*** Special Feature - September 2016 ***
About the Books:
VICTORY IS TEMPORARY. THE BATTLE IS ETERNAL.
Vikramaditya and his Council of Nine have fought valiantly to repel the rampaging hordes from Devaloka and Patala – but Avanti has been brought to its knees. Ujjayini lies battered its citizens are scared and morale is badly shaken. Meanwhile, the barbaric Hunas and Sakas are gathering on the horizon and cracks are emerging between the allied kingdoms of Sindhuvarta.
The only silver lining is that the deadly Halahala is safe. For now.
Bent on vengeance, Indra is already scheming to destroy Vikramaditya, while Shukracharya has a plan that can spell the doom for the Guardians of the Halahala. How long can the human army hold out against the ferocity and cunning of the devas and asuras? And will Vikramaditya’s love for his queen come in the way of his promise to Shiva?
The deadly Halahala, the all-devouring poison churned from the depths of the White Lake by the devas and asuras, was swallowed by Shiva to save the universe from extinction.
But was the Halahala truly destroyed?
A small portion still remains – a weapon powerful enough to guarantee victory to whoever possesses it. And both asuras and devas, locked in battle for supremacy, will stop at nothing to claim it.
As the forces of Devaloka and Patala, led by Indra and Shukracharya, plot to possess the Halahala, Shiva turns to mankind to guard it from their murderous clutches. It is now up to Samrat Vikramaditya and his Council of Nine to quell the supernatural hordes – and prevent the universe from tumbling into chaos!
A sweeping tale of honour and courage in the face of infinite danger, greed and deceit, The Guardians of the Halahala is a fantastical journey into a time of myth and legend.
Three commandos of the Indian Army’s elite Unit Kilo—Major Imtiaz Ahmed, Captain Shamsheer Suleiman and Lieutenant Rafiq Mehmood—are chosen for a one-of-a-kind ops mission: to enter Pakistan and eliminate dreaded underworld don, Irshad Dilawar. However, somehow, the Inter-Services Intelligence and Dilawar always seem to be one step ahead of them, foiling every plan they make. It doesn’t take long for Major Imtiaz to realize that something is amiss—the operation has been compromised. Will he be able to successfully complete his mission, or are he and his men, like Abhimanyu, entering a trap they cannot make their way out of? Set in the world of covert operations, where double-crossing and diabolical mind games are the norm, The Karachi Deception will keep you hooked till the very end.
Read an Excerpt from The Conspiracy at Meru
Chapter 3: Promise
Vikramaditya was about to set foot on the terrace when he heard her laugh. It was a clear, liquid sound, filling and lifting into the air. It mingled with the fragrance of the jasmines blooming nearby, and intertwined with the soft moonbeams that shone down through the tatters in the clouds, a concoction of delight and enchantment that made the breath catch in the samrat’s throat. It was the first time he had heard Vishakha’s laughter since that fateful morning when she had set out to ride with her sister. She had come to their bed to wake him, and when he had drowsily tried to grab her and pull her to him, she had slapped his hand away in play and leaped out of his reach. He remembered having mumbled something about it being unfair to have woken him and deprived him of a kiss, to which she had laughingly retorted that if he wanted a kiss from her, he would have to come after her. He hadn’t gone after her. He had snuggled back to sleep, instead. Vishakha had punished him for that with two years of cold, indifferent silence. Vikramaditya had lost count of the number of times he had wished he had risen to Vishakha’s bait that morning, and accompanied her and Kshapanaka to the meadow. If he had been with them, perhaps he would have prevented Vishakha from accepting her sister’s challenge to try riding her mount. And even if he had let Vishakha ride Kshapanaka’s horse, perhaps he would have ridden by her side to make sure the unpredictable beast behaved itself. Perhaps he would have sensed the horse’s impatience with its new rider, and would have stepped in before it reared and threw his wife off its back. Perhaps, even after her fall, he would have been able to rush Vishakha back to the palace quicker so Dhanavantri could attend to her sooner… Vishakha’s