worrying about the Prince, and the potential hardships that he was facing in Lanka. She was thinking about when he would return.

Suddenly, Vanathi turned towards the Princess and asked her, “Akka, you told me that you would tell me the story of how your brother got the name – Ponniyin Selvan. At the rate at which this elephant is moving, it would take a while to get to Thanjavur.”

The Princess agreed to tell the story.

When Emperor Sundara Chozhan had just come to power, the whole family used to go on cruises down the River Ponni. The yacht would be filled with happiness and laughter. The children used to be on one side of the craft, having fun, while the elders would be sitting on the other side, indulging in light banter. This used to happen on a regular basis, providing a respite from the stressful life of the Emperor.

On one such excursion, Princess Kundavai had suddenly noticed that Prince Arulmozhi was not to be found. Out of everyone in the family, Kundavai was the one who was closest to Arulmozhi. At this time,

Arulmozhi was five years of age, and Kundavai, seven. When she could not find her brother, she started shouting to attract the attention of the elders. Everyone started searching the boat, but in vain. The ladies started wailing. Some of the soldiers and the Emperor himself jumped into the water to search.

At that very moment, an amazing sight was seen. Right in front of the anchored boat, there was a lady who had the Prince raised in her arms. She was half way submerged in water. When the Emperor saw this sight, he swiftly swam to the lady, and took his child into his arms. By this time, more soldiers had reached close to him. Hands grabbed the child and pulled him on board. More people helped the Emperor to board the yacht. Once on board the yacht, the Emperor fell unconscious. In the confusion that ensued and the relief that was felt, no one remembered to look for the lady who had helped save the Prince. No one even remembered how she looked like. The lady did not come forward to claim the pride either. She just vanished.

People assumed that it was the Goddess Kaveri herself had come to the rescue of the Prince. People familiar with this incident started calling him – Ponniyin Selvan.

Book 2 | Chapter 12 | Nammazhwar corrects Nambi

“Thirumalai, please tell me what you have seen and heard during your travels. Tell me as is, without hiding anything.”

“Are you asking me to narrate here? Things that I say might shock anyone who hears them – even Vayu Bhagavan, the Wind God, Bhooma Devi, the Earth, and Samudrarajan, the Lord of the Ocean.”

Anbil Sri Vadivazhagiya Nambi Perumal temple – img src: divinetraveller.net

At this time, we would also like to bring to the attention of the reader some archaeological facts. About a hundred years ago, in the village of Anbil, in the Lalgudi Taluk of the Tiruchirapalli district, a merchant had wanted to renovate his old house. While digging its foundation, he found metal plaques with a lot of historical inscriptions.

He handed these to Shri RSL Lakshmana Chettiar, who then handed it to two experts in archaeology and Chozha history – Shri Swaminatha Iyer and Shri Gopinath Rao.

These plaques had a lot of details regarding the Emperors of the Chozha dynasty. These included land grants by the Emperor Sundara Chozhan to his Chief Minister Anbil Aniruddha Brahmaraayar. The plaques also had details about the Chief Minister and his family. These details had great archaeological value and confirmed several historical events.

Alwarkadiyaan entered the room, circumambulated his Guru three times and prostrated before him.

“Please give me permission to leave my Vaishnavism and the obligation to serve you right now. I will now convert to the Kaalamugam sect in Shaivism. I will grow a beard, take up a skull, and roam the country. I will use this same staff to break open every Vaishnavar who comes my way.”

“Stop! Stop! I fear you now.”

“Why should you fear? Only Vaishnavites need to fear.”

“But I am still one.”

Nambi was clearly confused.

“Are you the one hailing from the illustrious family that unfailingly served Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I also hear that you went to the Shiva temple today and did pooja there?”

“Yes. That is also true.”

“Sire – please clarify all this to me. You were my Guru, who taught me that Lord Narayana is the only God in this whole wide world.”

“The fact that I went to the Shiva temple is true. But the God that I saw inside was Lord Narayana.”

“How is that possible? “

“Nammazhwar himself has said that one can see whichever God he wants to see, wherever he wants. He never used to hate any of those who worshipped other Gods.”

“I am sorry. I have not heard all of Nammazhwar’s songs. He does make a lot of sense. I also doubted you. Please forgive me.”

“I would like to go and settle down in Thirukkurugur. I would like to spend the rest of my life collating and spreading the thousand songs that Nammazhwar sang. Will you grant me that wish?”

“What leads you to ask me this wish?”

“Earlier this month, I was at Veeranarayanapuram. When I was singing an Alwar Paasuram, the temple priest Ishwara Bhattar was overjoyed and requested me to teach him more such songs. I felt very ashamed that day, that I did not know many more of these beautiful songs. That led me to think that I should spend some time towards this noble purpose.”

“Thirumalai, the Gita says that each one should do what they are supposed to be doing – swadharmam. There will be people born to collate and spread the Paasurams. But for you and me, our dharmam is to serve the Empire. Service to the Emperor is our duty.”

“I have not forgotten our promise. There are just things that make me doubt if we are on the right track. I am also hearing things about you.”

“And what are you hearing?”

“I hear that the Emperor has given you a large tract of land in Anbil, in return for your converting to Shaivism. I also hear that you are going against dharma by traveling across the seas.”

“You should not believe these rumours. It is true that the King has given me land. But do you know that I had become minister at least four years before that? Do you know when our friendship started?”

“The Emperor and I were classmates when we were young. We studied together. At that time, no one thought Sundara Chozhan would become Emperor. But you know the turn of events that led to him becoming the Emperor.

He anticipated several problems if he ascended the throne. He made me promise to be with him as a minister always. He said that he would not take up the throne if I refused. I promised him that day, that I would be with him always.”

