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A fascinating tale of two brothers who come face to face in the quest for their rights, here is an excerpt from Nandini Sengupta’s new novel, The King Within.
The Crown Prince did not much care for poetry. But to show indifference to Kalidas in Pataliputra was akin to an open admission of being a complete philistine — it would simply not do. And so Ramagupta embraced the occasion to position himself to be as generous and discerning a patron of literature as his father.
But despite his boredom at sitting through the three hours of the recital, Rama was enjoying himself. He loved the little exchange with Dhruva about Madhavsena—he wondered what kind of woman didn’t keep herself abreast of the latest court gossip—and he liked the impression that his grand entry created. ‘The people like a show and there’s no grander pageant on earth than politics,’ he thought. ‘It’s life imitating art.’
But half-way through the second canto, Rama’s reverie was interrupted by Harisena. ‘Your Highness, there’s an emergency in the palace,’ he whispered. ‘It seems there’s been an attack. We don’t know who they are but we do need to return immediately.’
Despite the whispers, Dhruva had caught a couple of words of the exchange, particularly ‘palace’ and ‘attack’. Both intrigued and fearful for Deva’s life, she turned around and questioned Harisena herself. ‘Is there something wrong, Kumaramatya?’
‘It’s nothing, my lady, just a trifle,’ said Harisena, hurriedly retreating from the royal gallery.
‘My darling wife frets for no reason at all,’ said Rama. ‘Don’t worry, my love, Deva is fine. there are enough guards in the west wing to make sure he is. We can’t have him exerting himself when he’s so weak and unwell, now can we?’
The barely-disguised threat did nothing to reassure Dhruva and when seconds later the crown prince excused himself and left the auditorium, she was even more perturbed. So she turned to the only person in the group who she knew would share her anxiety— the queen empress.
‘Your Majesty, I just heard an exchange between the Kumaramatya Harisena and the Yuvraj. they mentioned an attack on the palace. I am scared. I fear for Devaraja’s life and that of the Samrat. Please tell me what to do.’
Dattadevi’s usually composed features creased in a frown for a moment. And then she smiled. ‘Don’t worry, child. Whatever it is, we will only know once we leave this auditorium. Till then, sit back and enjoy this heavenly poetry. And remember, there are hundreds of eyes focused on you—don’t let them know anything is amiss.’
Ramagupta’s sudden disappearance from the royal gallery did not go unnoticed. Vira and Ahirul both caught the short exchange between Harisena and the crown prince, though they were too far away to hear what was being discussed. ‘The west wing must have fallen,’ said Ahirul. ‘Nothing else would make the Yuvraj leave the recital midway.’
‘How many guards did you say there were in that part of the palace?’ asked Virasena, quickly calculating what the odds for deva and Aello would be once reinforcements arrived.
‘About forty, I think.’
‘If they join ranks with Aello’s raid party, they’ll have enough hands to hold off an immediate attack,’ said Vira.
‘But you haven’t accounted for casualties on both sides,’ said Ahirul.
‘Even so, there are about 100-odd guards on standby in the palace. The trick would be to have a face-off before Varahadeva and Ribhupala can be alerted.’
‘They are guarding the western and northern borders of the capital, are they not? A fast horse and a steady messenger will be able to get word through in just over an hour.’
‘Yes, that’s precisely why we must stop any messengers from leaving the city,’ said Vira. ‘Come, we have work to do.’
‘But won’t it look suspicious if we left so suddenly?’ asked Ahirul.
‘Rama isn’t here anymore, neither is Harisena. I can bet not too many people will notice we’re not here. And if the west wing has fallen, it’s time we showed our true allegiance. We are Devaraja’s men and we must make this attack a success or we’re in for trouble. It’s now or never.’