laugh issued from the terrace once again, a softer lilt that infused the king with warmth and hope, making the day’s cares and worries drain magically off his shoulders. Vikramaditya ached to catch a glimpse of his wife’s smiling face, the sparkle of mirth in her eyes, the carefree toss of her head whenever something struck her as being funny. Yet he hung back in the shadows of the doorway to the terrace, reluctant to take a step further for fear that he might disturb the moment, making it unravel and fall apart like an illusion. “You have to be with her, Vikrama,” the samrat heard Queen Upashruti’s words echo in his head. “You have been with her all the while she wasn’t there. Now that she is coming back, help her make that journey. Be brave, my son, because Vishakha needs you to be brave now more than ever.” Steeling himself, the king took a deep breath and walked onto the terrace. His mother was right. It didn’t matter that his wife still didn’t recognize him. It didn’t matter that this broke his heart and crippled his spirit. The only thing of consequence was that he loved Vishakha and would wait for her to rediscover her love for him. Vikramaditya didn’t have to look to find Vishakha. Two large and wide ornamental swings nestled in one corner of the terrace, partially concealed by a cluster of hibiscus shrubs. A low murmur of voices came from the direction of the shrubs, and as the king approached, he could tell that Vishakha had Kshapanaka for company. It was probably a footfall that gave him away, but by the time the samrat rounded the corner, the two siblings from the erstwhile kingdom of Nishada had fallen silent and were looking expectantly in his direction. In the light of the four decorative lamps suspended from the swings’ crosspieces, Vikramaditya could tell that the sisters had been threading red and pink hibiscus flowers into garlands as they sat chatting. The king sensed a twitch of jealousy, unreasonable yet overwhelming. He felt like an intruder, unwanted, unwelcome. “Samrat, what a lovely surprise!” Kshapanaka’s eyes lit up with genuine delight on seeing Vikramaditya, and her tone was inviting. “I didn’t know you were back in the palace. Come, sit with us.” “I…” Seized by uncertainty, the samrat fell back again. He glanced at Vishakha, who met his gaze for a moment before looking at Kshapanaka. The queen then dropped her eyes to the garland lying on her lap. “I didn’t know you were here,” the king fumbled. “I was… it wasn’t my intention to bother the two of you.” “Oh, it’s nothing. We were just making garlands.” Kshapanaka looked at her sister briefly, and even in the dim light, Vikramaditya could see the glow of affection in the councilor’s face. When she turned back to him, Kshapanaka’s eyes wore a thoughtful expression. Leaning to her right, the councilor looked down at the floor of the terrace. There, by the side of the swing she sat on, was an open clay bowl used to burn incense. The samrat could see that the bowl was full of cold ash. “Oh no, it has gone out again.” Reaching down, Kshapanaka picked up the bowl. “Why don’t you sit, Samrat? I will go and find someone to fill in some more sambrani and charcoal.” “You don’t need to go. You could summon a servant to do it,” the king offered a token suggestion, knowing his words sounded hollow and insincere. He realized what Kshapanaka was doing, and he felt ashamed at having let jealousy take hold of him, however fleetingly. “No, I’ll do it,” Kshapanaka smiled as she got off her swing. There was decisiveness in her tone and manner as she walked tactfully away, leaving neither Vikramaditya nor Vishakha with an opportunity to lay a protest. As the councilor’s footsteps faded away, Vikramaditya stood awkwardly by the swing, knotting his fingers. He stole a glance at Vishakha, who sat with her head bowed, twirling a hibiscus between thumb and forefinger. “Can I… sit?” The samrat pointed at the empty space on the swing beside his wife. Vishakha raised her head, looked at him and nodded. Vikramaditya lowered himself down and began swaying back and forth in gentle arcs. The space between the king and his queen quivered with stilted silence, overpowering them both, stretching across the terrace as if it intended to take a hold over the entire palace and the lake. It amplified the faraway clomping of horse hooves on the palace causeway, which lay at the end furthest