“I know about all this. But the rumourmongers on the road do not.”

“I do not care about the rumourmongers. You probably guessed that I did not come to Rameswaram to go to the temple. I just got back from Maathottam.”

“I guessed so, sire.”

“The so-called learned pundits claim that Sundarar and Sambandhar wrote about Maathottam from here. The songs described the place so well that I am pretty sure that the saints must have crossed the sea to go there.”

“Sire, did you go to Maathottam to see the beauty that these poet-saints have described?”

“No. I described all that because I am going to send you there. I went there to meet the Prince.”

“Did you see Ponniyin Selvar?”

“Aha. Anybody who hears the Prince’s name gets enthused so quickly – even you, Thirumalai. Yes. I saw him. I confirmed with him all the news I had been hearing from Lanka.”

“The Prince confirmed that most of Mahendran’s army has been defeated. Several of the army has dropped their arms. Mahendran, himself, has escaped into the hilly regions of Rohana.”

“Why doesn’t the Prince then come back with our army? The whole confusion of sending rations to our troops will also stop.”

“That is not what the Prince thinks, and I agree with him. If the Prince comes back now, Mahendran will come out of the hills and will regroup another army. And there would be another war. Either the people of Lanka would have to become our friends, or we would have to establish a permanent Chozha empire there. One of these needs to happen.”

“Do you know what our forces are doing in Lanka now? They are rebuilding and renovating the temples and monasteries in Anuradhapuram.”

Nambi smirked, “Oho. The Prince is building temples for the Buddhists? I hope he would not convert to their faith also. Do you also approve of this?”

“It does not matter if you or I approve or disapprove of this. You and I can fight over which God is better than the rest. But someone like the Prince, who is the ruler of a Kingdom, needs to take care of all of his subjects, immaterial of religion. I approve of that ideology.”

“After speaking with the Prince, I realise that he is one of the few people who command respect naturally. The entire kingdom is ready to do anything for him. The merchants I met earlier today are willing to give away wealth. The chieftains are ready to give their lives.”

“I met a yogi recently, who said something very profound. He said, in the recent years, Indian rulers have predominantly come from the northern states. He said that there would be an invasion soon from outside of the region. They would come and destroy the temples of the country. They would impact the culture of the country.”

“And at that time, a Prince from the South will emerge and rule large parts of India and protect our culture. I think the time is now, and the Prince is ours.”

“Gurudeva, it seems to me that you are building castles in the clouds. If you had seen all that I have seen and heard in the recent past, you would not be so celebratory. There is danger lurking for the Chozha kingdom.”

“Thirumalai, please tell me what you have seen and heard during your travels. Tell me as is, without hiding anything.”

“Are you asking me to narrate here? Things that I say might shock anyone who hears them – even Vayu Bhagavan, the Wind God, Bhooma Devi, the Earth, and Samudrarajan, the Lord of the Ocean.”

“Hmm. Ok, then. I know of a cave deep inside this island, where no one can hear us.”

Book 2 | Chapter 11 | The Chief Minister

Aniruddha Brahmaraayar held office on one of the smaller islands near Rameswaram. He was surrounded by accountants and other administrative personnel.

Aniruddha Brahmaraayar held office on one of the smaller islands near Rameswaram. He was surrounded by accountants and other administrative personnel. Several people had come to see him. Some merchants came and visited the minister. The minister recognized them as merchants from the Pandiya Empire.

“How is the trade in the Pandiya Empire?”

“It is going very well, sire. People are mentioning that the administration is much better under the Chozha Empire than what it was before. Our ships are all returning safe. The great Chozha navy has completely vanquished the pirates of the Indian Ocean.”

“Did you get my scroll about supplies for Lanka?”

“Yes. We have readied enough food grains and supplies to be sent to the Chozha army fighting at Lanka. We would like to know when the war would end.”

“That is a very hard question to answer. Why don’t you ask your astrologer?”

“He says that, wherever Prince Arulmozhi goes, there would be victory. He would conquer distant lands across the ocean.”

“That means very good news for you as traders, is it not?”

“Yes. By God’s grace, this would mean a good future for us.”

“Please make sure that you send similar supplies to Lanka every month. You may leave.”

Once the merchants left, the chieftain and commanders of the Kaikolar clan requested an audience. They were a tribe of very brave soldiers, who had been hand-picked by the Emperor himself.

“Hmm. Brave warriors of the Sundara Chozha Chakravarthy’s Kaikolar clan, welcome.”

“Thank you, sire. But these days, we feel ashamed to be addressed so. We have been idle for the last six months, and not participated in any war activity. Please send us to Lanka. We would like to help Prince Arulmozhi to win the war there.”

“I will mention this to the Emperor, when I reach Thanjavur.”

“What if the war ends by that time?”

“Do not worry. It will not. “

“Are those warriors so powerful that our army cannot vanquish them so easily? Let us try our hand at them.”

“No. It is not that. The Lankan army is not to be found anywhere. They are hiding in the dense forests. Their king Mahendran is also missing. He is also in hiding. If an army is not in your sight, how will you fight them? There has been no war in Lanka for a few months now. What is the use of sending you also there?”

“Send us there. We will hunt down the Lankan army and bring them to the Prince’s feet.”

“Please be patient. I will speak to the Emperor. I want you to protect the Pandiya empire until then.”

“But the Pandiya empire is a peaceful Chozha land now. There is no one to claim the throne.”

“You are mistaken. There are still some people who wish to bring back the old Pandiya Empire. Do not be complacent. The Pandiya royal crown and the bejeweled royal sword are still in Lanka, hidden somewhere in the mountains. Until we capture that, the Pandiya war is not over yet.”

