So far, the Emperor had been narrating the story in a third person perspective. He now continued telling as if it was his own story.
“Kundavai, I am going to now tell you some things that I have not told anyone. Only my close friend Aniruddhan knows these events. Even he does not know all of it. These are things that no father would have to tell his own child. But I cannot get myself to tell this to your mother or to your brothers. I am sure you will listen and not laugh at me.”
“From that island, I took the boat to the mainland towards Kodikkarai. I headed straight to Thanjavur, where my grandfather, Paranthakar, was on his death bed.”
“When I reached there, I realised that the great Chozha Empire was in the throes of being shattered into a thousand pieces. The heir to the throne, Rajaditta Chozhan had died in the Thakkolam war. My father Arunjayar had also been grievously wounded in the same war and was fighting for his life. The Canara forces were aggressively striking Thondai Mandalam. Pandiya forces were advancing in the west. In the east, our forces had lost the war in Lanka. My grandfather was a dejected man. The kingdom that he had built over 40 years was on the brink of destruction.”
“At this stage, when he saw me, he saw hope. I had always been his favourite grandson. When I was young, he would never let me out of his sight. I had adamantly left for the Eezham war without his consent. When the forces told him that I was missing, he had continuously been sending ships towards Lanka to search for me. One such search party had found me.”
“He looked at me with hope. He saw a ruler in me. His astrologers had also confirmed the same. On his deathbed, he told me that, after him, my uncle Kandaraaditha Chozhan would take up the throne, and after him, I should become Emperor. He made me promise that ruling this Chozha Kingdom virtuously should be my life’s ambition.”
“My mind was never at peace. It always went back to the tribal girl who had saved my life once. How could I forget her? But, how could I make her my queen? How could I make a tribal deaf and dumb girl as the queen of the Chozha Empire? What would my subjects think of me?”
“Soon after, my grandfather passed away. My uncle, Kandaraaditha Chozhan was crowned Emperor, and I was crowned heir to the Empire.”
“Kundavai, do you see how much love the Chozha subjects shower on your younger brother, Arulmozhi? In those times, they showered me with the same love.”
“On the evening of the coronation ceremony, my uncle and I went up to the upper terrace of the palace to present ourselves to the people. When we stepped out, the crowd roared and cheered in happiness. One could genuinely see the happiness in each of the faces.”
“Suddenly, among those thousands gathered to see us, one face captured my attention – the one sad face in the entire gathering. She had tears in her eyes. The sadness was palpable. It was her – the tribal deaf and dumb girl from the island. My eyes were fixed on her. I saw visions of her face becoming bigger and coming closer. My head was spinning. My legs lost their strength. I fainted. The others thought that I was tired because of all the coronation ceremonies happening since morning.”
“Later, when I gained consciousness, I called my dear friend Aniruddhan to my side, and asked him to go and find the girl. They searched the entire city but could not find her. I asked Aniruddhan to send people to search for her all over the kingdom.”
“Eventually, Aniruddhan’s men reached Kodikkarai where they found a dumb girl at the lighthouse keeper’s house. The men reported that the girl was in a state of madness. However much the men had tried to explain to her, she had refused to come to Thanjavur.”
“After a few restless days, Aniruddhan and I set off to Kodikkarai. We drove our horses as fast as we could. My thoughts were clouded and confused me. What could I do, if I did met her at Kodikkarai? It was also most unfortunate that I was born a very beautiful boy, and as I had grown up, the entire kingdom was enamoured by my beauty – so much so that, the people of the kingdom completely changed my name from Paranthaka Chozhan to Sundara Chozhan. How could I, who was so worshipped, loved, and admired by my people, take this dumb girl back to Thanjavur or Pazhayarai as my queen?”
“The girl somehow had made my life easier. When we reached Kodikkarai, we heard that the day after Aniruddhan’s men had come asking for her, she had climbed atop the lighthouse and plunged into the ocean. A couple of folks had seen her jump and alerted others. They had taken their boats and searched for her, but could not find her. It was sadly assumed that she had committed suicide and Samudrarajan had engulfed her.”
“My mind was split in two. One half was splintered at the loss of her. The other half seemed to be at peace. The question of what would I do with her was now answered. With these conflicting thoughts, I returned to Thanjavur. I immersed myself in royal affairs. I won wars and expanded the kingdom. I married your mother. I had two beautiful sons, and then you.”