from the terrace. To the samrat, it felt as if the palace was holding its breath, listening in on what he had to say to Vishakha. “Lovely moonlight,” Vikramaditya looked up at the sky. Vishakha followed his gaze, nodded again and looked down at her lap. Seeing he was making no headway with small talk, the king took a different tack. “What were you and Kshapanaka talking about?” “We were… she…” Even though the light was low, the samrat observed a blush steal across Vishakha’s face. “She was telling me how we were afraid of the king, how we used to hide from him. It seems she once jumped into the palace lake because the king rode onto the causeway and she had nowhere else to run. I used… she says I used to tell her the king would kill us if we didn’t behave ourselves.” “Which king is this?” Vikramaditya framed the question nonchalantly, but his eyes were sharp as they considered the queen. “King Mahendraditya.” “Do you remember him?” the samrat asked. “He was a big man,” Vishakha nodded. “He had a loud voice and a big, black beard. I think that was what scared us. But I also seem to think of him as being very kind.” Vikramaditya nodded. There had been nothing small about King Mahendraditya. Burly in build, his father was prone to exaggerations – a boisterous laugh, a roaring rage, and a large heart that always had room to spare for friends. Legend had it that when Avanti’s soldiers had found Mahendraditya lying mortally wounded on the battlefield, his stomach cut open by a Saka sword, the first thing their king had asked for was his battle-axe, so he could hunt down the Saka warrior who had inflicted the grievous injury. The samrat also recalled his father being the antithesis of King Vallabha, Vishakha and Kshapanaka’s father and the late king of Nishada. Vallabha had been a gentle, soft-spoken man full of civilities, so it was only natural the sisters found the loud, hard-swearing Mahendraditya intimidating. It had taken Mahendraditya over a year to earn the young girls’ trust and confidence – that too only after he had followed Kshapanaka into the palace lake to save her from drowning. Later, after Vallabha and his court had been publicly executed by the invading Huna army, Mahendraditya had emerged as a surrogate father to the girls, building a deep, affectionate bond with them that lasted until the day the king left the palace gates one last time, borne on four shoulders to the cremation ground across the Kshipra. “Who else do you remember?” Vikramaditya tried to keep his tone gentle despite his eagerness. “My mother and my father. And Itti tai .” A sadness crept over Vishakha’s face. “Kshapanaka tells me they are all dead… that they were killed by invaders.” Then, as if realizing the drift of Vikramaditya’s question, she looked directly at him. “By who else… you mean here?” The king shrugged and inclined his head vaguely, reluctant to force the conversation where he wanted it to go. “The queen… the king’s wife… Queen Upashruti, I mean.” “Anyone else?” “There was the raj-guru...” Vishakha paused for a bit. “Kshapanaka pointed him out to me this afternoon. He doesn’t look like the raj-guru who used to tutor Kshapanaka, me and the other children in the palace. This raj-guru is thinner and older.” Vishakha tilted her head and frowned, as if something was bothering her. “I suddenly seem to remember another man,” she said. “Very strong, massive forearms and shoulders, with a thick red beard and huge earrings. Very fierce looking. I don’t know whether he was here in the palace, though I think he was.” The samrat’s heart skipped a beat. Amara Simha! “What about the other children in the palace whom the raj-guru tutored?” he pressed. “Do you remember any of them?” Vishakha shook her head and looked away. The samrat could feel a heavy weight crush his chest. “You don’t remember me?” Vikramaditya posed the question in spite of himself, in spite of knowing what her answer would be, knowing he was setting himself up for disappointment. Vishakha didn’t answer for a long time. She just sat on her end of the swing, staring down at the hibiscus in her hand, caressing its petals softly between thumb and forefinger. “I was told… Kshapanaka tells me you are… we are married.” Vishakha finally raised her head to look at Vikramaditya. Her voice was timid and unsure, her eyes large and filled with fear. “You are… my husband. But I don’t remember… I