“The royal jewels must be brought back and Prince Arulmozhi crowned as Pandiya king.”

“These are royal matters. Let us not get into such topics. But do listen – I have good news for you.”

“Once the Lankan war is over, the Prince has plans to take the naval fleet towards the south and south-eastern seas and expand the Chozha Empire to faraway lands. He also hopes to go westwards to Kerala, and then north to Kalingam and onward. Your services will definitely be required then. Be prepared. Keep your men trained and ready.”

The chieftains hailed the Emperor, the Prince, the Chozha Empire and the Chief Minister.

“There is one more request from all of us.”

“I would like to hear it.”

“As you know, we are a select group of warriors handpicked by the Emperor to serve him and his family. We would like to tell you that we will do just that. We will serve only him and his family.”

“This is what I expect from you.”

“We keep hearing rumours from Thanjavur. We keep hearing stories about the Pazhuvettarayars.”

“Let rumours be rumours.”

“We also know that the Emperor is not keeping good health. And if something happens to him, we request orders to serve under Prince Arulmozhi.”

“Your obligation is to do what is ordered by the Emperor.”

“And we would like you to take on an obligation to let us know what the Emperor has ordered.”

“I will definitely take it upon myself to do the same. Please rest assured.”

“Minister, we feel much better now.”

The warriors left. The Chief Minister then summoned his guard to bring Nambi in.

Book 2 | Chapter 3 | Lighthouse Keeper

“I can see that you are lying. Just two days ago, two men came here. They also were telling similar lies like the one that you are telling. They said that a magician had sent them, and that they had to get tiger nails and elephant tail hair, for some occult ritual that they were going to perform. They wanted to go to Lanka to get these items. My brother has taken them in his boat.”

The dark night was lit beautifully by the moon. Vandhiyathevan stood looking at the sea, hesitating to go in.

“Is the sea very deep here?”

“Of course not. I have never seen someone as scared as you. The sea here is very shallow – not even up to hip level for a very long distance. That is the reason why the fire atop the lighthouse burns so bright every night.”

Vandhiyathevan hesitantly washed the wet clay off his legs. When he turned around, he saw the Vaidhiyar’s son riding towards him. He was bringing his horse too.

“Oh no! Those two are riding towards the quicksand pit. Stop. Stop!”

Vandhiyathevan ran towards them and stopped them before they reached the pit. Poonkuzhali reached them in a bit as well, and the three of them started walking towards the lighthouse settlement.

She gently caressed Vandhiyathevan’s horse, which seemed to have taken a liking to her.

“It looks like my horse likes you. I need to go to Lanka. Can I leave my horse with you until I come back? Would you be able to take care of it?”

“Sure, I can take care of the horse. All animals take a liking to me. Only humans have a problem with me.”

“But Sendhan Amudhan…”

“I also have problems with humans.”

“Why do you have such hatred against humans?”

“They are wicked. They are filled with lies and deception.”

“You cannot generalise like that. Amudhan is a very nice person. This Vaidhiyar’s son is also a very nice person.”

“How about yourself?”

“I am also a nice person, but I should not be singing my own praises.”

“What are you two doing in these parts?”

“You might be knowing that the Chakravarthy is not well. To cure him, we are searching for a few herbs that are apparently found only in these forests. That is why the Vaidhiyar’s son and I are here.”

“But I thought you said you wanted to go to Lanka?”

“Some herbs might not be available here; I have been instructed to go to Lanka and get them. It seems the mountain that Hanuman brought is still there.”

She smirked sarcastically and said, “Yes. And that is why hundreds of people there are dying of a dangerous plague-like fever right now.”

“I had not heard about that. Even the Chief Vaidhiyar, who sent us, did not tell me about it.”

“I can see that you are lying. Just two days ago, two men came here. They also were telling similar lies like the one that you are telling. They said that a magician had sent them, and that they had to get tiger nails and elephant tail hair, for some occult ritual that they were going to perform. They wanted to go to Lanka to get these items. My brother has taken them in his boat.”

Vandhiyathevan was reminded of Ravidasan, the magician, and the night at the mandapam, when he was on the run from Thanjavur to Pazhayarai. He was wondering who these people, who have gone to Lanka before him, could have been. He thought it best to befriend Poonkuzhali.

“Poonkuzhali, what I told you a few moments ago, was indeed a lie. Please forgive me. Let me tell you the real reason. I am headed to Lanka on a top-secret mission. I would like to tell you about it.”

“Oho. You do not need to tell me about anything. Do you not know that you should not be telling secrets to women?”

“That is for ordinary women. I think you are trustworthy enough to keep a secret.”

“How do you know that I am not ordinary? It has been a very short time since we first met.”

“Ever since I saw you on top of the temple wall, I have been observing you. You seem a very nice person. I like you. I would like to ask you a question, to which I want an honest reply. Can I ask you?”

“You may try.”

“Are you sure that Sendhan Amudhan is not your lover? Are you not going to marry him?”

“Why do you ask this question?”

“Sendhan Amudhan is a close friend of mine. I should not be doing anything to endanger my friendship with him. But if you do not love him…”

“Go on…”

“If you do not love him, I was wondering if I could apply for that position.” Vandhiyathevan smiled sheepishly.

He continued, “I do not like the way you talk badly about the beautiful thing called love. Everyone has expressed their feelings on love. The three main Shaivite saints, Appar, Sundarar, and Manickavachagar have all worshipped their Lord through love. Kalidasan has written poems on love. Why, Lord Krishna himself has expressed so much love in his life.”

She stopped him, mid-sentence.

“Please do listen to what I have to say on this.”

“I am listening.”