“However, I still could not forget her death. The sight of her jumping from the top of the lighthouse into the ocean still vividly comes to mind. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a shock. I have always assured others around me that it was a bad dream of scenes from the various wars that I had been through.”
“Dead people can be more cruel than living people. In recent times, the ghost of the dumb girl has begun haunting me. I am not even sure if you will believe this, Kundavai.”
The Emperor seemed to look into a distance with glazed eyes.
“Appa! You have lived with this guilt and suffering for so many years. No wonder, your illness has grown worse over the years. Now that you have told me about it, I feel that your heart will be lighter and you will become stronger.”
Kundavai’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“I can see that you do not believe in ghosts. But, the ghost of the dumb girl comes here often. She stands beside that pillar, behind that lamp there. If you do not believe me, ask your friend Vanathi. I am sure she saw the ghost too. I think she must have fainted only after seeing the ghost.”
“Appa, Vanathi is a very fearful person by nature. She would run in fear even if she saw a pillar in the darkness. I doubt if she saw or heard anything the other night. It is a surprise to me that she is of the courageous warrior clan of Kodumbalur.”
“Anyway, let us not talk about Vanathi. Let me finish what I have to say.”
“Do you remember the day when we were all sailing down the Ponni river – the day when the young Arulmozhi suddenly went missing? Do you remember the lady who came in the water with the young boy in her arms?”
“Yes, Appa, how I can I forget that day?”
“Do you remember that after taking Arulmozhi and handing him to people in the boat, I also fell unconscious? You all thought that I had fainted due to the stressful events of the day.” Kundavai nodded silently.
“It was not the stressful events, my dear girl. If you remember, the lady from the water vanished soon after I had taken the boy from her. All of you had decided that it was the Goddess Kaveri.”
The old king paused.
“It was not the Goddess. The lady who gave me Arulmozhi was the deaf and dumb girl from Lanka – the same lady love of mine. Had she really died? Was this a ghost? I fainted in confusion.”
“Do you remember the day of your brother’s coronation as Crown Prince? Karikalan had come to the anthapuram, and I had followed him in. I saw her again, this time, amidst the ladies of the palace. She was there glaring at Karikalan with such contempt. That was when I had fainted again. The ghost has been haunting me ever since.”
“In recent times, she has been coming down here in the middle of the night, and warning me. It seems that she has forgiven me for driving her to her death. But she has been warning me that I should not be committing the same sin again. She has been telling me that I should not be giving the kingdom to someone who does not rightfully inherit it.”
The old king caught his daughter’s hands and said, “Will you help me, Kundavai? I do not want this cursed kingdom to go to my sons. Please help me to dispose it off to Madhuranthakan.”
“I have been stuck with this guilty consciousness ever since I became the heir to the throne, and again, when I was made emperor. I felt terrible that I became king when my uncle’s son was still alive. I am being cursed now for what I had done before.”
“Let Karikalan also not have this kingdom, nor Arulmozhi. Let them not inherit a cursed kingdom. Let Madhuranthakan have it. I would like Madhuranthakan to be crowned when I am still alive. After that, I will go off to Karikalan’s golden palace in Kanchi, and rest in peace.”
“Appa, will the Royal Matron agree to this?”
“That is where I need your help. I need you to bring her here. I wonder why the wise Royal Matron had not thought of this before. I wonder what she has against her own son. Why did she have to do all this? Anyway, now that Madhuranthakan has a desire to ascend the throne, it is only right that she agrees to crown him as the head of this kingdom.”
“Appa, it is not enough if one has the desire. One must have the capability to rule this kingdom.”
“How can he not have the capability – he who was born to Emperor Kandaraaditha and the Royal Matron?”
“The subjects of this kingdom will never accept him.”
“My girl, if you ask the subjects, they would have crowned your younger brother, Arulmozhi, as the heir by now. Would that have been right? Would Arulmozhi have accepted it? Not everything should be done according to the wishes of the subjects. Now, please help me. Please request the Royal Matron to come and visit me.”
“I will ensure that she comes. Until then, you take care of yourself.”
On the way out, she paid her respects to Queen Vaanama Devi.
Things were slowly beginning to clear up in Kundavai’s mind. The smoke was clearing up. She began to realise that this was all part of a treacherous plot by a group of people trying to capture the kingdom. She realised that her father, her brothers, and the family were in grave danger. She also realised that she was now bearing the heavy responsibility of protecting her family from this danger.