am sorry.” The samrat raised a hand to reach out to Vishakha, but he changed his mind and let the hand drop limp by his side. Instead, he nodded and gave her a smile of reassurance, which he knew was crumbling at the edges. As he looked away, the queen spoke again. “Will you help me remember?” Vikramaditya turned sharply to Vishakha. This time, in her eyes he saw more than fear. He saw hope and expectation. He saw a search for promise. “I will.” The king couldn’t trust himself to say more without breaking into sobs of relief. He felt the tears stinging his eyes as he stretched to pat Vishakha’s hand. The queen instantly gripped his hand, squeezing, seeking comfort in touch. “What if I don’t – what if I can’t?” she whispered, her lips trembling. “What if… this is the way it will be until the very end?” “I will help you remember.” Not willing to consider that possibility, Vikramaditya forced resolve into his voice. For the first time in years, Vishakha had reached out to him – he wouldn’t let this moment pass. “I will do everything it takes. I will fight death itself, if need be, but you will remember. It is a promise.” They had hardly sat a minute in silence, holding hands, when they heard the shuffle of approaching footsteps. Looking up, they expected to see Kshapanaka returning, but instead, they were rewarded by the sight of the Healer. “Ah, so you are here!” the Healer exclaimed on seeing Vishakha. Then, on finding the king seated by her side, he stopped abruptly as if in confusion. “Oh… oh, I didn’t know you were here too, Samrat.” “It is a wonderful moonlit night and we were admiring its beauty,” Vikramaditya replied. “Indeed it is.” The Healer looked down at their entwined fingers. “It is late. The queen should be resting. Come, child. Let us go inside.” Vishakha looked at the king, who nodded once. Releasing his fingers, the queen rose. “Come, don’t dally,” the Healer’s manner appeared brusque, even agitated, as he waved his hand, urging speed. “You shouldn’t be out here so late. You should be asleep. Come now.” As Vikramaditya gained his feet, Vishakha cast one last look back at him, and the king knew she wanted to stay. The Healer, however, was already herding his patient away into the palace. Watching the retreating figure of the Healer, something stirred and squirmed its way forward in the samrat’s mind. It was the morning Vishakha had started recollecting bits and pieces from her childhood in Nishada. Despite the overarching gloom wrought by the rakshasa attack just two days earlier, the palace of Ujjayini had burst with hope and excitement on learning about the improvement in the queen’s condition. Palace Guards were dispatched to fetch the Healer from the hospice in the palace ground, and much of the royal household was crammed into Vishakha’s bedchamber, waiting with bated breath for the Healer to show up. The Healer had eventually arrived and made an assessment of Vishakha’s progress – and that was when Vikramaditya noticed it. For a fleeting instant, the Healer had looked more shocked than excited or pleased with the evidence in front of him. The expression on the Healer’s face had passed in the twinkling of an eye, but in its passing, like an inefficient servant, it had left a trace of itself behind in Vikramaditya’s memory. Now, allowing the scene to unspool in his mind’s eye, it struck the king that more than just being shocked, the Healer had appeared positively perturbed and worried – even panicked – at the change he was witnessing in Vishakha. Perhaps, in that fraction of light and shadow where indecision nested, the Healer’s eyes had even betrayed fear. And besides fear, something else – greed? As he followed the Healer and Vishakha out of the terrace, the samrat pondered over what the Mother Oracle had said to him the morning he had gone to see her. Beware of the stranger in the palace, wise king.
About the Author:
Door-to-door salesman, copywriter, business journalist & assistant editor at The Economic Times; Shatrujeet Nath was all this before he took to writing fiction full-time. He debuted with The Karachi Deception in 2013, followed by The Guardians of the Halahala and The Conspiracy at Meru, the first two books in the Vikramaditya Veergatha series. At present, he is writing volume three of the series. Shatrujeet lives in Mumbai, but spends much of his time in the fantasy worlds of his stories.