“I also like you. The hatred that I felt when I saw the two people yesterday vanished when I saw you.”

Vandhiyathevan felt very glad on hearing this.

“But listen, Amudhan may not be my lover, but I have other lovers in my life.”

“Lovers? How many of them? Who are they?”

“I usually go for a walk late in the night. If you follow me, I will show them to you.”

She laughed a manic laugh, which unnerved Vandhiyathevan. He thought she was probably a bit deranged. He decided not to tell her anything more.

When they reached the lighthouse, an old man and his wife came out, hearing the horses.

The old man asked Poonkuzhali – “Who are these people, my girl? Two days ago, you brought two people. Today you are bringing these people. Where did you find them?”

“I did not find them, Appa. They found me. It seems they are here to take some herbs for the Chakravarthy’s treatment.”

Vandhiyathevan stepped forward to the old lighthouse keeper and gave him the scroll that the Princess had given. The old man read the scroll under the light of the lighthouse. And as he read the scroll, Vandhiyathevan could see happiness flushing over his face.

The old man looked at his wife and said, “Princess Kundavai has sent these two men. We are to help them in whatever we can. Let us first give them food. They will be tired. Go tell your daughter-in-law not to close the kitchen.”

Book 1| Chapter 52 | Make me Empress

Mahabalipuram by night (img src: wikimedia commons)

Parthibendran had been devoid of emotion until now. But now, he wiped off a tear, proving that he was a human too. He could not believe it himself. He was choking.

“My prince, I can now see, how much, love can affect the bravest of the brave. None of us knew this incident had occurred on your coronation day. I remember that you seemed sad that day. I remember cracking jokes at your expense. We tried cheering you up.”

“Yes. I remember. I remember your jokes. I remember you telling me how much I would succeed in expanding the Chozha empire. I remember how much it hurt me that day.”

“And then one day, Nandini sent me a message that she wanted to meet me in her palace. I was unsure whether I should meet her or not. I was confused, but then eventually decided that I would go. I would go and ask her the questions within my heart. I wanted to ask her about her birth. I also wanted to ask her if the Chakravarthy fainting had anything to do with seeing her.”

“While I had all these questions to ask her, the questions were just an excuse for me to go see her.”

“The Pazhuvettarayar was not in town. There was no one who could question the Crown Prince. No one in the palace knew about our earlier relationship. It would just be a visit to get the blessings of the Pazhuvoor queen. We met in the latha mandapam in her palace.”

“Parthibendra, you might have heard from captains of our navy about whirl currents in the middle of the oceans. If ships get caught in them, ships break down into bits in no time. I felt like those ships, when I saw Nandini. I was broken down into bits.”

“She expressed happiness on my being crowned as heir apparent. I rejected these words. I heaped insults on her for having destroyed our love and loving my enemy. I questioned her marrying the old Pazhuvettarayar. While my mind was cowering in shame, my mouth was blabbering uncontrollably. It was my heart speaking.”

“She calmly replied, `Prince, you first killed my love. You killed the person whom I loved. It looks like you are still not satisfied.’ She then took out her small dagger from her hip. She gave it to me and said, `Kill me, if that is the only thing that will satisfy you’. I replied with the most shameful words. I said that it was not she who should be killed. It was she, who was killing me, by doing all this.”

“I said, `It is still not too late. I will leave my kingdom for you. You run away from this old man.’”

“She laughed like a maniac hearing my words. She then said the most incisive words that I had ever heard. `Becoming the Pazhuvoor Rani is not my end goal. I aim to become the Queen of the Chozha Empire. I will slay the two Pazhuvettarayars myself. You put the Emperor in prison and ascend the throne as Emperor. I will then accept to live with you, as the Empress of the Chozha Kingdom.’

“The words killed me, my friend. My anger then took over me. I cursed her and started to leave. On my way out, she still insisted one more time, that if I ever change my mind, I should come back and take her.”

“I have not seen her since.”

“I cannot imagine that a rakshashi like her exists in this world. It is good that you have not seen her after that incident.”

“While I have not gone to see her, she does not seem to leave me alone. She haunts me in my thoughts during the daytime. She kills me in my dreams during the night. There are times when she comes with a lusty smile. There are times, when she comes sobbing with sorrow. There are times, when she comes with a dagger to kill me. There are times when she is laughing hysterically.”

“Now you also know why I have been hesitating to go to Thanjavur. And why I want my father to come here instead.”

Parthibendran bristled at that thought. “Are you not going to Thanjavur because of the fear of a woman? What can she do to you?”

Karikalan sighed. “You still have not understood me, my Pallava friend. I am not afraid that she would kill me. I am afraid that she would make me do what she wishes. Either she dies. Or I die. Or both of us die. Until then, the heaviness in my heart will remain.”

“Why should you die, my king? Give me permission. I will go to Lanka later. I will go tomorrow to Thanjavur and kill her.”

“If you do something like that, you will become my arch-enemy. If Nandini has to die, it would have to be me who kills her, for I will kill myself soon after. If anyone else attempts to lay a finger on her, I will finish him off.”

“My friend, forget everything that I said about Nandini. Forget everything. Go to Lanka tomorrow. Bring back Arulmozhi. Let Malayamaan and him discuss and decide what to do. Meanwhile, you and I will take a large naval force down to the island countries of Java, Sumatra, and surrounding areas. We will capture these new lands and raise the flag with the tiger all over.”

At that moment, Malayamaan walked in. “Are you both still up? Parthibendra, I hope you did not forget that you have to sail to Lanka tomorrow.”

“We were wrapping up a discussion about my trip.”

