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Chapter 17 — Intruders
Year 63, Kali yuga
Aranvēndhan awoke with a start. He heard raised voices and clashing metal, far away and faint. Was Mārthāndan back already? The room was still dark, a few lamps burned in the corner. He heard the voices again, outside in the corridors. He sat up quickly, ears straining.
The voices were a little louder now, and just outside his chambers. With a loud splintering noise the large ornate doors swung open, and a dozen masked men appeared on the doorway, swords drawn. Aranvēndhan leapt to his feet, and grabbed the large dagger he always kept by his bedside.
The men quickly fanned into the room, trying to flank the prince. Aranvēndhan knew he was outnumbered. He observed their weaponry, and their behaviour. They were dressed all in black, their faces covered, save for their eyes. Their sleeveless tunics were tight, and their arms glistened with oil. They wielded short swords, ideal for indoor combat, and all carried a smaller, sheathed dagger on their waistbands. They were mostly nondescript—but their turbans were ochre. Were they Verumvayal soldiers? Or was it a masquerade?
Aranvēndhan cautiously took a few steps backwards. He kept his arm bent, the dagger held in a reverse grip, its edge facing out. He began to retreat towards the passages that led to his inner chambers. The men closed in, and followed the prince down the narrow corridor, two abreast. The first duo stepped into the corridor, Aranvēndhan crouched slightly, and slashed downward, and the blade cut the first assailant on his thigh. The man stumbled, and fell to the floor, blood gushing out of his wound. He was quickly pulled back, through the ranks, and the one behind him took his place. “Give us your weapon.” one of them asked.
They are not here to kill me—they want me alive. That does bode well, father and Piraivalli would also be not be harmed, perhaps. He jabbed quickly again, and the men paused their advance for a moment. “Who are you rogues?” Aranvēndhan asked calmly, and continued to move backwards, one slow step at a time. The narrow corridor would end soon, and open up into a larger room behind him. They would easily flank me in there.
“Your dagger, prince.” the man in the front insisted, and reached out with his hand.
“Here.” said Aranvēndhan, and this time slit the man on his forearm. The attacker cursed, and dropped his sword, but was quick to kick it away from the prince. He quickly pressed himself against the wall, letting the the ones behind him take his spot. Blood dripped on the floor, the gash was deep. He pulled his turban off with the other hand, and quickly wrapped it around the cut. The ochre cloth quickly turned red. These were no ordinary soldiers, Aranvēndhan realised. They are coordinated and disciplined.
“Enough, Prince.” came a loud voice from behind the knot of men. The group quickly parted, and another in similar garb strode through. He put up his hand, and continued: “Drop your weapon, and come with us, your Highness. Comply, and you and your family will be spared. Resist, and I shall make your old father suffer for it.”
“And who might you be?” Aranvēndhan asked flatly.
“You shall see soon enough. Come with us now.” he pointed to the dagger, and gestured for it to be dropped.
Aranvēndhan glared at the man for a few moments, but he knew he had no choice. He let go of the knife, and it clattered to the floor noisily. The captain nodded, and the men quickly tied Aranvēndhan’s hands behind his back. They led him out of his chambers, and towards the royal court.
Outside, new soldiers stood guard everywhere. They were also nondescript, save for their ochre headgear. Karkottai’s own men were nowhere to be seen. They walked down the maze of corridors in silence, and Aranvēndhan saw pools of blood on the stone floors, a grim remnant of what seemed a brief resistance.
They entered the main court hall, and it was filled with people. The noblemen had been rounded up, dragged from their mansions and brought here by the enemy soldiers. Some of them were injured, Aranvēndhan noticed. Near the throne, stood his father Kumudhan, and daughter, Piraivalli surrounded by half a dozen soldiers. Aranvēndhan clenched his teeth. Kumudhan’s head hung low, he blankly stared at the floor. Piraivalli, stood near him, her eyes red with anger, a nasty scowl on her face. She pursed her lips as her father entered. She pulled her shawl tighter around her, and nodded at Aranvēndhan to say she was alright.