Aello couldn’t believe how easy it was to win the guards over. Part of it was Deva’s popularity—the guards not only respected his prowess in battle, they saw him as the only member of the imperial family who listened to their grievances and sought redressal on their behalf. But their decision to join ranks with him was also about political expediency. Like the rest of the empire, Ramagupta’s whisper campaign had convinced them that Deva was deranged and dying. Now that they knew the truth, with the possibility of an open face-off between the royal brothers, they were simply backing the winning horse.
With the thirty-odd guards in the west wing on his side, Deva’s force swelled to around sixty, enough to hold out in case of an immediate attack but not enough to fight back if the crown prince managed to get word through to either Commander Varahadeva or general Ribhupala.
‘We need to wrap this thing up quickly, sire,’ Aello told Deva. ‘If the border platoons storm the palace, we won’t be able to hold out.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ said Deva. ‘All I need is another half hour to speak to the rest of the palace guards. I need to know where their allegiance lies. If we can win them over, half the battle is won.’
‘According to our reports, there are around thirty-odd guards in each wing, a total of a 100 guards spread across the palace,’ said Aello. ‘the crown prince’s personal guards are around 100 strong too, so we would be evenly matched.’
‘I don’t want unnecessary bloodshed,’ said Deva. ‘These men are only doing their job. If I can reason with them, convince them to join me or at least refrain from taking a side, I will spare their lives.’
Saba Virasena signed off the order with his official seal. As the head of the city police, he had absolute control over the watchmen manning the gates of Pataliputra but they needed an order from his office to bar them in case of an emergency. Vira’s instruction was clear—close the gates and do not allow anyone through till further orders. The city was under attack and all ingress and egress was suspended, as per the norms, till the court convened the next morning. In a sense, Vira was doing no more than his duty. The security protocol in the imperial capital was that the gates had to be shut immediately in case of a palace coup or an outside attack and the only person who had the power to overrule that law was the emperor himself. Within an hour, Virasena’s order had been plastered on the city gates and the capital’s huge, wooden doors were barred.
Even if Ramagupta’s envoy managed to slip through before the gates were shut, at least this way the commanders will not be able to enter the city till the skirmish at the palace is decided one way or another, thought Vira.
There was only one thing left to do—alert his platoon commanders just in case the palace skirmish spilled over to the city. ‘the crown prince can be a desperate and dangerous adversary and we can take no chances,’ Vira told Ahirul.
‘But that means we need to make our political preferences clear,’ said Ahirul. ‘It also means my men won’t have the option of switching sides to save their skin if things don’t go our way.’
Vira smiled. He liked his practical deputy because Ahirul, who had risen from the ranks, did not understand the sophisticated game of doublespeak that prevented anyone in court from speaking their mind. ‘Yes, it means we are showing our loyalties, my friend, and if you have second thoughts, I suggest you choose the fastest animal in my stable and make good your escape,’ said Vira.
‘That’s not what I meant and that’s not why I worked so hard these past few months to ingratiate myself with the good Kanchuki,’ said Ahirul. ‘Don’t get me wrong, but when in battle, it’s always best to be prepared for the worst.’
Vira laughed and slapped the young man on the back. ‘Get your men ready then. We need to do our best . . . after that, it’s up to Devaraja to claim his destiny.’
In the diffused light of the approaching twilight, the palace looked magical, its beautifully painted pillared front arcade was eerily quiet and empty. Ramagupta wasn’t quite expecting the entrance gates to be wide open. Nor was he expecting such deathly silence all around. It all looked so peaceful that for a moment Rama thought he’d been misinformed. And then, Harisena drew his attention to the palace steeple. there, fluttering gaily just below the imperial garuda dhwaja, was Deva’s lion pennant.
‘I need reinforcements. Send for Varahadeva immediately,’ barked Rama. ‘And get the men ready to storm the palace—we need to flush them out.’
The imperial guards responded to the command by forming row upon row of a neat phalanx, four men to the side, each group targeting a separate part of the palace. the best-trained soldiers in the empire, the palace guards, were a disciplined lot and it took them just over a quarter of an hour to arrange themselves in a tight formation. Most of the men in the outer lines had covered their noses and mouths with damp scarves. they meant to storm the palace with smoking torches, making it impossible for the rebels to breathe inside. It was a classic raid tactic.