Book 1 | Chapter 51 | Deeply Wounded

Gangai Konda Chozhapuram (img src: https://sunrise.maplogs.com)

It looked like the cultural program had ended. There were loud cheers praising the Emperor and the Crown Prince.

“The cultural program has finished. Malayamaan will return soon.”

“The program might have finished, but your story has not finished.”

“Haha. I am still wondering about Malayamaan. Look at his energy at this old age.”

“My lord, men from those days, have a reason to be fit — both physically and mentally. Kings of those days did not get caught in the traps of love. They never fell in love with daughters of a common priest. Even if they did, they would not wallow in the self-pity of love. They would have brought the lady immediately and added her to their andhapuram.”

“Parthibendra, Nandini is not the daughter of a temple priest. There is some secret of her birth that I do not know, yet”

“Who cares if she is the daughter of a priest? So what if she is a princess? Or even an orphan? Look at what the Periya Pazhuvettarayar did. He saw her in the middle of a jungle trail. He lusted. He brought her back to his andhapuram. End of story.”

“Which is what is still a mystery to me. The lady whom I loved. The lady who said she was in love with Veerapandiyan. How could she accept to be the wife of this old man?”

“I don’t find it a mystery at all. Actually, what you did seems more of a mystery to me. The lady who gave refuge to the enemy that you had sworn to kill — you left her unscathed and came back. That is something which I cannot digest.”

“In fact, now I remember. You brought out the decapitated body of Veerapandiyan and laid it in front of us. We were flooded with euphoria. I heard someone wailing from inside the hut. I remember asking you who was inside the hut. You had said that it was some temple priest’s daughter, and that she had been shocked with the happenings. You asked us not to go into the hut. We were in the throes of victory. So we did not care. We took the head of Veerapandiyan and rode back to the camp.”

“I also remember that you did not partake of much of the celebrations that night. You were not yourself. I even asked you if you had any hidden wounds.”

“I did not have any physical wound, Parthibendra. It was my heart that was wounded. When she stood pleading for his life, my heart was torn. How could I have given what she was asking for? She was important to me, but what she was asking for, that could not be done. I cursed myself for it.”

“My prince, you did the right thing that day. If not, for the sake of a few fake tears, you would have forgiven the Pandiya king, and things would have been much different now.”

“Friend, you are an unlucky one who hates women. You hate even the word love. You would not understand.”

“Yes. I am like that. I would not fall for any woman. Look at your friend Vandiyathevan. He falls in love with anything with a face smeared with turmeric. And perhaps, that is why you like him more than you like me.”

“Oho. I was wondering how you had not brought in Vandiyathevan for so long.”

“Anyways, let him be. What happened next? Did you not meet her ever again? Have you asked her recently why she married the Pazhuvettarayar?”

“After the celebrations, you had all gone to sleep. I could not get a wink of sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, the events of the evening kept flashing by me again and again. I had to meet her. I had to console her. I had to maybe apologize to her. I took my horse and went back to the priest settlement.”

“The huts had all been burnt to ashes. I saw an old couple wailing uncontrollably nearby. They saw me and asked where their daughter was. They had been to the other side of the river to attend to their elder daughter, who was about to give birth. Nandini had refused to come. While coming back, they had seen a few men roughing up a girl, whose hands and feet were tied. They were trying to push her onto a burning pier, where a human corpse was burning. The couple had silently slipped unnoticed and came back to their settlement, only to see that it was burnt to cinders.”

“I had known earlier that they were not Nandini’s real parents. Now it was confirmed. If they were her real parents, would they have let their daughter alone at a time like this?”

“I was choking with sorrow, anger, frustration and many more emotions that I could not describe then, nor can I describe now. I cursed them — `Your daughter went searching for the corpse that was burning. You also go and burn.’.”

“I came back before dawn and fell asleep. None of you knew that I had even slipped out.”

“Yes, my prince. None of us knew. And I, as a friend, did not know that, you had hidden so much in your heart, for so long.”

“Let us not talk about the past any more. Did you meet or talk to her after that? Did you talk to her before her wedding with Pazhuvettarayar?”

“Hah. If I had seen her before her wedding with Pazhuvettarayar, she would not be his wife now.”

“If you remember, the two of us were not in town, when their wedding happened. A few months later, there was a function when I was crowned as the heir-apparent of the Chozha kingdom. It was the idea of my father and grandmother. They did not wish there to be any discussion on who would be the next Emperor. Perhaps they knew that someday, someone might attempt changing the mind of Madhuranthakan.”

“Every one of our vassal kings and the people of our land had unanimously agreed on this. In this joyous moment, I had completely forgotten Nandini. Right after the coronation, the Emperor, my father, took me to the andhapuram, to get the blessings of the royal ladies. My mother, grandmother, my sister, all of her handmaidens, and several others were in full attendance. But, out of all of them, only one face was visible to me. Yes. It was Nandini. Yes, the same love of my life, whom I had thought to have been burnt to ashes. How did she come to the andhapuram? She was bedecked in the finest of clothes and jewelry. She had a charming smile on her face too. I thought, due to some magical happening, the love of my life had also returned on the same day of my coronation. I thought, perhaps, she would become the queen-apparent.”

“My grandmother then stepped forward and blessed me. At that very moment, my father let out a cry, and fell down unconscious. We focused on my father then. All the ladies except my immediate family went inside. We sprinkled water on my father’s face and he regained consciousness. I took my sister aside and asked her how Nandini had gotten there. Kundavai had revealed the news of the Pazhuvettarayars wedding. Parthibendra, it felt like someone pierced me with a spear. I have been wounded in many a war. I have recovered from all of them. But the inner wound that was caused when my sister told me that Nandini was the Pazhuvoor queen, has still not healed.”