On the steps leading to the throne sat a heavyset man in leather armour, eating peanuts, tossing them one by one into his mouth. “Aha! Varuga, varuga, Ilamko Aranvendhā! How you make us wait!” said the man, standing up. “I hear you wounded some of my men. I shall forgive you for that—honestly I expected more from you, O prince.” he smiled, twirling his moustache. “Kadalai?” he offered the peanuts.
“What is the meaning of this, Rayā? What are you up to, you snake? Have you forgotten of the pact between our families?”
“That pact wasn’t doing anyone any good, dear prince. To hell with the pact—did you know this little skirmish was planned and executed by your own Thiruvāsagan? That really stung your father.” Semmalvarāyan turned back and pointed at Kumudhan, who seemed to be in shock. “Look at him, like he’s seen a ghost. Poor man.”
Aranvēndhan felt his hands shake. Not once had he assumed betrayal was at play here. “Thiruvāsagan? Where is he? Bring him here.”
Semmalvarāyan grinned. He snapped his fingers at one of his men, who bowed and left the court. He returned, the Chancellor following close behind. Aranvēndhan glared at Thiruvāsagan, who meekly stared back. He stopped and stood by Semmalvarāyan’s side. He did a quick bow. “Apologies, O Prince! This had to be done.” he said, without remorse. “There was no other way.”
Aranvēndhan glowered at the Chancellor. “Explain.” he said, through clenched teeth.
“Our treasury is running dry. Rebuilding an entire kingdom is no simple task, Prince. Over the last decade we have squeezed every possible source of wealth to finance our ventures. All this, without raising taxes significantly. On this current course, Karkottai would collapse in two years, without a doubt.”
“And the answer was to invite this serpent into our lands?”
“Your Highness, what did you ask of me when I was appointed? I was to ensure the economic stability of Nākalam. And that is what I have done.” Thiruvāsagan spoke calmly, almost as if reasoning with the Thattān prince. “Our trade and commerce have not been able to redress all the shortfall, sire. Only some. Many of our merchant class languish in poverty, with little to no capital to revive their business. Artisans and craftsmen are getting by, but only just, and we’re the only ones providing them with any work.
“Over the past year, many of our vassal kings have been quite unhappy with our policies, and had implored me to remedy this. Their wish was to raise taxes further. I had opposed them on several occasions, pleading them to remain patient, but they remained unconvinced. Their final resort was to replace the ruling dynasty with...a more open-minded monarch. Kōmān Sīrālan was the only one supporting your policies unwaveringly—”
“And thus he paid.” Semmalvarāyan cut in. “As did his son. The ideal lure to draw your ire. The bulk of your army is spread across your overly ambitious campaigns in Eezham and elsewhere, desperately clawing for riches to rebuild your capital. The time was right—and Pulithevan, an easy simpleton to exploit.”
At that moment, Piraivalli threw her drape away, and out came a small knife. In a split second, she slashed the neck of the soldier nearest to her. Even as the guard slumped to the floor, she lunged at Semmalvarāyan, who deftly caught her arm and pushed her to the floor. The rest of the guards pounced on her, stood her up, and pried the blade from her hand as she struggled to escape.
Semmalvarāyan sighed. He snapped his fingers again, and a loud wail filled the vast hall. Aranvēndhan swung around. It was one of the gathered noblemen—a soldier had driven his sword into the his back. The nobleman was dead before he hit the ground.
“An eye for an eye, child. I will do to your people what you do to mine,” Semmalvarāyan said nonchalantly, smiling at Piraivalli. She glared back, her breath ragged.
“A brave daughter you have raised, Vēndha.” he said to Aranvēndhan. “Take them away. Imprison them, I’ll deal with them later. You have built dungeons in this new palace, have you not?”
“Come, come”, but in a sarcastic, overly-formal way.