The commanding officers blew on their conch shells to signal the attack. The guards drew arms but instead of rushing into the palace, they stopped in their tracks. Walking out of the colonnade was the rebel prince himself, alone and unarmed except for an unsheathed asi sword in his hand.
The commanding officers were in a tizzy. They couldn’t attack a member of the royal family—protocol forbade it. Nor could they figure out what deva meant to do and whether they should let him walk to the crown prince at the back of the line. They finally decided it was best to let the brothers talk and if the crown prince then commanded them to take his brother prisoner, Deva could easily be overpowered.
But instead of walking up to his brother, the prince turned around to speak to the men. ‘My friends,’ he said. ‘I have nothing against you because this is not about you. I understand you are only doing your duty but your duty is to the emperor and the realm, and neither is under attack today. This is about the Yuvraj and me, and I urge you to allow us to settle this between ourselves—once and for all.’
Almost hypnotized by his presence, the men stepped back making way for Deva to walk up to his brother. In the rear, Ramagupta was equally taken aback at this sudden turn of events. But no one understood the power of appearances better than the crown prince and so when Deva walked up, Rama slid off his horse and gave his brother a warm hug.
‘I can see you have finally come to your senses, dear brother,’ said Rama. ‘All this bloodshed—for what? Did someone mislead you perhaps or was all of this your plan from the start?’
‘You are right, I have come to my senses. I will not give up my right without fighting for it but I do not wish to spill the blood of innocent men for what is essentially a private, family matter. Why don’t we settle this, you and I, man to man, in single combat? Let’s see who deserves to be tatparigrihita more. If I lose, I assure you, I shall exile myself from the empire. You will never see me again.’
‘And what makes you think that kind of vulgar display would be acceptable to me? I, unfortunately, never had your talent for playing to the gallery.’
Deva turned around to face the men. ‘My brother does not wish to risk his future on a joust,’ he said. ‘I know this may not be his strength so I offer handicap. I shall fight without my breastplate. What do you say? Does that sound fair?’
A murmur of appreciation rippled through the ranks. Jousting without a breastplate was an act of unbelievable daredevilry. It meant any injuries sustained in the face-off could well be fatal. Deva was gambling with his life and it made him seem even more heroic than his reputation in the battlefield.
Rama was trapped. He had no desire to joust with his brother because he’d trained with Deva long enough to know that breastplate or not, it would not be an easy fight. But this public challenge had him cornered—he could not turn deva down without being called a coward. Neither could he ask his men to attack his brother without risking an open mutiny. However, Rama reasoned, an open fight without a breastplate could also end badly for Deva. If not a fatal injury, even the loss of a limb would be most agreeable.
Deva pushed home his point. ‘What are you afraid of, brother? I only have my life to lose and I am putting it at your disposal. Surely you cannot deny me the right to claim my destiny because you’re too scared to take your sword out of its scabbard?’
‘No, I am not and I hope this settles it once and for all,’ shouted Rama, as he unsheathed his sword and thrust viciously.
Get your own copy of this new historical novel by Nandini Sengupta, The King Within.
Set in 373 AD, this sabre-rattling tale of love, revenge, friendship and ambition brings together a young courtesan, Darshini with Deva, the younger son of Emperor Samudragupta. When Deva rescues Darshini from bandits, that chance encounter with him, and later with his two friends, the loyal general Saba Virasena and the great poet Kalidas, forges a bond that lasts a lifetime. From a dispossessed prince, Deva goes on to become one of the greatest monarchs in ancient India, Chandragupta Vikramaditya. But the search for glory comes with a blood price. As Chandragupta the emperor sets aside Deva the brother, lover and friend, to build a glorious destiny for himself, his companions go from being his biggest champions to his harshest critics. The King Within is about the often-difficult choice between the power of passion and the passion for power.