Karikalan wept silently. Parthibendran could see that the wound had not healed.

Book 1 | Chapter 50 | Veerapandiyan’s Head

Pudhu mandapam, Madurai. img src: thegoodlifewithiq.com

“I was twelve years old, when I first met her. It was a summer afternoon, when my brother, sister, and I were playing in the pond behind our palace, in Pazhayarai. We had finished playing and were heading up the stairs to the garden, when we heard our grandmother, Sembiyan Maadevi’s voice. She was sitting in the garden with three others. One of them was a young girl, who was in our age group. We assumed that the other two adults were her parents. It was her large inquisitive eyes that captured me that day. I can still picture them. “

The Prince stared into the darkness and did not speak for a while.

“My grandmother told us that these people were from Pandiyadesam and would be staying at Eesana Shiva Bhattar’s house. She introduced the young girl as Nandini and encouraged my sister to include her, whenever we played. She said that Nandini could be a good, loyal friend to my sister.”

Karikalan sighed. “But I could sense that my sister did not like Nandini.”

“When we walked back to our palace, my sister commented on how ugly and awkward Nandini looked, and that she could never face Nandini with a straight face.”

A chuckle escaped Karikalan’s lips. “That is when I learnt an important life lesson. Women are born with jealousy. However beautiful a woman may be, if she sees someone more beautiful than her, she cannot tolerate it.”

“I used to tease my sister quite a bit. I used to tell her that Nandini did look beautiful. We debated a lot regarding this.”

“A few years later, my father and I embarked on the war against Pandiyanaadu. The Eezham king at that time had also sent a force to help the Pandiya army. We tore them apart. The Pandiya king Veerapandiyan went missing. We did not know whether he went into hiding, or if he died. The Eezham forces retreated. We chased them all the way to Sethu. What remained of them boarded their boats and fled. My father wanted to teach the Eezham king a lesson, to not interfere in the mainland wars. He planned to send a strong force under the leadership of Kodumbalur Siriya Velaan. We waited at Sethu until this expedition set off and left only when we got information that the force had landed safely.”

“It was two years before we reached Pazhayarai again. Both my sister and Nandini had grown up and changed considerably. Both were even more beautiful than before. They also seemed to have forgotten their initial differences and settled into a close friendship. I noticed that Nandini was decked in fine clothing and jewelry too. It was probably my sisters doing. The adolescent Nandini felt very shy talking to me.”

“I tried very hard to break her shyness towards me. Talking to her gave me immense pleasure. I cannot put in words the feelings that I had. But I soon realized that, people around me did not like this. Ever since we returned, my sister Kundavai started showing signs of hatred towards Nandini. Even my grandmother pulled me aside one day and said `Nandini is from a priest family. You are an Emperors son. It is not advisable to spend too much time with her.’ I was shocked. I lost some respect for my grandmother. I went against her wishes and continued talking to Nandini.”

“One day, I came to know that, Nandini and her family had gone back to their town in Pandiyanaadu. I was devastated. I showed scorn towards others. I showed my anger on my sister. Thankfully, I had to travel north with the Chozha army to drive out the Rashtrakoota forces that had occupied Thirumunaipaadi and Thondai Mandalam. That was when we met and became dear friends. With the help of Malayamaan, the two of us drove the Rashtrakoota forces to the other side of the river Paalaar, and we captured Kanchi.”

“Then, we received bad news from Lanka. Our forces were destroyed there and our Kodumbalur warrior had died in battle. On hearing this news, the Pandiya king who had been hiding so long, came out of hiding and regrouped an army. He used this army to recapture Madurai.”

“Parthibendra, you must remember how we felt on that day. We felt so much anger that we started immediately to Pazhayarai. My father had started becoming immobile already. His legs were not strong enough. I took an oath to my father, that I would not return back, without capturing Madurai, and that I would bring back the Pandiya king’s head to Chozhanaadu. You remember all this, don’t you?”

Karikalan was shaking by now.

“My father wanted us to take the army which was led by Kodumbalur Boodhi Vikrama Kesari. We accepted and started. We met Periya Pazhuvettarayar on the way and he had expressed his displeasure at not having been appointed the Army general. The Kodumbalur general did not want any controversy in this matter, and handed over the reins of the army to me.”

“Hah. You remember that war, don’t you? We routed their army. We recaptured Madurai. We were not satisfied with that. We did not want this to happen ever again. We instructed our army to chase down every living Pandiya warrior and kill them. You and I took a small force and followed the Pandiya king. The Pandiya king’s bodyguard formed a human shield around their king, determined to give their lives for their king. We killed each one of them. When we had killed each one of them, we realized that it was a ploy. In the middle stood an elephant with a flag with the fish insignia, but no sign of the king. It was not very surprising. The Pandiya king was adept at fleeing from the battlefield.”

“We did not back down. We searched in all directions. I was also searching along the banks of the Vaigai river. I spotted a single horse’s hoof marks. There were blood stains on that trail as well. I followed this trail. It led to a small settlement. There was a Perumal temple in the middle and a couple of huts of the priests. Flowering plants abounded in the area.”

“If you remember, I had given strict orders to you and the army that no one should ever step into that settlement. All of you probably thought the order was because of the temple in the settlement. What I had not told any of you was that, I had spotted my childhood love in there. I had seen Nandini in the settlement. She was looking different than before. She wore her long hair in a side bun like Aandal. She had adorned her hair with flowers. She also wore a flower garland on her neck. When I had asked her about it, she had said that, when she left Pazhayarai and came here, she had made a pledge not to wed any man, and like Aandaal, if she ever wed anyone, she would marry only Lord Krishna.”

“Heh. I remember sniggering, since I did not believe in the nonsense she was talking. Yet, I did not give my opinion to her. I had asked her if she needed any help. She was the one who had requested that no one come into this settlement. She had said that only her two aged parents lived here, other than her. She had an elder brother, who had gone on a pilgrimage. And hence my order to you and the army, never to enter that settlement.”

“I went and saw her, a couple of times. Love was rekindled.”

“These memories flashed in my mind at that time also, when I saw the single horse tracks leading to the same settlement. I saw the horse tied to a tree, and the blood stains led to one of the huts. I peeped in through a window, and what did I see? It felt like a hot iron rod had been driven into me. Veerapandiyan was on a cot. Nandini was nearby feeding him a glass of water. There were tears in her eyes.”

“I was livid with anger. I kicked open the door of the hut. She came screaming in front of me and fell at my feet. She asked me to pardon the injured man. I was taken aback. I asked her how she was related to the man on the bed.”

There were tears in Karikalan’s eyes now.

“You know what she said? She said that the man on the bed was her lover. She claimed him as the man who had agreed to marry her. I lost even the little sympathy that I had for the wounded man on the bed. I would even have pardoned him if he had conquered my kingdom. He had conquered the woman who lived in my heart. I kicked Nandini to the side, and in one swoop of my sharp sword, I felled Veerapandiyan’s head.”

“Sometimes, nowadays, I feel shameful that I committed such a deed, but that was a time, when I was filled with the bravado of war, and with anger. When I left that hut, I turned back and looked at Nandini. Our eyes met. Her eyes were glowing with anger. Embers of fire.”

“By that time, you had come searching for me. You saw the decapitated head of Veerapandiyan and raised victory cheers. But my heart was heavy, burdened with sorrow.”

Book 1 | Chapter 49 | Heavy Heart

Another view of the Shore temple at Mahabalipuram. img src: cgtn.com

The three warriors decided to stay in a royal guest house in Maamallapuram. After dinner, Malayamaan went to a cultural program that he heard was happening in the town. Parthibendran and Karikalan went to the terrace. Karikalan was looking at the beautiful night view of the city. There was the flicker of lamps in many households. The evening prayers of the temples were just getting over and the temples were getting locked for the night. It was predominantly silent. He could hear the waves crashing on the shore. He could also hear story-telling at a distance — perhaps the same cultural program that Malayamaan had also gone to.

“Parthibendra, look at Malayamaan. He was so tired just a while ago. Now, he has gone to the cultural program. The people of his era are indeed different. Strong. Defiant.”

“My friend, it surprises me that you have also started talking about people of a different era. What have they achieved that we have not achieved? Look at yourself. You went into battle at such a young age. You have fought and won battles that one can only dream of.”

“Parthibendra”, the Prince caught hold of his friend’s shoulders, “I admire you. You are one of those who speak from your heart. Not like some, who feel something, and talk something else. Only because of that, I tolerate what you just said. You know I hate anyone praising me in my own presence.”

“If I said something which is not true, then you should punish me. What I claim is true. Comparing you to your ancestors is well within the realm of reality.”

“Stop, Parthibendra. I will not take any more of this. My ancestors were legends. I am far from them.”

Karikalan then went to list a few of the great accomplishments of his ancestors. He spoke about the war with the Kalingas. He spoke about the great war with the Pandiyas. He spoke about the Pallavas who built this glorious town of Maamallapuram. He spoke about the art of sculpture.

“You still think, you can compare me with my ancestors?”

“But then, my lord, you should also remember, I do not just praise you all the time. I do from time to time point out your faults too. Like now, I would like to remind you that you are also getting ahead of yourself in terms of promoting the arts, when you should probably be expanding your empire.”

“You should remember that kingdoms tend to ebb and flow over time. There are times, when the kingdoms flourish and then there are times when there is a lull. It is all part of a grand scheme of things.”

Parthibendran was surprised to hear his friend and king speak this way.

“My king, you are not yourself today. I have never heard you speak so dejectedly. Something in your heart is making you talk this way. Would you not share it with me today?”

“Who do you think lives in my heart?”

“It is precisely what I would like to know.”

“The great beings who brought me into this world — my father and mother — are not in my heart. The two people whom I love to death — my brother and sister — would not be there either. My closest friends — you and Vandiyathevan — would not be there. The one lady whom I hate more than anything else in this world, resides there in all her glory. The Pazhuvoor queen — Nandhini — the one person who is worse than the deadliest poison. I have not told this to anyone else till now. You are the first person I have opened up to.”

“I guessed so. Every time, someone spoke about her, I could sense the change in your demeanor. But what caused her to get into your heart? Why the hate? However much you might hate the Pazhuvettarayar, she is now his wife. Is it right to keep her thoughts in your heart?”

“Her venom of love had crept into my heart before she wed the Pazhuvettarayar. I knew her from before.”

“How did you know her from before?”

“It is a long story. It is late. Would you like to hear the story today?”

“Yes, Sire. I would. You have asked me to leave for Lanka tomorrow. I would like to hear your story, console you if possible, and then leave. If I do not hear the story, I would be continuously thinking about you and the mental torture you are going through, and perhaps would not be able to discharge my duty properly.”

“Hah. You are going to console me? I do not think anyone can console me, at least not in this birth.”

He heaved a long sigh, and started narrating his story.

Book 1 | Chapter 48 | Wise Counsel

img src: holidify.com

After hearing what his grandfather had to say, Aditya Karikalan stood rooted to the spot. He could not think straight. Parthibendran also stood staring into nowhere. The waves seemed to suddenly become silent.

Karikalan looked into his grandfather’s eyes and said, “Thatha, I have been hearing these rumors for a while. I did not think such things could really happen. Are you sure?”

“Why not? As per formal succession rules, Madhuranthakan has more rights to become Emperor than you.”

Parthibendran sneered back, “Never. That fool of a person. He cannot even string together four words to make a proper speech. He has never touched a sword, let alone use it. He should have been a girl, or at least that was how he was brought up.” He spat, as the uttered the last few words in rage.

Thatha, I do not care who rules over the kingdom. I can go conquer ten other kingdoms with the help of my sword. It would have been fine, if it had been announced earlier itself that Madhuranthakan was heir apparent. But, when it has been announced that I would succeed the Emperor, far and wide in the kingdom, it is not fair. Would you accept this?”

“I would never accept it. If you ever decide to give up your throne to Madhuranthakan, I would kill you, my grandson, with this very sword. And then, I will go and kill your mother, for having begotten such a son. And then I will kill myself.”

The old king’s eyes were burning as hot embers. He was trembling. “As long as I am alive, I would never accept such a thing. Never.”

Parthibendran was overjoyed. “That is more like it, Thatha. Aaha.” He hugged Malayamaan. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“If that is how you feel, I will take our forces to Thanjavur. I will kill these vassals who are planning this coup, and bring back my father. There is no other in this world, who can survive an attack by Parthibendran and me.”

“In force, no one can beat you, Karikala. But these people are very good at creating cunning schemes. They will start rumors that a Chozha son is coming to fight a war with his own father. If the Emperor hears this, he will die of sadness. Will you be able to bear the blame of someone who killed his own father?”

“Shiva Shiva. I cannot even hear of such a situation. But then, what is the solution, Thatha?”

“I already told you. We are in a dangerous time. You should first send someone trustworthy to Lanka, and bring back Arulmozhi. It would be very difficult. Knowing Arulmozhi, he will never leave his troops behind and come back.”

Parthibendran stepped in front. “If you agree, I will go myself.”

“That is up to Karikalan to decide. But, whoever goes, will have to be careful. He should not indulge in any other act of bravado, like our friend Vandiyathevan.”

Parthibendran snapped back, “Haha, I always knew…”

The Prince cut him short and begged the old King to continue.

“I originally had some doubt about Vandiyathevan’s loyalty. I came to know that he was also in Kadambur the night of the meeting. But then, I got it confirmed that he was not part of the meeting.”

Thatha, how did you find all this out?”

“I was suspicious when I had not gotten an invitation for the event at Kadambur. So I laid a trap for one of the vassal kings — Kundrathur Kizhaar — when he was returning back to his kingdom, after the meeting. I took to him to my fort, tortured him, and got all this information.”

“Apparently Vandiyathevan and Kandanmaran are close friends from the days when they served in our army.”

“Yes, Thatha. I recall vividly that they were pretty close friends.”

“I was still not sure if Vandiyathevan was in the meeting or not, since he was still in the premises of the fort that whole night. But, I also got to know that he had gotten into a fight with Kandanmaran. This confirmed to me that Vandiyathevan could not have been part of the plot. If he was, they would not be fighting among themselves.”

“Karikala, did you hear the news that Vandiyathevan stabbed Kandanmaran in his back?”

“Impossible. You can put any blame on Vandiyathevan, but he would never stab someone in the back. And that too, never a friend.”

“What if he had found out that the close friend was part of a wicked plot?”

“Even then, he would have fought face to face, and not stabbed someone in the back. Never.”

“I admire the faith you have in your friendship, Karikala.”

“Vandiyathevan would never turn against us. I would never doubt his loyalty.”

Parthibendran also added, “I would also vouch for his loyalty. The only fault that I keep pointing out in Vandiyathevan is his weakness for a pretty face.”

Karikalan roared in laughter. “That is why I have sent him to Kundavai’s palace, after delivering my message to the Emperor. If he sees my sister, he would be enchanted and never leave that place.”

“Any news of Vandiyathevan, after he escaped from Thanjavur?”

“No. I have been waiting anxiously, but no news yet.”

“Once Arulmozhi gets here, we should get Kundavai also here. Then everything will fall in place. We should leave all the strategizing to the Princess.”

“And why is that, Thatha?”

“She is a brilliant strategist, right from her young age. She has a very sharp intellect. There are very few in this world, who can match her intellect. Do you know that our wise Chief Minister, Aniruddha Brahmaraayar himself seeks your sister’s ideas sometimes? You should not feel bad if I praise your sister. You should instead feel proud.”

“What if our friend Vandiyathevan gets enchanted by someone else before he reaches Pazhayarai? What if he meets the famed beautiful queen of Pazhuvoor?”

Karikalan spun around and shot an angry glare at Parthibendran. The Pallava warrior shuddered and kept quiet.

“Parthibendra, I am assuming you are leaving to Lanka tomorrow. You are youngsters. The two of you must have lots to talk about. I will not let an old man like me stay here any longer. I will leave to my palace.”

The old man started walking towards the chariot. The two warriors faced the sea and looked into nothingness, not saying a word.

“My friend, my king, my leader, may I ask you a question? Something seems to be bothering you. It seems to be killing you from the inside. I also gather it has something to do with the Pazhuvoor queen, Nandhini. Whenever anyone mentions Nandhini, your demeanor changes. Your eyes become fiery red. You become angry. What is the problem? How long are you going to keep this within yourself? You have said numerous times, that I am your best friend and confidant. Can’t you even open up to me? It kills me to see you suffering like this.”

Karikalan sighed.

“My friend. This suffering that I face inside of me is something that will kill me forever. It will die with me. It is not that I do not want to tell you about it. I will tell you tonight. Come, let us go with the old king. It is not wise to send him back alone.”